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 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 relationship 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.
I must possess golden principles that I will stand by and stand up for no matter what. I must possess a sense of right and good and be able to maintain them no matter how much external pressure I face. I must be rigid in my adherence to the tenets of my faith and the principles of my people. I must have gold-like, immutable resolve to uphold the ideas and ideals I hold sacred.
Yet, man must also learn to be a tree, to be wood-like in his approach to life and others.
I must learn the art of change and recognize that just because I have been a certain way until now does not mean I must continue to be that same person going forward. I must learn to adapt to new circumstances. Life doesn’t always go the way I planned or hoped – I can be wood, I can grow, I can change, I can adapt. Wood is pliable. I must learn that when dealing with others I cannot always stand my ground, I must learn when to yield for the sake of shalom (peace).
Man must be gold on his inside and his outside.
I must have the principles, ideas and ideals that I will live and die for. I must know what I believe and stand ready to defend those beliefs no matter how fierce the opposition may be. But I 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, ordered Moshe to descend the mountain. But before Moshe left, God told him of His plan to destroy the Jewish people and begin again with Moshe. Moshe, the loving advocate of the Nation of Israel beggede and pleaded 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)
What exactly was Moshe 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 that we are obligated to “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 ask 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 to 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 asks 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 responds, “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 of the holiness. Don’t just see the mistakes; look at all of 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.
“Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.”
This Shabbos we remember. We remember what Amaleyk did to us thousands of years ago and we remember their hatred which has followed us through the millennia.
“You shall remember what Amaleyk did to you on the way, when you went out of Egypt, how he happened upon you on the way and cut off all the stragglers at your rear, when you were faint and weary, and he did not fear God. [Therefore,] it will be, when the Lord your God grants you respite from all your enemies around [you] in the land which the Lord, your God, gives to you as an inheritance to possess, that you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amaleyk from beneath the heavens. You shall not forget (Devorim 25:17-19).”
Amaleyk was the first nation to wage war against us. There was no disputed territory or perceived slight, their attack was motivated by pure and unadulterated hatred. This hatred which defies comprehension has reared its ugly head throughout the generations. From our first encounter with this war-mongering nation to this very day, we must contend with enemies who seek our annihilation and destruction. We read this section on the Shabbos before Purim as the Talmud relates that Haman the archenemy of the Jewish people (in the Megillah) was a descendant of Amaleyk. What is it that we are supposed to remember? Is God telling us to remember that there are individuals and nations who hate us? Is the Torah reminding us to never forget that anti-Semitism exists? I do not believe we need a Biblical directive to remind us of this reality. We have struggled with it for thousands of years and we have seen a resurgence of this vitriol and hatred. Furthermore, on a textual level, if the Torah tells us to “remember”, why must it state, “you shall not forget”?
The Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) explains that in order to appreciate the obligation to remember we must examine the initial episode. The Torah does not merely tell us that Amaleyk attacked; rather we are told how they attacked. “How he happened upon you…and cut off all the stragglers at your rear…(Devorim 25: 18).” Amaleyk did not launch a frontal assault; they chose to attack the weakest link, those who could not keep up with the rest of the camp. Apparently, there was a group who fell behind. Perhaps, it was the elderly, the sick or the very young? Perhaps, it was those who had no one to look after them? They were the first to feel the brunt of Amaleyk’s hatred. The Rebbe explains that this piece of information is intended to be a form of stinging rebuke. How could we have allowed people to be left behind? How could we have moved forward when there were still stragglers who couldn’t keep up? How could we have allowed precious Jewish souls to fall between the cracks? The Torah tells us why this happened, “v’ata ayef v’yagey’a (you were faint and weary).” We were too tired. We were too busy with our own lives and our own needs to be worried about those who couldn’t keep up. And so, we kept moving at a pace that suited us and assumed that the stragglers would somehow catch up.
“Zachor es asher asa lecha Amaleyk (Remember what Amaleyk did to you)” – Amaleyk saw that we did not look after those who couldn’t keep up and took advantage of this vulnerability. We must remember that there was a time when we were not sensitive enough to the other, when we did not look out for the needs of the stragglers. “Lo tishkach”- Don’t forget our lapse in proper conduct, don’t forget about the other.
We don’t need to be reminded that there are nations that despise us and yearn for our destruction. We need to be reminded to never again leave anyone behind. We must become sensitive to the needs of those who may not be able to keep up with the camp. We must be attentive to the needs of our elderly and make sure that our communities are empathic and embracing. We must care for the handicapped making sure that they are part our greater kehilla. We must make sure to extend a helping, loving and nurturing hand to those who suffer from physical and emotional illness. We must make sure that no Jew is ever left behind, no matter how slowly he or she needs to travel.
On Purim we will share packages of food with one another, Mishloach Manos. I recently heard someone bemoaning the fact that upon arriving home on Purim day they have difficulty getting in their front door because of all the baskets and food parcels left for them. If you have that problem, how fortunate you are. But there are many who are forgotten, overlooked and left behind. This Purim use your Mishloach Manos as a tool of inclusivity and love. Think about those who aren’t as socially connected and popular. Think about those who are struggling and alone. Use this mitzvah to help bring someone back into the camp.
It is on this Shabbos before Purim that we pledge to ourselves and to one another that no matter how vicious our external enemies may be – our national camp will always be a place of love, acceptance and refuge for all.