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Start Small

3 minute read
Straightforward

The episode of The Golden Calf stands out as a particularly low moment in Jewish history.

Following such miraculous events as the Ten Plagues, the Exodus, and the parting of the Red Sea, among other supernatural phenomena, the Jewish People panicked because their leader was running late. They somehow concluded that an idol was the solution to their troubles.

In the aftermath, the Jewish People grappled with the consequences and sought to make amends. One form that took was the half-shekel tax, a mandatory contribution from every individual that went towards building the Mishkan. This act of collective responsibility and atonement symbolized the beginning of their journey back towards redemption.

R’ Meilech Biderman highlights how, among other things, the very fact of a half shekel is itself a symbol that teaches a crucial lesson about the nature of human endeavors and the path to improvement and redemption.

A half isn’t a whole, just a part. But it’s a start, and that’s what matters.

A half shekel is a modest contribution that highlights the power of small beginnings; Jewish thought tends to value gradual, consistent progress over grand but fleeting efforts. Starting with small, initial steps is essential for meaningful change; small actions are enough to overcome the scary prospect of starting over and the fear of failure. The half-shekel, being just a fraction of a whole, symbolizes that even partial efforts are valuable starting points.

Small things add up, and they stack and compound quickly.

You just have to get started.

It is easy to dismiss the value of making slightly better decisions on a daily basis; small things are, by definition, not impressive. They are boring and don’t make headlines. But the thing about small commitments, though, is that they work.

Small commitments work because they are easy to stick to; it’s something worth being intentional about when change is on your mind.

R’ Leib Chasman’s students would ask him to recommend New Year’s resolutions, and the sage would reply that they could decide for themselves but to make sure to pick something they could keep to. After thinking, they would share their choices with their teacher, and he would interrogate them. “Are you sure you can keep your resolution?” “I’m certain.” “Great! I want you to cut it in half.”

Commitments and resolutions don’t need to be hard to do; they just need to be something you keep. In that regard, it’s actually better to start small! R’ Yisrael Salanter, the founding father of the Mussar movement, strategically taught that rather than a whole undertaking, surgically target the smallest element; instead of hoping to pray better in general, set a goal of praying one particular blessing more thoughtfully.

Keeping small commitments is what forms new behaviors, habits, patterns, and routines. The philosophy of incremental improvement is echoed in modern self-improvement strategies. The conventional wisdom is to set a large goal and then take big leaps to accomplish the goal in as little time as possible; such enormous strides often lead to burnout and disappointment. Instead, embracing gradual change and appreciating the compound effect of minor improvements can be more sustainable and effective.

R’ Chatzkel Levenstein intuitively suggests that a human can only be obligated to achieve what is possible within a calendar year, comparing personal growth to a loan that is paid off in installments. You don’t pay a mortgage off in one month; that’s not how mortgages work.

Maintaining basic, consistent efforts is often more fruitful than seeking dramatic transformations. Improving by just one percent is barely noticeable. In the beginning, there is hardly any difference between making a choice that is one percent better or one percent worse; it won’t impact you much today. But as time goes on, these small improvements or declines compound and you soon find a huge gap between people who make slightly better choices on a daily basis and those who don’t. If you get one percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done.

The journey back from the brink of one of the Torah’s most significant crises began with a simple yet profound gesture of giving a half-shekel.

It wasn’t much, but it reminds us of the impact of small actions and choices that don’t seem to make much of a difference at the time but add up and compound. The small things we stick with are what ultimately shape our long-term trajectory and path forward.

Pick something small; just get started and see how far it takes you.

My Grandfather’s Trees

3 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah opens with Creation and describes the emergence of life and all things in just a single chapter. It spends the best part of two entire books detailing the Mishkan, with meticulous and exhaustive details of the planning, production, and assembly of the portable sanctuary that served as the physical and spiritual center of Judaism until the construction of a permanent Beis HaMikdash.

The Torah’s primary construction materials list contained vast amounts of gold, silver, copper, and precious gems. If you had to say the one main thing the Mishkan was made of, you might say gold, used throughout the project, from finishes to furnishings.

But it’s not.

The Mishkan had no foundation and no roof, just curtains and drapes. The only solid structure came from its walls, which were made of wood:

וְעָשִׂיתָ אֶת־הַקְּרָשִׁים לַמִּשְׁכָּן עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים עֹמְדִים – You shall make the planks for the Tabernacle of acacia wood, upright. (26:15)

The people contributed precious metals and gems they’d brought from Egypt. But they were in the desert; where were they getting wood from?

Rashi highlights that the Torah typically refers to everyday items and general contributions in other instances uses but in the case of wood, uses the definite article – the planks – indicating a specific contribution – הַקְּרָשִׁים / קְּרָשִׁים. Rashi notes that this wood had been designated generations before; our sages teach that before our ancestor Yakov went to Egypt, he visited his grandfather Avraham’s home, took some trees from there, and took them to Egypt with him, making his children swear at his deathbed to take the trees with them when they left to build a sanctuary with.

R’ Yaakov Kamenetsky notes that Yakov didn’t just plant trees; he planted actualized hope in a physical and visual form accessible in the external world of tangible things. Enslaved in Egypt, his descendants would look at and tend to their grandfather’s trees, a promise and symbol that the hands that built pyramids and monuments for their masters would one day make sacred things and places for themselves; work that broke and destroyed could transform into work that built and united.

Yaakov knew his children would raise their eyes and cry in misery. They’d see trees that connected them to the roots of their history and would allow them a glimpse of his hopeful vision of a better, brighter future.

But hope for the future isn’t necessarily specific to trees; Yakov could have left them anything.

He chose to leave trees because trees symbolize life and vitality, seasonality, and natural energy, representing the cycle of life and death. Like trees, generations of death in Egypt would burst to life once more.

Our great ancestors had a tangible vision for what these trees could become and took concrete action to imbue them with meaning so that this vision would unfold in reality. Yaakov was a visionary, but his dreams manifested in the world of action.

This is the wood they used, and it’s ubiquitous – the Mishkan is made of this wood, the Ark is made of this wood, the table is made of this wood, and the large and small altars are made of this wood, too. The wood may be overlaid with metal, but it’s all made of this wood.

More pointedly, wood is organic and simple, unlike gems and precious metals. R’ Zalman Sorotzkin points out in a way that’s hard to overstate that wood is the invisible support structure of no less than the entire project. You might see gold everywhere, but gold is just the decorative overlay; that’s not where the support comes from. Support comes from the durability and enduring sturdiness of the wood – עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים עֹמְדִים. The gold is useless without the underlying strength of the wood that holds it up.

Sparkle and glamor catch the eye, but remember, it’s superficial only.

The boards must be assembled upright, not upside down, in the direction of the tree’s original growth, with the lower part of the board corresponding to the lower part of the tree. Even though the board is symmetrical, this law extends to every mitzvah that uses plants, such as Lulav and Esrog. R’ Joseph Soloveitchik notes that this instruction is a universal law; the way to grow something is with its feet planted on the ground with its head, heart, and spine aligned straight up a straight line, physically, spiritually, and emotionally aligned. You can’t put something together upside-down and expect it to work right; things must be upright to grow correctly.

