Blueprint for a holy society
In Exodus: 25:1-2, “G-d spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take my offering.’” Exodus 25:8-9, “And they shall make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst according to all that I show you, the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its vessels; and so shall you do…”
Now if I was a real Israelite, my first reaction might be to roll my eyes and say, “Great! I just spent all of these years slaving in Egypt, toiling over all of these pyramids, and now I have to do more building?” And of course, G-d isn’t content to let the Israelites use their expertise at turning sand and dirt into bricks. G-d has more specific plans, asking those who act generously, and using only the best of materials.
You get the idea. The Torah offers so many specifics, right down to the details of the golden cherubs. The Talmud (BT Yoma 54a) describes the cherubs as a boy and a girl. Rashi writes, “Their faces bore the images of the youth,” reminding us that the true custodians of the Ark and the Torah are our children, the sons and daughters of Israel, in contrast to the tradition’s literal count of the Israelites – 600 000 adult men, we are told. This portion reminds us that in all the institutions we build in accordance with G-d’s plan, our children, our youth count, and through them, we hear the voice of G-d.
This verse from Exodus 25:8-9 usually sparks discussion about the necessity of having a building in order for G-d to be present. We are so used to having a building as a symbol of G-d’s presence, but I believe we can find that sense of G-d in so many places. It may not be within a formal building. Perhaps it’s the fact, as it has always been, that we find G-d where we allow our souls to let G-d in, that the sanctuary within which G-d dwells must begin with our own soul. If our soul has been created to live with a foundation of faith and spiritual practice, then surely G-d will dwell within it.
But back to the tabernacle story. We have a G-d who can turn water into blood, sand into lice, the very air we breathe into a thick darkness that makes it impossible for others to move. This is a G-d who split the Sea of Reeds, who saved the Israelites from a future of slavery. Why does G-d need to draw a blueprint and then ask us to complete the plan?
The text offers the answer. When G-d is placing this very lengthy, detailed order, G-d says “they will make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst.” G-d didn’t build the tabernacle alone, nor assign it to Moses to build on his own. There was a blueprint and detailed instructions that were shared with everyone.
In my work as a rabbi, and indeed in our efforts as a Jewish community as a whole, we must be prepared to sit together, generate ideas, shape plans, and draw blueprints.
The future of the Jewish community is our shared responsibility. But if we are really involved in this, if we do it with all our heart, then by working together, we can build a magnificent holy society.
Believing in Hashem; believing in ourselves.
When would Hashem ever want us not to daven? In Parshat Beshalach, as the Jewish people were standing between the sea, the Egyptian army, and the desert, they naturally turned their faces upwards and pleaded to the Almighty for help. Remarkably, Hashem responds: “מַה־תִּצְעַ֖ק אֵלָ֑י (Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward).”
It’s not as if Hashem doesn’t want our tefilot (prayers). On the other side of the sea, we are attacked by Amalek, our long-standing enemy, and the Torah tells us when Moshe’s arms were raised, we took the upper hand. Moshe’s arms didn’t magically cause us to win, but rather, when the Jewish soldiers looked at Moshe’s posture of prayer, they were inspired to daven, and through the combination of G-dly intervention and human effort, we were victorious. What’s the difference between these two confrontations – against the Egyptians where we shouldn’t daven, and against the Amalek, where we had to?
One needs to understand the purpose of both wars. The Izhbitza Rebbe explains that the battle with Egypt was one of the awareness of the creator. Hashem displayed His might through the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea. We just needed to walk, and Hashem would do everything, supernaturally, to respond to Pharaoh’s original response to Moshe when he asked for the Jews to be free to worship Hashem: “’מִ֤י ה (Who is the Lord?)”
On the other hand, Amalek, who descended from Eisav, believed that our existence was meaningless and coincidental. Eisav sold Yaakov his birthright for the quick satisfaction of hunger. He wasn’t interested in the long term commitment of temple service. Eisav exclaimed, “Here I am going to die, so why do I need the birth right?” Amalek despised the idea of a world to-come where we receive reward or punishment for the actions we do here on earth. In order to persuade the world otherwise, we needed to fight him with meaningful human action. We partnered with Hashem through physical effort and prayer to display how, together, the creator and created can make a difference.
On Purim, we celebrate the fact that the Jews defeated Amalek once again. Hashem was, of course, behind our success, but He would remain quite hidden, allowing Esther and the Jewish people to come forward with bravery and self-sacrifice. At first, Esther refused to step up on behalf of her people. But after Mordechai inspired her asking, “Who knows, perhaps for the sake of a time such as this you have come to join royalty?”, she accepted responsibility and asked Jews to pray. Through her cunning and leadership, Haman, descended from the Amaleki King Agag, is trapped, and eventually hung on the gallows he built to kill Mordechai the Jew! Coincidence? I think not!
