A Story Worth Repeating
The Torah is very frugal with its expressions. One extra word can convey a world of meaning, one additional letter an entirely new law. So it is rather striking that the Torah devotes almost two entire weekly portions to a message that could have been summed up with the words, “And they built the Tabernacle (Mishkan).” Perhaps we would throw in “As G-d commanded”, just to be safe- but that’s it. Why the long-winded and detailed explanation of how the Jewish People created each previously-explained part of the Mishkan and the priests’ clothing according to G-d’s specifications?
In true Jewish fashion, I will respond with another question. The Torah states that upon completion of all the construction, Moshe blessed the Jewish People. Rashi explains that Moshe’s benediction was that it should be the Will of G-d for the Divine Presence to rest in the Mishkan. This is a very puzzling blessing indeed; wasn’t G-d’s main intent in commanding the project to have a place for His Presence to rest? If they built it, wouldn’t He come? Could the directive to build the Mishkan be a Heavenly practical joke? Why would Moshe feel the need for additional input?
Both Torah statements demonstrate the vast gulf between the planning and successful execution of any project. We all have experienced the world of cost overruns, unexpected delays, and general mayhem that accompanies any significant building plan. There is great skill in designing and planning a structure; there are entirely different skills that go into making it a reality. When the Torah tells us that the Jewish People collected all the materials, went step by step through the design, made sure everything was done exactly with just the right amounts of resources, on time and on budget, it is telling a story of love, of immersion into fulfillment of the Divine Will, of how G-d set high expectations and we rose to the occasion, on time and under budget.
The Torah’s lesson, though, is not just that we accepted G-d’s direction. The Jewish People’s focus and enthusiasm in carrying out the Mishkan construction project defined and was exclusively its success. Although G-d told us to construct the Mishkan to be His House, it was intended to fuel our longing to be close to Him and to have a place in which to relate to Him. G-d’s Tabernacle design was an invitation to us, and how we chose to respond dictated how close He would get to us. Ultimately, what brings G-d down to us is not the existence of a House of Worship, but the presence therein of eager worshippers. This was Moshe’s blessing to the beaming and exhausted Jewish Nation Engineering Corps – that their intent and love be sufficient, so that G-d would indeed dwell among them.
We undertake various projects in our lives, and usually focus exclusively on “getting the job done”. But how we do the job is often as important, and perhaps more important, than whether we accomplish the actual task. This is especially true if we are attempting to create an entity that will endure beyond the efforts we put into its formation. When we build a synagogue, a school, or a business, the kinds of thoughts, amount of dedication, and degree of unity of purpose that goes into development shapes the passions and feelings that the institution will project in its daily operations. Those vibes will be a larger contributor to the fate of the institution than anything else. It’s not just the amount of planning and expertise that creates a successful atmosphere, but the love and caring that radiates from the walls. That is a message that cannot be repeated enough.
I’ve Fallen But I Can Still Get Up
This week’s Torah portion depicts the confrontation between Jacob and Esau that took place upon Jacob’s return to the Land of Canaan, a clash that ended amicably as the brothers parted in peace. The Torah relates that as Jacob approached his brother, he bowed seven times. The commentaries say that these genuflections were a message to Esau and his bravado, that as many times as he appears to overpower his younger sibling, Jacob would still recover and eventually prevail.
This concept is reflected in the verse in Proverbs 24:16, “Seven times will a righteous one fall and yet rise.” We often envision a tzadik (righteous individual) to be someone with a strong natural push towards spirituality, generosity, and devotion to G-d in general. Everything they do is measured, thought-out, done out of selflessness and commitment to the greater good. They are good at being great.
It is this misconception that is put to rest by King Solomon in the above verse. The tzadik does not start out with a spiritual silver spoon in his mouth. He or she does not intuitively grasp right and wrong – and even if he or she does, the skill does not qualify that person as pious. True piety is not evident in how we succeed, but in how we fail. The righteous one is committed to trying again, because of the importance of the task, and the relative unimportance to him of his self-image. He is defined by his devotion, not his accomplishment, and because of that he perseveres. The rest of us may try at times, even try hard, but are willing to accept the notion that we are just not cut out to be so spiritually great, or find the sacrifices involved too extensive. The righteous succeed not because they are innately better, but because they care more.
It is not just the reaction to failure that distinguishes the tzadik, but his/her initiative as well. It is difficult to take on challenges that are likely to end in the short-term in failure. Most shy away from tasks that are too far out of their comfort zone. The righteous one is willing to embark on the bumpy road if it holds out at least a possibility of spiritual gold at the end.
How can we achieve this level of commitment? What can we use to motivate us to become righteous, and not feel that it is for the spiritual ‘naturals’? We can start by recognizing how much better we would feel about ourselves if we grew. The tool of the destructive voice inside is to inform us that we are not good enough, that trying to be righteous is a manifestation of our deluded ego, not of our dedication to goodness. ‘Who are you kidding, pretending to be so good’, it says. That is the voice of Esau, of brute strength aiming to conquer all that is before it. Rising above that negativity would open new horizons for us, and make what seemed impossible until now doable. Investing in that, and accomplishing that, would be worth a lot of pain and frustration, even a lot of failure.
The actions of our forefathers are a guide to us, says Nachmanides in his introduction to the book of Genesis. The actions of Jacob in this meeting read as instructions to us in combating the Esau inside of us, our more material, selfish selves. Jacob’s message is: the foe may seem formidable, and we may at times bow and cower before him, but we are not defeated. We are not afraid to try, not afraid to lose, because arises from all that failure is a better us, and that is the ultimate success.
Rabbi Raphael Landesman is currently Head of School at Shearim Torah High School for Girls in Phoenix, AZ. He writes Torah content for the Phoenix Community Kollel's weekly "Shabbos Spirit" and periodically for the Arizona Jewish News.