The Mishkan was built out of Yakov’s hopes and dreams for his children, the promise they inherited about the places they’d go and who they could be. Those children passed on that dream to their children, who would build the Mishkan, but also to us, the children who would remember it.

Every breath of our lives fulfills countless generations’ hopes and prayers. They aren’t burdens; they can be building blocks of lasting meaning if we use them right.

The dreams and promises we inherit are priceless treasures.

Sacred Fire

3 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah reports God’s instruction to Moshe to conduct a census of the Jewish People by counting adult males. The conventional methodology of counting is inappropriate for this task, and God orders Moshe to instead use a proxy for counting heads – a half-shekel fixed financial contribution per person. Count the donations, and that’s how many people there are – one step removed:

כִּי תִשָּׂא אֶת־רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם וְנָתְנוּ אִישׁ כֹּפֶר נַפְשׁוֹ לַה’ בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם וְלֹא־יִהְיֶה בָהֶם נֶגֶף בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם׃ זֶה  יִתְּנוּ כּל־הָעֹבֵר עַל־הַפְּקֻדִים מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ עֶשְׂרִים גֵּרָה הַשֶּׁקֶל מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל תְּרוּמָה לַה – “When you take a census of the Israelite men according to their military enrollment, each shall pay the Lord a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled. This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall give: a half-shekel…” (30:12,13)

In almost every instance the Creator speaks, the Torah doesn’t lead us to understand that this speech has any physical element, perhaps not even an audible sound. But in the instruction to count the Jewish People, the Torah uses language that is tangibly concrete and physical – זֶה  יִתְּנוּ –  “This shall they give.”

Sensitive to this nuance, our sages suggest that the Creator pulled a fiery coin in the form of a half-shekel from beneath the Divine Throne and showed it to Moshe – “This.”

We might understand the premise of a vision that helps Moshe practically understand the physical properties of such a coin. But the coin described isn’t a metal coin; it is a fiery coin.

Why was the coin made of fire?

Interactions with the Creator commonly feature fire as a standard building block of prophetic vision. Fire is immaterial, visible energy – not to mention dangerous and scary. The effortless control of fire is a powerful  symbol of the Creator’s total control over the elements and matter.

But our sages’ words teach far more than predictable cliche.

Tosfos point out that Moshe had seen money before and understood what a coin was; where he was struggling was the notion that something as mundane and terrestrial as money could affect the soul. The Kotzker suggests that the Creator pulls a fiery coin out from beneath the Divine Throne in response, not because there is power in currency, but in its fire – the fire and spirit that animate the giving is what have the redemptive effect on the soul. “This.”

The Noam Elimelech teaches that the point isn’t that the specific coin the Creator summoned was made of fire; but that all coin is fire.

Fire is technology, and its use depends on the user and the context. Fire can symbolize creativity, transformation, and destruction; it can mean heat and warmth or burning ruin. Money is also a form of technology, a medium of exchange that facilitate transactions and the exchange of goods and services. Like fire, each exchange is transformative and can be creative or destructive.

It’s not wrong to have money. It’s not wrong to want money. But it’s dangerous to love money, embracing the fire – that’s how you burn the house down. It’s essential to strike a balance; money is just a tool. It is not just a means to improve your own life but the lives of many others; love the goodness you can do with it.

Our sages teach that righteous people value their money more than their own bodies. R’ Meir Shapiro suggests that is because righteous people know how much they can do with it; how many poor families they can feed, and how many communal institutions they can support.

If all coin is like the fiery half-shekel everyone gave, we ought to remember that it symbolized the equality of all community members and was the symbol of their obligations to support the community and its institutions. Your giving must be broad and generous, animated with a spirit that sets your soul on fire.

Our sages teach us that the Creator pulled the coin from beneath the Divine Throne.

Remember that’s where it comes from – and be careful not to burn yourself.

What We Do With Broken Things

5 minute read
Straightforward

At Mount Sinai, Moshe ascended for forty days to receive the Torah. He didn’t show up when the people expected, so they got nervous and clamored for a new religious focal point. In a moment of madness, they crafted a Golden Calf, and in a perplexing turn of events, identified it as the god that brought them out of Egypt.

As they celebrate their new object of attention and worship with a festival of dancing, song, and sacrifice, Moshe returns to our world with the original Ten Commandments, a mythical artifact with magical properties crafted by God’s fingers. Moshe enters the camp only to witness these festivities and, utterly horrified, throws down the tablets, permanently shattering them.

With the first tablets broken, Moshe had to repeat the process in an attenuated form; the second tablets are almost second-rate in comparison. Whereas God had crafted the first ones, Moshe – a great human, but still a human – had to prepare the second. The first tablets contained a Torah that humans could never forget; the second ones contain a Torah we forget all the time.

The consequences of the Golden Calf were enormous; God threatened to destroy them all there and then, at least until Moshe intervened. Our sages suggest that the sin was so grave that every bit of human suffering pays down a sliver of the damage done by the Golden Calf.

A common thread people take from this story is the profound loss of what might have been; a more perfect world that never even got a chance to get started. Our sages teach that the letters began peeling off the surface and wafting back to the sky even before Moshe broke the tablets, which is how he understood that his people were no longer worthy.

The lessons of damage and loss are correct but miss something essential.

Moshe shattered the tablets, but what happened to the broken pieces?

When God told Moshe to craft the second set of tablets, God also tells Moshe what to do with them:

וְאֶכְתֹּב עַל־הַלֻּחֹת אֶת־הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ עַל־הַלֻּחֹת הָרִאשֹׁנִים אֲשֶׁר שִׁבַּרְתָּ וְשַׂמְתָּם בָּאָרוֹן – “I will inscribe on the tablets the commandments that were on the first tablets that you smashed, and you shall deposit them in the Ark.” (10:2)

Our sages read the instruction to put “them” in the Ark as not only referring to Moshe’s second tablets, which are like the first tablets in content; but that the original shattered tablets were like the second tablets in what Moshe was supposed to do with them – הַלֻּחֹת הָרִאשֹׁנִים אֲשֶׁר שִׁבַּרְתָּ / וְשַׂמְתָּם בָּאָרוֹן.

The broken tablets are not buried, not forgotten, not hidden, and not lost. Instead, they are stored in the Ark, alongside the new, whole second tablets. As one writer beautifully put it, shattered remnants of the past still matter, persist in their importance, and deserve preservation and remembrance, just like something whole.

In this conception, the broken tablets are a striking symbol of brokenness and wholeness coexisting side by side at Judaism’s most sacred site. The comprehensive picture of the Golden Calf story and its aftermath should reorient our attitude to broken things and setbacks. It’s not a story about breaking things; it’s a story about what we do when we break things, and the epilogue is that you pick up the pieces and move forward.

In Japanese culture, there is an art form of restoring broken pottery by gluing the cracks and seams distinctively, often with gold lacquer; breakage and subsequent repair are part of the proud history of the object, rather than something to disguise.

Perhaps the first tablets represent an idealism that crashes into reality and shatters into pieces. While admittedly easy to say, perhaps their example shows that these hopes aren’t permanently lost to the ether. Rather than becoming cynical and jaded from traumatic experience and upheaval, discarding the vision of what could have been, you might be able to recover remnants that persist, integrating them with the real world you inhabit. It won’t look quite how you thought, but maybe some parts can in certain ways. Sometimes we have to break or let go of what we hoped could be in order to make way for what is and can still become.

