March 7th-8th, 2003
4 Adar II, 5763
Hereís an interesting excerpt from our daily morning prayer service (Shacharis):
"You [G-d] have made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and all that is in
Who among all Your handiwork, those above and those below, can say to You,
ĎWhat are You doing?í" [Artscroll Siddur; my emphasis]
Do we hear the question? What creature could possibly have the audacity to
call the Creator to task, to question the way He runs His universe?! What
living being, with its own limited intelligence, can possibly think that
it knows better what is good or just or efficacious for the Creation than
the One Who is of limitless wisdom and insight?!
Please take note that the very same (rhetorical) question is posed in the
Book of Job (by the hero himself: 9, 12), and in Ecclesiastes (by its
author, King Solomon: 8, 4). Who, indeed, could be so presumptuous--and so
foolish--as to say to the Supreme King, "What are You doing?!"
You no doubt guessed the answerÖfor there does happen to be one certain
being who is constantly uttering these words (or repeating them silently).
A human being, thatís who! Without meaning to sound too cynical, I would
suggest that perhaps this is a defining human characteristic: to suspect
that I know better than G-d whatís good for me, and for the universe at
large! And I donít mean people who deny His existence outright, those for
whom the question of, "Who knows better, G-d or I?" never consciously
arises in the first place. Iím talking about human beings who actually do
acknowledge His reality, and His sovereignty, and even His actual
commandments, yet ironically (or tragically) fall prey to delusions of
It could well be that the sin of Adam and Eve fits this description. In an
extremely profound analysis of that story [greatly simplified here], Rabbi
Eliyahu Dessler, ztíl, writes that Adam thought (or convinced himself)
that it would be better for him spiritually if he ate from the forbidden
fruit! He believed that he could ultimately bring about a greater
sanctification of Hashemís Name by struggling to serve Him from the
"fallen" state that would result from his sin, as opposed to remaining at
the lofty spiritual level of the Garden of Eden (where the "evil
inclination" was not yet an internal part of his personality).
In any case, the point here is that the very first human beingís
transgression was (naturally?) quintessentially human. Instead of simply
following G-dís directions, he came up with his own calculations. He
thought that he knew better than G-d what was good for him.
Now take a look at this weekís Torah portion, Pekudei (the final parsha in
the Book of Exodus), as it details the construction and erection of the
Tabernacle. Thereís a very strange monotony in the verses: the Torah
concludes nearly every step of the manufacturing process by saying, "Öas
Hashem had commanded Moshe." Over and over again, in what seems to be a
completely unnecessary way, the Torah underscores that the Tabernacle is
being made just "as Hashem had commanded Moshe."
One of the great 19th century Jewish leaders and Biblical commentators,
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (great-grandfather of Rabbi Yosef B.
Soloveitchik, renowned 20th century thinker and Talmudist), in his work,
Beis HaLevi, explains why there is a need for all this repetition. We are
being taught both a very important lesson about the Jewish people in the
aftermath of the catastrophic sin of the Golden Calf (recounted earlier in
the Book of Exodus), as well as a crucial insight into the nature and
value of our own service unto G-d.
How had the construction of the Golden Calf come about? The Jewish people
feared that without Moshe, who they wrongly assumed had died on Mt. Sinai
(due to their miscalculation of the day of his promised descent), they
would not be able to experience G-dís closeness. They went to Aharon,
whose great and deep prophetic wisdom was second only to his younger
brother, and urged him to use his knowledge to construct a structure that
could be the focus of G-dís presence (hashras Shechina) among the Jewish
people. [In this interpretation, though some of the Jewish people--well as
the "mixed multitude" of Egyptians among them--were truly guilty of
idolatry, the great majority were merely seeking in the Golden Calf a
substitute for Moshe, a leader or intermediary who would "channel" G-dís
presence as they believed Moshe had done.]
But here is the rub, according to the Beis HaLevi. The only way we can
bring G-dís presence (shechina) among us, the only true path (in other
words) to holiness, is by carrying out the actions that He (in His wisdom)
commands, not those that our own intellects decree! Even if, say, we were
to utilize our deepest kabbalistic knowledge of the building blocks of
Creation, we could not on our own construct a place (makom) where G-dís
presence could be intensely felt.
And this was the very lesson (and the spiritual rectification) afforded by
the Tabernacle, which was built after the Golden Calf, and whose very
purpose was to bring G-dís presence in the midst of the Jewish people.
"They shall make a Sanctuary for Me, so that I may dwell among them" (25,
8). In Pekudei, the Torah emphasizes that every single step of the
construction of the Tabernacle was carried out, "as Hashem had commanded
Moshe," to inform us that our ancestors had learned the lesson of the
Golden Calf, and corrected their thinking accordingly. It was only by
following G-dís commandments, precisely and "to the T," that the Jewish
people could construct a Tabernacle in which G-d would make His presence
More generally, it is only through following the Torahís commandments (mitzvos),
and not through our own well-meaning, but ill-advised spiritual programs,
that we can bring godliness into our lives.
The immense power of the mitzvos to transform our own lives, and to effect
far-reaching cosmic "rectifications" (as discussed in the Jewish mystical
works), is a direct result of the fact that they are mitzvos--that is,
actions decreed (for our own benefit) by the One of infinite wisdom. We
grow spiritually, and become partners with Hashem in Creation (an
overriding goal of the Torah) when we relate to them precisely as mitzvosÖnot
as "nice traditions," or "lifestyle choices" that conform to our own
self-generated plans, desires or philosophies. Each mitzvah represents the
Will of Hashem, and when we carry it out, precisely and passionately, we
give testimony to His sovereignty. We bring His Shechina to dwell in our
It takes a bit of humility to work on the assumption that maybe G-d knows
whatís better for me spiritually than I do myself. Maybe the Torah itself,
in all its splendid totality, is the path to the greatest human
self-fulfillment, and to the highest levels of holiness on earth. Maybe
the mitzvos as they are (and as they always were) represent the means by
which we can bring G-d into our lives, and achieve the highest
spirituality. Indeed, this is the lesson of Pekudei. The Jewish people
found blessing, and G-dís closeness, when they followed what G-d had
commanded MosheÖand not their own calculations and inclinations.
When we follow the path that "G-d commanded Moshe," and not one that we
dream up--and validate--by ourselves, then we Jewish people are building
an eternal Tabernacle on which G-dís presence will rest. Anything else,
and weíre just dancing around a Golden CalfÖ which may be pretty exciting
for a while, but which never leads to a happy ending.
My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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