Alexander Pope wrote, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” From the moment we are first introduced to Adam in the beginning of Genesis it is clear that man is prone to falling and failing. In this week’s Parsha, the Torah begins the lengthy section detailing sacrificial law. There are offerings brought for thanksgiving and celebration and there are offerings brought for atonement in the aftermath of sin. There are sacrifices for the mistakes of the common man and there are special sacrificial rites for the sins of the leader.
“If a leader [of Israel] sins and unintentionally commits one of all the commandments of the Lord, which may not be committed, incurring guilt; if his sin that he has committed is made known to him, then he shall bring his offering: an unblemished male goat.” (Vayikra 4:22).
In this verse the Torah describes the events that occur if the Nasi, the leader of the Jewish people, inadvertently issues an erroneous halachik ruling (permitting that which is prohibited) and acts upon his own ruling (thereby committing a sin). The verses describe the special sacrificial service to atone for his transgression.
The verse begins with the Hebrew word Ashrei translated as “if.” In a bit of a play on words, the Talmud (Horiyos 10b) explains: “Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai said: Praiseworthy (Ashrei) is the generation whose leader brings a sin-offering for his inadvertent transgression.”
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai teaches us that it can be difficult for one in a leadership position to admit he has done something wrong. The leader may be concerned about his image, about his ability to “lead” in the aftermath of an admission of guilt. And so, praiseworthy is the leader who is able to admit his faults, seek atonement and attempt to restore his spiritual standing.
But shouldn’t the Talmud have reserved its praise for the leader who has not sinned at all? Shouldn’t Rabbi Yochanan save his Ashrei accolade for the leader who does not suffer a spiritual lapse? Such a leader can serve as incredible role model for his constituents and followers. “If our leader can remain above temptation, if our leader can avoid the spiritual and physical pitfalls of life, we can as well.” Why not laud the Nasi who never suffered the set-back rather than the praising the one who did?
Rav Menachem Dovid of Amshinov (1850-1918) explains that in fact the reverse is true. A leader who has not suffered personal failure will be unable to forgive the shortcomings of another. A leader who has never tasted the bitterness of personal defeat will not appreciate the struggles of those he must lead. The leader who always succeeds will look at those who do not with a sense of disdain and resentment. Therefore, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai says, “Praiseworthy is the generation whose leader has stumbled, for this is a leader who will understand, appreciate and empathize with the difficulties his flock must face.”
The words of the Amshinover resonate with incredible personal relevance. We all stumble, fall and suffer set-backs along the journey of life. Each of us (in our own unique way) has tasted the bitterness of defeat and has felt the pain of self-doubt. These experiences must sensitize and allow us to be accepting of the faults and shortcomings of the other. It is precisely because we know how frail we are that we must accept the frailties of those around us. In the aftermath of personal failure, we must learn to forgive ourselves in order to get up, move forward and make up lost ground. When we see the failures of others, we must forgive, understand and aid them in getting back up. It is because we know how much we yearn to be forgiven for our transgressions that we must be quick to dispense forgiveness to those who wrong us.
“Praiseworthy is the generation whose members recognize their own failures and are able to forgive and accept the shortcomings of others.”
Numerous Parshios are devoted to the creation and fabrication of the Mishkan and its utensils. The details contained in these Torah portions are not simply the architectural framework for this sacred space and its vessels; these details contain the roadmap for successful, enriched and meaningful living.
Betzalel made the Ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. And he overlaid it with pure gold from inside and from outside, and he made for it a golden crown all around.” (Exodus 37:1-2)
The Talmud (Yerushalmi Shekalim 6:1) explains that the Ark was unique in its construction. It was comprised of three separate boxes. The innermost box was made of gold, the larger one which held it (the inner one) was made of wood and the largest exterior box (which held the smaller two) was made of gold. This construction was quite unique. There were utensils made of solid gold and others made of wood coated with gold. Why did the Aron (Ark) have this unique construction of wood enveloped by gold?
The Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) explains that the Aron was supposed to represent paradigmatic man. Every aspect and detail of the Ark teaches us how to self-actualize and live a meaningful and successful life. The male and female Cherubim (angelic figures perched on the lid of the Ark) teach us to be passionate in our relationships with each other and with God. Their upstretched wings teach us that we must aspire to climb higher and accomplish more. The Luchos (tablets) resting in the center remind us that the Torah and its values must be the foundation, core and center of the decisions we make and things we do. The poles that remained inserted even when the Aron was at rest teach us that the Torah and its values are transplantable and must follow us and inform the way we live – wherever we may go.