Moshe didn’t break the tablets out of violent anger; his people and their world simply weren’t ready for the first tablets. Letting go of them, however damaging and terrible, was a necessary part of the healing process, paving the way for his people to build a world on a foundation of broken ideals. There’s nothing sad about that; that’s just the way life is.

The Torah closes with a line of praise for Moshe, the faithful shepherd, endorsing his strength and valor – וּלְכֹל הַיָּד הַחֲזָקָה וּלְכֹל הַמּוֹרָא הַגָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה מֹשֶׁה לְעֵינֵי כּל־יִשְׂרָאֵל. Our sages take this as a reference to some of the things Moshe intuited on his own, which God only endorsed after the fact, one of which is breaking the tablets – אֲשֶׁר שִׁבַּרְתָּ / יִישַׁר כֹּחֲךָ שֶׁשִּׁבַּרְתָּ.

On Simchas Torah, after we complete the Torah with that line, we immediately begin again, a new beginning built on breaking, breaking that is holy, breaking that God endorses, and breaking that stands before us and alongside the best we have to offer. From the ashes of this colossal failure, God teaches Moshe how his people can make amends and gives him the formula that features so prominently in our prayers on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. The healing from the rupture led to the Mishkan project, which all subsequent prayer, sacrifice, and worship center around. The remarkable quality of comebacks is not in spite of setbacks; it is because of them.

The Megaleh Amukos notes that the season of repentance and making amends is Ellul, an acronym for the Ark, the tablets, and the broken tablet they sit alongside – אלול / ארון לוחת ושברי לוחת. More to the point, the second tablets are delivered on Yom Kippur itself.

We all break things, and we experience brokenness in different ways over the course of our journey. When we lose someone, that loss leaves a void with their shape imprinted in our hearts, and we carry that brokenness forever. After pain and loss, life goes on, only differently than before; we now live with two sets of tablets.

We might call forgetting and moving on from what we break bouncing back, but that’s not how people are; that’s not how the world works. Everything leaves its mark; a scratch, a bruise, or sometimes a deep scar or void that never entirely goes away.

Perhaps we’re not supposed to bounce back at all; maybe it’s better to bounce forward.

Take heart in the image of Moshe on his hands and knees, lovingly gathering the precious fragments, collecting every shard, then gently placing each sacred sliver one by one in the Ark, a brilliant glimmer of hope that lingers for posterity.

The shattered remnants of the past belonged in the Ark, and we ought to remember that the Ark wasn’t a mere prop; it featured prominently in the Jewish People’s travels and wars. It went out in front of them, leading the way, which is to say that any step forward was paved by the broken tablets as much as the whole tablets.

We live in a world of the second tablets. Although the first ones couldn’t exist in their wholeness, they could exist in their brokenness, and maybe we can pick up some of those pieces and find a place for them to help shape our world.

There is no paradox of broken and whole; they coexist in a reciprocal interaction. We must find a way to marry the broken with the whole, hopeful idealism with gritty reality.

Brokenness is not something to conceal or deny; it is an essential part of being human. The moments that break us are as significant to our growth as the moments that make us whole. We can find sanctity not only in whole tablets; but in shattered ones, as well.

If we honor that brokenness and carry it with us, it can become sacred, Holy of Holies. In the words of the Kotzker, there is nothing so whole as a broken heart.

Sacred Space

6 minute read
Intermediate

If you ask people what the defining traits of religion are, holiness will be on most people’s lists. 

Holiness is a shorthand code word everyone recognizes, and we sagely and solemnly nod our heads. Yes, yes, holiness, of course!

But what is holiness? 

We sometimes think of holiness as something we do on our own. Withdrawing from the world, from the joys and vices of life, fasting, going into the woods, or perhaps profound meditations on lofty metaphysics, retreating deep into the recesses of the mind.

There may be substance to some or even all of those things, but that’s not how the Torah talks about holiness.

The Torah talks about withdrawing in part and designating times and spaces; the Hebrew word for holiness means to designate or separate – קדושה.

But a critical element is missing from the word’s everyday use. Most appearances of holiness throughout the Torah describe it as a function of plurality, something we do with others together.

When the Torah asks us to be holy, Rashi notes that the instruction is given to everyone together – דַּבֵּר אֶל־כּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ. Moreover, it follows this instruction with commands to be charitable, fair, and honest in dealing with others. As the Chasam Sofer notes, the Torah’s conception of holiness is one of connection and interdependence, not disconnection and asceticism.

When the time comes to build the Mishkan, everyone must come together for God to be found in their work:

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם – And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. (25:8)

Standing at the hallowed Mount Sinai, on the cusp of receiving the Torah, God tells the gathered people their overarching mission:

וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ־לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ – You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation… (19:6)

Beyond the Torah explicitly speaking about holiness as a function of togetherness – תִּהְיוּ / וְעָשׂוּ – our Sages emphasize the central importance of the Jewish People coming together at Har Sinai – וַיִּחַן־שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶגֶד הָהָר / כאיש אחד בלב אחד.

Almost all sacred gatherings require a group, from prayers and sacrifices to reading the Torah and weddings – כל דבר שבקדושה לא יהא פחות מעשרה.

So why is holiness so tightly linked to togetherness?

In the Torah’s formative story of the emergency of humanity, it describes the first man’s existential aloneness as bad – לֹא־טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ. Being alone and doing things alone is terrible; being together and doing things together is good.

Our prophets and sages talk about the soul as the thing that animates our consciousness, the part of you that makes you uniquely you, and they speak of soul fragments directly connected to God – חלק אלוק ממעל. 

But when we come together, we become whole, which is why holiness is linked with connection – כנסת ישראל.

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that if the Creation story is about the space God makes for us, the Mishkan narrative is about the space we make for God. Noting that the Torah spends a lot more time discussing the Mishkan than Creation, R’ Sacks teaches that the Torah is far more interested in what we do for God than what God does for us.

Far more esoterically, Chassidus speaks of tzimtzum, the space or vacuum God separates from God’s fullness so that existence can have an independent existence and reality. But maybe when we build a Mishkan, a separate return space, we form our own inverse or parallel tzimtzum, which we can only do in our enhanced state of togetherness.

In the external world, it starts with individuals, human to human. The Torah has its fair share of lofty arcane things, but a full half of the Ten Commandments are grounded in interpersonal regulations – בין אדם לחברו. It’s not enough to love humanity in the abstract; you have to love people in particular – your annoying neighbor and the guy who never stops talking.

Among the most misunderstood laws are the mitzvos about sanctifying and profaning God’s name – וְלֹא תְחַלְּלוּ אֶת־שֵׁם קדְשִׁי וְנִקְדַּשְׁתִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. But in the context of holiness as something we do together, they make perfect sense – בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. If holiness is related to togetherness, our public actions either draw people in or alienate them.

The Chemdas Dovid explains that while an individual is like a string, a group is more like a rope, far stronger than the individual components alone, which is to say that togetherness generates something greater than the sum of its parts.