There are times in life where we raise our hands in prayer knowing that only Hashem can help as He overcomes the natural laws He put in place. At other times, He beckons us to act and overcome our natural tendencies to remain stagnant and passive and “join” Him to bring about the change. Esther revealed her hidden G-d-given potential to save the Jews, and for that we are eternally grateful.
The difference between “no” and “not yet”
Overnight sensations are often just that. They don’t necessarily last. Slow and steady, step by step, the gradual approach usually has longevity and more enduring success.
In this week’s reading, the Almighty tells the Jewish people that they won’t inherit the land of Canaan immediately. It will be to their benefit that the conquest of the Promised Land be gradual and deliberate. To settle the land successfully would take time, and they were cautioned to be patient. The process would unfold at a slow but steady pace so that there should be a smooth transition.
Every Jew has a share in the Promised Land, not only geographically but spiritually. There’s a piece of Jerusalem inside each of us. We all have the capacity for sanctity and spirituality. But sometimes we may be discouraged from beginning the journey to our own personal Promised Land. The road seems too far, the trip too long and arduous. Here, G-d is giving us wise words of encouragement. Don’t expect overnight miracles. Don’t say, “I have a whole country to conquer, how will I do it?” Rather say, “Where should I start today?”
If you were just starting your first business venture, and I asked you if you were a millionaire, would you say “no”, “not yet”, or “I’m working on it?” It should be the same in our Jewish journeys.
Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) was a German-Jewish philosopher who as a young man considered opting out of Judaism completely. But his intellectual bent compelled him to at least do a proper examination of Judaism first. So he went to shul and, as it happened, experienced a spiritual transformation. He went on to become a serious student of Judaism.
It seems that when Rosenzweig was once asked, “Do you put on tefillin?”, his answer was, “Not yet”. Not “no”, but “not yet”. There is a critical difference between the two. “No” implies that I’m not doing it now nor do I have any plans to do it anytime soon. “Not yet” means that while presently I may not be there, I’m open to suggestion. Hopefully, the time will soon come when I will be ready to make tefillin part of my daily observance.
The “not yet” approach is a good one. No one does it all. We should all want to aspire to greater things. If we don’t practice a particular good deed at the moment, there’s no reason why we can’t begin to do it in the near future. Don’t be discouraged by the length of the journey. Take the first step and keep moving. It may be slow, but if there’s steady growth, you’ll get there.
So, if someone asks, “Do you put on tefillin?”, “Do you keep kosher?” or “Do you observe Shabbos?” and you don’t, please don’t say, “No”. Say, “Not yet”.
Be the solution
While the highlight of this week’s parsha is undoubtedly the revelation of Hashem at Mount Sinai, the preceding narrative shouldn’t be ignored.
Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, observes how the masses would wait in line to have matters adjudicated by Moshe (and don’t we know how Jews love to queue!) Yitro criticizes Moshe, “What you are doing isn’t right! You will surely wear yourself out and these people as well. The task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone!”
But here’s the crux! His words don’t end there. He continues, “Therefore, develop various levels of judges to assist you.”
Yitro doesn’t just criticize. He offers a solution.
It’s a unique person who identifies a problem and thereafter, immediately seeks the solution.
In communal life – so my colleagues tell me – there will always be those who will verbalise the problem (often exaggerating it as well). Let’s be honest, it doesn’t take tremendous insight, sophistication, or aptitude to see problems. Problems exist, and they are often there for everyone to see. But how many of those people will just as eagerly and readily offer up solutions? Very few.
Of course, this isn’t only at communal level. We live in a world where people enjoy pointing out all that’s wrong in others. In Parliament, the seats of the opposition are always the more comfortable ones.
Yes, Yitro criticizes, but he offers a solution. He ensures that the negative is immediately followed by the positive.
Perhaps this is the reason our parsha, which records the historic and transformative event of Hashem’s revelation to His people on Mount Sinai, doesn’t bear a name more suited to this event such as Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah) or Aseret Hadibrot (the ten utterances), but rather the name Yitro.
Yitro merits this reward for the important and timeless lesson he teaches. Anyone can criticize and point out faults, but that doesn’t resolve the problem. If one sees the problem, one should try equally hard to see the solution.
In a world that tends to be problem-oriented, let’s strive to be solution-oriented. Perhaps we can go one step further, to be solution-committed. Not only should we devise the solution, we should strive to be part of its active implementation.
Though I have focused on the qualities of Yitro, let’s not forget the lesson taught by our great teacher, Moshe Rabbeinu. If we receive positive criticism, let’s be humble enough to implement it, and gracious enough to say, “Thank you”.
Wishing you and yours a wonderful and safe Shabbos!
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