While both wood and gold can be used for construction their properties are fundamentally different. Gold is inanimate; it is mined from the earth and can be manipulated but cannot grow and cannot change. Wood is alive. The tree takes in nutrients; its branches grow and bear fruit.The tree changes with the seasons and through the years. The Aron contains both of these materials to teach another very important lesson. Man must be gold and he must be wood. He must possess golden principles that he will stand by and stand up for no matter what. We must possess a sense of right and good and be able to maintain them no matter how much external pressure we may face. We must be rigid in our adherence to the tenets of our faith and the principles of our people. We must have gold-like, immutable resolve to uphold the ideas and ideals we hold to be sacred. Yet, we must also learn to be a tree, to be wood-like in our approach to life and others. We must learn the art of change and recognize that just because we each have been a certain way until now does not meanweI must continue to be that same person going forward. We must learn to adapt to new circumstances. Life doesn’t always go the way we plan or hope, but wecan be wood, we can grow, change, and adapt. Wood is pliable. We must learn that when dealing with others we cannot always stand our ground, but must learn when to yield for the sake of shalom (peace).
Man must be gold on his inside and his outside. We must have the principles, ideas and ideals that we will live and die for. We must know what we believe and stand ready to defend those beliefs no matter how fierce the opposition may be. But we must possess an inner layer of wood and learn the art of compromise, change, accommodation and collaboration. The Ark is only fit for service in the Temple if it has these multiple layers. Man can only be successful if he possesses them as well.
We were confused and overwhelmed. Moshe was gone for over forty days (according to our ancestors’ calculations) and the nation feared the worst. We built the Golden Calf, proclaimed it as our god and committed one of the most severe relationship trespasses in the history of our people. Hashem in His divine wrath, orders Moshe to descend the mountain. But before Moshe left, God tells him of His plan to destroy the Jewish people and begin again with Moshe. Moshe, the loving advocate of the Nation of Israel begs and pleads for Divine mercy for the fledgling Jewish nation.
“Moses pleaded before the Lord, his God, and said: ’Why, O Lord, should Your anger be kindled against Your people whom You have brought up from the land of Egypt with great power and with a strong hand?’” (Exodus 32:11)
Was Moshe really saying to God, “Why are You so angry?” Did Moshe not understand God’s anger and pain? Had Moshe somehow missed the severity of this act? How could he minimize what his beloved nation had just done? Furthermore, why does the Torah convey this exchange? What are we to learn from it? How are we to grow from this episode?
Rabbi Moshe Alshech (born in Turkey in 1507, and died in Safed in 1593) answers this question with a simple phrase, “HaBeyt U’Reeh Mey’Heychan Ba’u, look and see from where they came.” When someone we love makes a mistake, we have two options. We can focus exclusively on the misdeed and mistake or we can take a step back and look at the person in totality, reminding ourselves of his/her positive traits and deeds. Moshe says, “Hashem, I know you are upset and I understand Your feelings of betrayal and sadness. But look how far they have come. This nation left Egypt just a few short months ago and in that short amount of time they have accomplished so much. They followed You into the desert. They followed You into the sea. They sang the magnificent words of Az Yashir with a united soul. They said Naaseh V’Nishma (we will do and we will listen) as one people with one heart. I know they messed up but don’t just look at their mistakes, look at their accomplishments as well. Don’t just dwell on their failures, be cognizant of their successes.” Moshe was not minimizing God’s pain; he was trying to frame it appropriately and put it into a proper perspective.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov explains our obligation to be “Dan Es Kol HaAdam L’Kaf Zechus, Judge every person favorably.” We generally understand this to mean that we should try our best to give every person the benefit of the doubt. But the rabbis were asking us to do so much more. We must try to find the good in every person. We must seek out the redeeming qualities within the other, even when the other is profoundly compromised. We must condition ourselves to not only judge favorably, but to see that which is favorable within the other. The Rebbe explains that this is not only true with others. This is true with ourselves as well. We must strive to see the good we possess despite the multitude of mistakes we have made. The ability to see the good in others and the ability to see the good in myself requires one very important thing: perspective. We are able to judge both others and ourselves favorably when we are able to not only see the negative shortcomings but the beautiful qualities as well.
In Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter 2 Mishna 13) Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai asked his students, “What is the proper path a person should choose for himself?” In other words what is the most important trait to possess? Rabbi Elazar responded, “Ayin Tova, a good eye.” Rabbeinu Yonah explains that a “good eye” refers to proper perspective. The ability to maintain proper perspective in life allows one to navigate all of life’s tumultuous circumstances and maintain relationships with all kinds of people.
It is in this gripping exchange between Moshe and God that the Torah teaches us the all-important need for proper perspective. Don’t just see the calf, see all the holiness. Don’t just see the mistakes; look at all the accomplishments. We don’t control many of the situations and circumstances in life, but we absolutely control the way we choose to look at ourselves, at others and at life.