While the Mishkan project had an open call for donations of all kinds of things that were wonderful and welcome, the core donation to the Mishkan project was a simple half-shekel and was required of everyone – הֶעָשִׁיר לֹא־יַרְבֶּה וְהַדַּל לֹא יַמְעִיט מִמַּחֲצִית הַשָּׁקֶל לָתֵת אֶת־תְּרוּמַת ה’ לְכַפֵּר עַל־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם.

While the Torah predates the notion of corporations or public companies, it seems thematically similar. Every person was invested in the Mishkan, or perhaps better; everyone was a contributor and owner of that holiness, which could be precisely what made it holy in the first place.

There is undoubtedly an aspect of generosity that we need to welcome and celebrate – כל המרבה הרי זה משובח. But it can often feel like we miss the everyman who can’t quite swing a high roller donation.

The unit of the mandatory universal contribution to the Mishkan was a half shekel, not a whole shekel, and most or all of the measurements in the Mishkan ended in half cubits, reflecting the same core theme that your contribution can only ever take you halfway. The Mishna in Pirkei Avos teaches that it is not for us to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist, with the obvious conclusion that we count on others by necessity – לא עליך המלאכה לגמור, ולא אתה בן חורין ליבטל ממנה

We ought to remember the Mishkan project that indicates smaller nominal contributions are just as valuable as everyone else’s. Everyone gives the whole of what they should, rich or poor. You give a fraction, and not only does it count, but it’s enough, and that’s all we need. More than how much you give, it matters that you participate.

This isn’t cutesy moralizing – the half-shekel contributions were melted down to form the sockets that connected the base of each wall segment. The part everyone gave together formed no less than the foundation of the entire Mishkan.

We’re better off through what we do together, for, and with others. The Gemara says that collecting the half shekel from everyone elevated and uplifted them –  כִּי תִשָּׂא אֶת-רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם, וְנָתְנוּ אִישׁ כֹּפֶר נַפְשׁוֹ. Avos d’Rabi Nosson notes how valuable human contribution is; God is everywhere, but we can manifest the divine presence a little more palpably by coming together to make something for God. The Midrash goes so far as to suggest that God is most pleased by what we do down here, as exhibited by God leaving Heaven behind to be a little closer to us – דירה בתחתונים.

It is almost natural that the thing we build when everyone comes together is the holiest thing there is. As R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes, it follows that it is the physical and spiritual center of our lives, which the entire camp is built around, the site we aim our prayers, and the place we come closest to the divine.

Moreover, it follows why our sages attribute the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash to animosity and hatred; disputes and internal strife led to division, and without togetherness, it only followed that sanctity would disappear as well. The Ohr Pnei Moshe notes that the inverse is true as well; for Moshe to inaugurate the Mishkan, he must bring all the people together – וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה אֶת־כּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

The Torah commands the commission of each utensil in the Mishkan in the second person singular, but not the Aron, which it commands in the plural – ועשית / ועשו. The Alshich notes that the Torah is not like monarchy or priesthood, which fall to specific individuals; the call to Torah is open-ended and universally accessible – it beckons to all of us, to you.

R’ Menachem Mendel of Vorki notes that if holiness is something that everyone has to do, it has to be according to the capabilities and circumstances of every individual. There can be no one-size-fits-all; as the Kotzker famously put it, God doesn’t need more angels.

The Chafetz Chaim teaches that the Torah is everyone’s to take up, even if our stakes look different; a bit more of this, a bit less of that. You might be a scholar, maybe you offer financial support, or perhaps you help tidy up your shul a little. Everybody counts, and everybody’s contribution is counted. 

We are not designed to be alone; we cannot exist alone. We need each other, and it’s not weakness; it’s our greatest strength. Where you find togetherness, you’ll find wholeness and holiness; and we must yearn for it perpetually – בָּרְכֵנוּ אָבִינוּ כֻּלָּנוּ כְּאֶחָד בְּאוֹר פָּנֶיךָ.

But don’t just yearn for it; work for it too. Find somebody to mentor, find an interesting local community project or charity to support, or get involved with, in whatever way, big or small. 

Your participation doesn’t just make a difference; it makes it better.

Onward

5 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah’s stories have captured the awe of audiences for three millennia, and rightly so. 

The Torahs tell us of astonishing moments like The Binding of Isaac, the ultimate test of human commitment with the future in the balance, where Avraham lifts a knife to his son’s neck only for an angel to interrupt him, salvation averting tragedy through transparently divine intervention at the very last.

The Torah tells us of the harrowing crossing at the Red Sea, where the defenseless Jewish People desperately fled their oppressors, with the most advanced and formidable army in the world in hot pursuit. In a defining moment that upends the entire natural order of our universe, Moshe holds out his staff, and God parts the waters for the Jewish People to walk across the dry ocean floor. The Egyptian army attempts to follow, but once Moshe’s people have crossed safely, the sea suddenly reverts to its normal state, and the Egyptians are drowned. 

The Torah tells us of the theophany at Sinai, where the people gathered at a mountain enveloped in cloud and smoke, quaking, with fire and lightning flashing overhead, amid the sound of booming thunder and shofar blasts; and then the Jewish People hear the voice of God through the uproar.

These are some of the defining stories of our history and exhibit the dizzying heights of the supernatural. They showcase what is fundamentally magical about the Torah.

But despite the power of these moments to captivate us, the Torah doesn’t indulge us by dwelling on them even a little. Just like that, with the stroke of a pen, the Binding of Isaac is behind us, the Red Sea is old news, Sinai is history, and it’s time to move onward:

וַיָּשׁב אַבְרָהָם אֶל־נְעָרָיו וַיָּקֻמוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ יַחְדָּו – Avraham returned to his stewards, and they got up and left together… (22:19)

וַיַּסַּע מֹשֶׁה אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִיַּם-סוּף, וַיֵּצְאוּ אֶל-מִדְבַּר-שׁוּר; וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁלֹשֶׁת-יָמִים בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְלֹא-מָצְאוּ מָיִם – Moshe and the Children of Israel set out from the Red Sea. They went on into the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. (15:22)

רַב-לָכֶם שֶׁבֶת, בָּהָר הַזֶּה. פְּנוּ וּסְעוּ לָכֶם – You have stayed long enough at this mountain. (1:6)

We have these distinctly unique stories of the Divine manifested in our universe, and then the Torah just moves briskly onward – וַיָּקֻמוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ / וַיַּסַּע מֹשֶׁה אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִיַּם-סוּף / רַב-לָכֶם שֶׁבֶת, בָּהָר הַזֶּה פְּנוּ וּסְעוּ לָכֶם.

The Torah does not dwell in the magical moments, and the starkness of the almost dismissive continuity is jarring, and there is a vital lesson here. It suggests that even after the greatest of heights, the most noteworthy achievements, and the most incredible successes, the Torah simply notes that you can’t stay long once you get there. Before you know it, it’s time to continue the journey and move onward.

Onward is an interesting word – positive and proactive, meaning going further rather than coming to an end or halt; moving in a forward direction. As the Izhbitzer explains, part of growth is moving on and walking away from where you once stood. We can’t stay because the moment is gone – it’s gone in time, irretrievably behind us, and it’s our responsibility to realize that distance in mental and physical space too.

It’s also true to life; the world will not dwell in your magical moments. Whether you ace the test, get the girl, close the deal, buy the house, sell the business, have the baby, or whatever the outstanding achievement is, it’s still Tuesday, you’re still you, you still have deadlines, you still have to get into better shape, your siblings still get on your nerves, and your credit card bill is still due. And so, by necessity, there comes a time to move onward.

In dull moments, we may find ourselves thirsty with nothing to drink. But this, too, as the Izhbitzer teaches, is part of the growth process. Eventually, those bitter waters can transform into a sweet oasis, and what appeared to be downtime is integrated into the journey forward.

Even the Golden Calf story has redeeming elements; apart from the critical teaching that using iconography to worship the One God is still idolatry, it decisively demonstrates God’s predisposition for forgiveness and paves the way to the Mishkan and all the resultant forms of interacting with the Divine.

Do not fool yourself into thinking that what got you to where you are will fuel you to further heights; that energy does not simply overflow into everything else. Success is not final, and failure is not fatal; the proper response to both is the same – onward.

This lesson is challenging enough, but the Izhbitzer takes us further and forewarns us that what follows the heights of success is rarely smooth and straightforward lulls and plateaus of accumulation and consolidation to catch our breath; we can often expect an inverse experience in short order. All too often, great heights are followed by sharp declines and drawdowns, troughs and valleys; Avraham gets home to find his wife has died; the miraculous rescue at the Red Sea is directly followed by the people’s complaints about the local water being too bitter, and the people worship a Golden Calf at the foot of Mount Sinai itself.

Quite arguably, a failure to move on was the mistake at the heart of the debacle of the scouting mission to Israel – the spies just wanted to stay put in the safety of God’s embrace in the desert. They weren’t wrong; the road ahead was fraught with danger! But that’s not how the world works; stagnation is not God’s design for us or the universe – life must change, move, and evolve. Staying put and stagnating is what’s unnatural.

The Torah is a guide to life – תורת חיים – and one of the defining features of living things is motility – they move independently. We shouldn’t be so shocked by the ebbs and flows of life, moving and changing, with attendant ups and downs. When living things don’t move, they quickly atrophy, stagnate, wither, and die before long. Living things must move and push to grow healthy and strong. You can fall and run out of breath plenty of times along the way, but that’s part of it, so long as you eventually get back up and keep moving onward.

As the Leshem teaches, the dual pulsation at the heart of all things is the descent down and the return back up. The breaking is the descent and the fixing is the ascent back to a higher point. This is not only a historic process but a perpetual moment-to-moment one, the elevation of all things, the vibration of life and existence itself.

As R’ Shlomo Farhi explains, if you look at stock market performance over a century, the zoomed-out time frame looks like a smooth and steady incline; and yet, when you zoom in to years, months, weeks, days, and hours, the amount of choppiness and volatility increases. On an extended time frame, each part matters less. The bouncing highs and lows blend into a smooth line that only goes one way – onwards and upwards. 

The past is not gone or forgotten; it forms the basis and foundations of today.

Although we can’t dwell in the moments of achievement, there is a part we can carry in our hearts and minds.

And as we go, it comes with us, ever onward.

Your Heart in the Right Place

3 minute read
Straightforward

In every field of human civilization, there are discoveries, technologies, and people that changed everything.

The printing press permanently slashed the cost of information, commoditizing and dramatically expanding the reach of human knowledge. Antibiotics and vaccination neutralized the dangers of the historically leading causes of human death. The internet has transformed how we communicate.

Closer to home, Rashi opened up our literature to the masses. The Rambam organized and synthesized broad and divergent streams of lore and thought into cohesive and comprehensive works of law and philosophy. Aish HaTorah and Ohr Someach demonstrated the urgency of outreach to combat the attrition wrought by assimilation. Chabad put a Jewish embassy in every major city on the planet.

These are all remarkable feats, and they should speak to something deep within us; who hasn’t once dreamed of making an impact and leaving the world better off for it? Even once we have matured past the stage of wanting to make the world in our image, we still have ambitions; and we eventually face the question of how we can hope to succeed at those ambitious goals.

It’s a familiar question because it’s universal.

How are you going to succeed at that?

This line of thinking is common and garbs itself in the language of realism. But this line of thinking is actually pessimism in disguise, and ironically, often grants people the certainty they need to excuse themselves from getting started.

Survivorship bias is real. While it’s not strictly wrong to say that the number of people who are fortunate enough to successfully pull off massive accomplishments is small, what they all have in common is that they got started, which might be half the battle – לא עליך המלאכה לגמור, ולא אתה בן חורין ליבטל ממנה. Rashi himself wrote dismissively of people who say it’s impossible to finish Shas; the only way it’s ever been done is a couple of pages per session.

But there is something else to it as well.

Our sages suggest that the designer in chief of the Mishkan, Bezalel, was exceptionally gifted and perhaps even supernaturally clairvoyant. But when the Torah describes the architects and artisans, the common craftsmen and contributors of the Mishkan construction project, it consistently refers to one unifying characteristic of the men and women who rose to the occasion:

וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה אֶל־בְּצַלְאֵל וְאֶל־אָהֳלִיאָב וְאֶל כָּל־אִישׁ חֲכַם־לֵב אֲשֶׁר נָתַן ה חָכְמָה בְּלִבּוֹ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר נְשָׂאוֹ לִבּוֹ לְקָרְבָה אֶל־הַמְּלָאכָה לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָהּ׃ – Moshe called Bezalel and Oholiav, and every skilled person whom Hashem had endowed with skill in his heart, everyone who had given their hearts to undertake the task and carry it out. (36:2)

The Ramban notes that the working population of that moment consisted of freed slaves, who only had experience in manual labor – they were not skilled in metallurgy or textiles! Yet the Torah consistently describes their technical skill as a feature of having a heart for the task in question – חֲכַם־לֵב. The Chafetz Chaim suggests that in doing so, the Torah subtly recognizes the skill of these volunteers as a product not of experience, but of desire; their hearts were in the right place – נָתַן ה’ חָכְמָה בְּלִבּוֹ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר נְשָׂאוֹ לִבּוֹ לְקָרְבָה אֶל־הַמְּלָאכָה לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָהּ.

The Mishkan volunteers could succeed at something unprecedented with no relevant experience because God granted the requisite skill to the people whose hearts were in the right place and whose hearts were invested in the project. R’ Noach Weinberg similarly encourages us to invest heart into our undertakings and trust that God sends us the fortune and wisdom required to succeed – יגעתי ולא מצאתי אל תאמן. If we want the right things for the right reasons, why wouldn’t we throw ourselves in the deep end and hope for the best?

The Malbim suggests that all we truly can give is our all, and it’s true enough of most things. Who can accomplish the impossible? The people who want it badly enough – רחמנא ליבא בעי. Our Sages taught that you could have anything you want if you want it badly enough – אין דבר עומד בפני הרצון. If you want it badly enough, you’ll find a way; and if you don’t, you’ll find an excuse – בדרך שאדם רוצה לילך מוליכין אותו.

We all have big goals, and if we expect to influence the quality of our lives, we must be proactive. But what are the chances you get what you want if you don’t go after it? And crucially, what are the chances you get it if you go about it half-heartedly?

If you want to succeed, your heart has to be in the right place, and you have to go all-in.

It’s Not Over Til It’s Over

5 minute read
Straightforward

With the climactic events at Sinai, the Jewish People heard God’s word and received the Torah’s laws, along with detailed instructions on how to build a Mishkan. Moshe remained at the summit of the mountain for another forty days, so the people got nervous waiting for him and built themselves a Golden Calf, a debacle that requires its own treatment.

Whatever Moshe and God were in the middle of, they stopped for God to inform Moshe what his people had done. Sending Moshe off the mountain, God declared that He would destroy the Jewish People and start over from Moshe:

וַיְדַבֵּר ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה לֶךְ־רֵד כִּי שִׁחֵת עַמְּךָ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלֵיתָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם׃ סָרוּ מַהֵר מִן־הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִם עָשׂוּ לָהֶם עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ־לוֹ וַיִּזְבְּחוּ־לוֹ וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם׃ וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה רָאִיתִי אֶת־הָעָם הַזֶּה וְהִנֵּה עַם־קְשֵׁה־עֹרֶף הוּא׃ וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי וְיִחַר־אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל – Hashem spoke to Moshe, “Hurry down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely. They have been so quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them. They have made themselves a molten calf and bowed low to it and sacrificed to it, saying: ‘This is your god, Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’” Hashem further said to Moshe, “I see that this is a stiffnecked people. Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation.” (32:7-10)

Horrified at the prospect of his people’s imminent doom, Moshe argued with God:

וְעַתָּה אִם־תִּשָּׂא חַטָּאתָם וְאִם־אַיִן מְחֵנִי נָא מִסִּפְרְךָ אֲשֶׁר כָּתָבְתָּ – “Now, if You will forgive their sin, then well and good; but if not, erase me from the Book You have written!” (32:32)

God concedes the discussion, and Moshe successfully averts a catastrophe. The story continues with the aftermath of the Golden Calf incident and a slow return to normality. But although we know how the story ends and that Moshe was ultimately successful, we shouldn’t downplay or gloss over what Moshe did.

Moshe argued with God; God let him win. Each element alone is remarkable. Both elements combined are explosive.

Moshe was intimately familiar with the Almighty, playing an instrumental role in supporting God’s raining destruction on Egypt and devastating its military forces, utterly tearing the fabric of nature in the process. Knowing the Creator better than anyone who has ever lived and hearing God commit to destroying the Jewish People, Moshe stood his ground. He picked a fight with God Himself, threatening to resign and walk away from it all if God followed through.

Yet, there was no way for Moshe to think his actions had any serious prospect of success in real-time. The heroism and self-sacrifice it must have taken at that moment ought to send chills down our spine. Where does someone get the boldness to play religious Russian roulette against God Himself? Or put differently, how could Moshe possibly know that this gambit wouldn’t backfire spectacularly?

The question is far better than the answer because there is no indication that Moshe had any knowledge of that effect. He simply refused to accept the finality of a national death sentence and took a chance in the hope that God would let him win.

There is a deeply pertinent lesson here. Far too often, well-meaning people end up excusing or justifying other people’s suffering as “meant to be,” resigning those unfortunate souls to destiny and fate. Yet Moshe literally heard God Himself impose a death sentence, and he still challenged it. The unequivocal moral of Moshe’s standoff against God is that we must not accept what is “meant to be” because if that information even exists, humans can not access it. As we so clearly see, even if you heard the words uttered directly from God, you still wouldn’t actually know what God truly intended to do.

The Gemara teaches that even if a sword rests upon someone’s neck, they should not stop praying and should still hold on to the hope that their prayers will be answered.

None of this is to say that God wasn’t serious. However, a characteristic we learn from God in this story and others, including Avraham concerning Sodom, is that God may pose something unconscionable to us as a prompt we are challenged to take issue with. R’ Shlomo Farhi highlights how our heroes and role models never suspended their internal moral compasses, even when it brought them to the point of directly questioning God. Avraham took his opportunity, and God welcomed a discussion. Moshe took the opportunity here, and God not only welcomed the discussion but went on to explain how the Jewish People could make amends long into the future. When we fail to take the prompt, it results in needless suffering and misery, which Noach is the classic archetype of.

R’ Jonathan Sacks explains that it is beyond human comprehension to understand suffering in the world; because if we could understand it, then we would accept it. There is no satisfactory answer to injustice, but asking the question might make us do something about it. If there’s any nobility in accepting suffering with grace, there is only cruelty in accepting the suffering of others.

After winning his argument with God, Moshe asked for greater understanding, but God cryptically answered that we could only see God in hindsight. This suggests that Moshe’s bold and hopeful intuition was correct; we shouldn’t just accept things because that’s the way it is. God’s response is encouraging, not discouraging – our honed intuition is the absolute zenith of human apprehension. Don’t take it lying down as Noach did, and if you don’t win, then like Avraham, you’ll know you did all you possibly could. We cannot know what God will do, and we cannot see God in real-time, only in hindsight. This concept underlies the entire notion of Teshuva – our fate is not predetermined, and we can directly influence it; use your judgment, and don’t justify things that don’t feel right as destiny and fate.

The Leshem teaches that Moshe’s exchange teaches that understanding God is simply beyond human grasp; it is not a symptom of some failure, but rather a constitutive element of being human. As so many of our prophets make clear, God is not like us; not just different, but fundamentally unlike, utterly inscrutable and incomprehensible, not just in part, but entirely at all – כי לא מחשבותי מחשבותיכם.

Finally, to understand Moshe’s boldness, we must recognize that the position he took was brimming with hope. Hope locates itself in the premise that we don’t know what will happen and that there is room for us to act in the spaciousness of uncertainty. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists, who both excuse themselves from acting. Hope depends on a degree of uncertainty; otherwise, it would be prediction, expectation, or even knowledge. Moshe had hope because even though he heard God say the words, he still wasn’t sure that was the end. Think about that for a second; God can tell you something will happen, and you still couldn’t be sure that it will! And from this story, we know that God endorses this view.

As Kierkegaard said, life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.

When events are still unfolding, there is simply no way for humans to determine what God’s plan is, so there is equally no need to act like anything is God’s plan for as long as you can still do something about it; the stories of our heroes and legendary figures should empower us to boldly act with the hope they once had.

Because it’s not over until it’s over.

Count Me In

4 minute read
Straightforward

A fair amount of times, the Torah reports that the Jewish People conducted a census, breaking down how many men were in each tribe, and then adds up the subtotals for a total count. It occupies a lot of space in the Torah.

The Ramban explains that taking a census is a basic government function to organize logistics, safety, and military planning.

While that is accurate, the Torah’s lessons are timeless and eternal. Of what value to us is the level of detail in the raw statistical data from each census?

The Ramban explains that the information itself is more relevant to daily government, which is probably why it only covered military-age men. But the lesson isn’t in the data; it’s in the method of counting.

The way they counted was that every individual would have to appear before Moshe and Ahron, and God. The requirement to appear before the entire generation’s leadership tells us that those people were not just numbers; they were valuable individuals.

There is a constant interplay between individualism and collectivism. Individualism stresses individual identity and goals; collectivism focuses on group identity and goals, what is best for the collective group. The notion of collectivism and unity – אַחְדוּת – is all too often propounded to squash individuality, and we mustn’t tolerate that. You are not just a cog in a machine, with another human being at the ready to take your place. You are not the property of the state or any group or person.

And as the Lubavitcher Rebbe put it, people are not dollars. You are not fungible. You are not replaceable.

R’ Jonathan Sacks highlights the Torah’s choice of words for the count – שְׂאוּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל / כִּי תִשָּׂא אֶת־רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל – literally, “lift the heads.” There are many ways to say “count” in Hebrew; this isn’t one of the naturally obvious ones. Again, the Torah seems to be saying that even among the crowd, lift your head up high and proud. To this day, Jews do not count people directly, but instead, count heads.

There is a beautiful and uncommon blessing we say upon seeing a crowd of multitudes – חכם הרזים – the knower of secrets, which the Gemara explains as acknowledging God’s greatness in knowing each of us in our individual hearts, despite our different faces and minds. This is a subtle but vital point – God is great not because of the glory and sheer size of the crowd, but because God can see each of us as distinct within the sea of all too forgettable faces; God can see the individual within the collective.

It is a blessing in praise of the God who creates diversity in our world, rejoicing in our different minds, opinions, and thoughts. It is a blessing over Jewish pluralism. It is one thing to tolerate our differences; it is quite another to acknowledge them as a blessing. It is one thing to love Jews because we are all Jewish, that is, the same; it is quite another to love Jews because they are different from ourselves.

We cannot tolerate factionalism, where one subgroup splinters from the main group, but we cannot afford to exclude individuals. The Torah makes incredible demands of us, and we mostly fall well short, some a little more, some a little less.  We must hold ourselves to the highest standards, but we can never look down at our fellow.

To argue the other side, while we must celebrate individuality, we must not condone individualism. Our duty is to find a balance between being individuals while remaining part of the group. We need to maintain a tension between the need for individual freedom and the demands of others.

The whole idea of loving others is that they are not just like you; if you had to love people like you, that would just be loving yourself and would demand nothing of you. We must reinforce the notion of tolerance of heterogeneity, people not just like us. Diversity is natural; homogeneity is artificial.

God creates all of us as separate individuals, born with a particular makeup and tendencies that mark us as a distinct and unique piece of fate. It is who you are to the core, but some people never become who they truly are; they conform to the tastes of others and end up wearing a mask that hides their true nature. R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that being the same as others is a sacrilege that profanes and squanders who we are put in this world to be.

Loving another is not that I care about someone in my circle who is just like me, and perhaps I have a duty to expand my conception of who is in the circle. That would be loving yourself and would demand nothing of you.  Loving another means that someone else’s problems bother me so deeply that I simply have to do something about it, and I will be lacking if I do not. The idea of loving another does not include circles – it has nothing to do with people’s similarities.

Evolutionary theory teaches that cooperation is as important for survival as competition. You’re irreplaceable and unique – but remember that we need you! The strength of the team is each individual. The strength of each individual is the team.

The idea that every Jew is worthy enough to be presented before God and the generation’s leadership, that every Jew must lift their head high, is timeless and eternal. Moreover, it teaches a broader lesson that is portable to all and covers women, children, and the elderly as well. The Jewish People are something massively monumental, yet we each have our own significant role to play. We must celebrate each other’s unique contributions while striving to do more ourselves.

This illuminates an interesting comment by Rashi, that the point of the census was to discern how many people had survived the plague that followed the Golden Calf debacle. The plague killed a small fraction of the total population figure given in the Torah, so it’s strange to talk in terms of “survivors” when only a few succumbed. But if we consider each individual as a core component of the Jewish People, then the Jewish People as a whole really are damaged by the loss of any single person, and the remainder truly are “survivors.”

The Baal Shem Tov taught that if the Jewish People are a Sefer Torah, then every Jew is a letter.

The Torah counts everyone. Because everyone counts.

Taboo

5 minute read
Straightforward

The materials procurement process is one of the painstakingly detailed aspects of the Mishkan’s planning and development. Aside from the sections about fundraising, the Torah includes a public ledger accounting for all sources and uses, recording where every last donation ended.

While not precisely gripping, there is a discrepancy in how the Torah accounts for how they utilized the donations of bronze:

וּנְחֹשֶׁת הַתְּנוּפָה שִׁבְעִים כִּכָּר וְאַלְפַּיִם וְאַרְבַּע־מֵאוֹת שָׁקֶל. וַיַּעַשׂ בָּהּ אֶת־אַדְנֵי פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְאֵת מִזְבַּח הַנְּחֹשֶׁת וְאֶת־מִכְבַּר הַנְּחֹשֶׁת אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ וְאֵת כָּל־כְּלֵי הַמִּזְבֵּחַ. וְאֶת־אַדְנֵי הֶחָצֵר סָבִיב וְאֶת־אַדְנֵי שַׁעַר הֶחָצֵר וְאֵת כָּל־יִתְדֹת הַמִּשְׁכָּן וְאֶת־כָּל־יִתְדֹת הֶחָצֵר סָבִיב – The donated bronze came to 70 talents and 2,400 shekels. From it, he made the sockets for the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; the bronze altar and its bronze grating and all the utensils of the altar; the sockets of the enclosure and the sockets of the gate of the enclosure; and all the pegs of the Mishkan and all the pegs of the enclosure. (38:29-31)

The Abarbanel notes that we know of a bronze vessel that doesn’t feature on this list, the washbasin. It is categorized separately from the general bronze accounting because this bronze didn’t come from the main bronze operating account; it came from a wholly separate source from the rest of the general fund:

וַיַּעַשׂ אֵת הַכִּיּוֹר נְחֹשֶׁת וְאֵת כַּנּוֹ נְחֹשֶׁת בְּמַרְאֹת הַצֹּבְאֹת אֲשֶׁר צָבְאוּ פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד – He made the washbasin and its stand of bronze, from the mirrors of the women who amassed at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (38:8)

Rashi quotes a fascinating Midrash that when the women of Israel wanted to donate their makeup mirrors to the Mishkan fund, Moshe considered rejecting these mirrors since they are, on their face, tools of immodesty. Notionally correct, humans use cosmetics to enhance their appearance aesthetically. While not the same, physical attractiveness is tightly correlated with sexual attractiveness, so cosmetics and makeup, superficially at least, serve the purposes of desire and lust, which are more aligned with the evil inclination – תאווה. But despite this, God interceded and instructed Moshe to readily accept these mirrors, declaring them the dearest of all contributions.

The subtext of this unusual vignette is that when the enslaved men in Egypt were exhausted and spent from backbreaking forced labor, they no longer wanted to be with their wives, the thought being that with no more children, their misery would come to an end. To counter this, the women would bring their husbands food and drink and use these personal makeup mirrors to seduce them with great success, directly resuscitating the imperiled future of the Jewish People. Rather than perceiving these actions as mere gratuitous and mundane acts of the flesh, God recognized their heroic courage and bravery in the Jewish People’s hour of great need.

Let’s recall the stated point of Pharaoh’s enslavement of the Jewish People was for population control; their fertility was a threat, so Egypt pursued oppressive policies to suppress it. But it didn’t work, and this teaching credits the brave Jewish women for that. It also suggests that even the most accomplished leader could fail to recognize their true value, but as our sages ultimately conclude, the Jewish People were saved from Egypt on the merit of righteous women. 

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights the profound significance of how even something as mundane as a mirror, a symbol that draws attention to the human body as an object of sensual desire, can be co-opted and integrated into Divine service.

The symbolism goes deep; the washbasin functions to consecrate hands and feet, which means we can elevate and refine our simple flesh and blood bodies. There is no separate track for holy things – we create holiness through our actions and footsteps. The mirrors we might have thought of as a source of impurity are sacred and become the washbasin, the source of purity.

The separate accounting of the women’s bronze mirrors contains an essential and illuminating insight into the role of intimacy. It’s taboo to discuss, tainted as it so often is with guilt and shame, and yet one of its tools became not only a central feature in the Mishkan but quite plausibly the dearest donation of the lot!

It is imperative to separate what’s kosher from what’s not, right from wrong. The laws of איסורי ביאה and עריות‎ are incredibly severe and have catastrophic consequences highlighted by, among others, Hoshea and Yirmiyahu. They matter! But we must remember that the very first commandment from God to humans is to be fruitful and multiply. The Sefer Hachinuch observes that the mitzvah’s essential nature is that God desires a world populated with life. This is intuitive because we are designed to precisely that specification, like every other living thing. It’s a defining feature of being a living thing!

Judaism is highly focused on the purity of our sexuality. Adam and Eve were created naked and felt no shame until they ate from the Tree of Knowledge later in the story. There was nothing intrinsically wrong about their bodies, so there was no guilt or shame associated with them; they were living expressions of holiness even in their natural state. Only once they gained a deeper perception and understanding of consciousness could they comprehend that sexuality could be immoral and their nakedness could be shameful and embarrassing.

We often childishly characterize Satan as this evil other at odds with God’s purposes, but this could not be more wrong. Satan is a trusted member in good standing of God’s forces and has a decisive and vital role to play in the universe’s destiny. Nechama Leibowitz teaches that the same impulses that lead to destruction can equally lead to sanctity – building our families and perpetuating the future. Our sages recognized the need to serve God with our better and worse inclinations – בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ – literally, “hearts,” in the plural.

While we may categorize desire as originating in the baser or evil inclination, we must recognize its necessity as an essential precursor to life, to the extent that the Midrash labels that evil inclination as “very good.” Like eating or drinking, it is a fundamental biological driving force that is integrated and synonymous with being alive. When controlled and channeled in the appropriate context, it can be sacred.

R’ Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz teaches that Judaism does not exist to quell or quash the forces of human nature; the constraints of the Torah’s laws leave room for those forces to be beneficial and constructive. As the famous song goes, beauty and grace are vain but vain only in the sense that they are transient, that there is more to life than preoccupation with your image. But vain doesn’t mean bad; beauty is a gift, and modesty should not be a denial or rejection of it. 

We may even think that beauty, desire, and sexuality are good in our homes but still inappropriate in the Mishkan, a place where we strive to be above any distraction and focus on God, where physical impulses should remain outside. And yet, speaking directly to this notion, Rashi and our sages straightforwardly and unambiguously point out that God does not see it that way. If we still think it’s inappropriate, we need to recalibrate – קַבֵּל, כִּי אֵלּוּ חֲבִיבִין עָלַי מִן הַכֹּל.

Human desire can be elevated into the sanctified life force of Judaism, showcased by the persistence of the Jewish women who saved the Jewish people.

The separate treatment of the women’s makeup mirrors highlights that intimacy and everything associated with it can be sacred and what God considers among the dearest thing we have.

Under Scrutiny

2 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah isn’t so much about God as it is about humans and how we ought to behave. This is in large part because we cannot comprehend what God is, only what God does.

One of Judaism’s most fundamental beliefs is that we can change, through the ability to repent and make amends – Teshuva – which presupposes that to some extent, God can also change. While this may sound absurd at first, it’s quite benign. We believe that with prayer, repentance, and charity, God might act with compassionate mercy in lieu of strict justice.

This transition from strict justice to compassionate mercy ought to be instructive to how we exercise judgment in our own lives.

The Torah’s stated cause for the great Flood was a human tendency towards evil:

וַיַּרְא ה, כִּי רַבָּה רָעַת הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ, וְכָל-יֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבֹת לִבּוֹ, רַק רַע כָּל-הַיּוֹם –  Hashem saw the great evil of humans on Earth, and that every imagination of his heart’s intent was only ever evil. (6:5)

After the great Flood, God laments the destruction and devastation, and resolves not destroy life ever again:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-לִבּוֹ לֹא-אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת-הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם, כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו; וְלֹא-אֹסִף עוֹד לְהַכּוֹת אֶת-כָּל-חַי, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי – Hashem said in His heart: “I will not curse the ground again for humanity’s sake; because the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every living thing, as I have just done.” (8:21)

What changed between the beginning and end of the Flood?

Quite remarkably, it seems like nothing at all changed. Humans were bad before, and they are still bad after – יֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבֹת לִבּוֹ, רַק רַע כָּל-הַיּוֹם / כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו.

This non-change also happens when the Jewish People misguidedly craft the Golden Calf, upon which God states He can longer tolerate their obstinate rigidity:

כִּי לֹא אֶעֱלֶה בְּקִרְבְּךָ, כִּי עַם-קְשֵׁה-עֹרֶף אַתָּה פֶּן-אֲכֶלְךָ בַּדָּרֶךְ – “I will not go up with you; because you are a stiff-necked people; otherwise I might destroy you on the way!” (33:3)

Yet Moshe appeals for God’s compassion and mercy based on that very same characteristic:

וַיֹּאמֶר אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ, אֲדֹנָי, יֵלֶךְ-נָא אֲדֹנָי, בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ:  כִּי עַם-קְשֵׁה-עֹרֶף הוּא, וְסָלַחְתָּ לַעֲוֹנֵנוּ וּלְחַטָּאתֵנוּ וּנְחַלְתָּנוּ – And he said: “If I have found favor in your sight, Hashem, please go in our midst; because this is a stiff-necked people; and forgive our error and sin, and take us as Your inheritance.” (34:9)

While we cannot know God as God is, we can learn to understand God a little better by imitating what He does. In both instances, humans do not earn forgiveness through Teshuva, because they have not changed. We are prone to error and don’t always learn from our mistakes.

In the story of Noach, God does something extremely unusual and talks to Himself – וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-לִבּוֹ. The power of this soliloquy teaches us that how we frame a characteristic can be the difference between strict justice and compassionate mercy. The self-same flaw God can condemn can also be excused on the same basis – כִּי.

We can’t change other people. Sometimes they won’t ever make amends and won’t fix what they broke. But we can still change the lens we use to scrutinize them.

In the same way that God can choose to judge favorably out of a commitment to life, we can do the same.

A judgmental attitude helps neither ourselves nor others.