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Parashat Terumah 5774 — 01/29/2014

Parashat Terumah 5774 — 01/29/2014

Make a Table out of acacia wood. (Shemos 25:23)

Make a Menorah out of pure gold. (Shemos 25:31)

Our Sages teach that the Table is positioned on the north side [of the Mishkan] while the Menorah is on the south (Menachos 86a). Now, we find in Koheles (1:6): [The ruach (wind/spirit)] goes toward the south and turns toward the north, turning and turning the ruach goes; and [on account of] its turnings, the ruach returns. 

   The [position of the vessels in the Mishkan] hints to the fact that a man’s purpose is to “go toward the south” – toward the Menorah, which represents Torah, as our Sages teach: He who wants to become wise should face south. Thus, the concept of going to the south means learning Torah and fulfilling the mitzvos. Still, when you ask a man, “Why do you rush out of shul immediately after Shacharis prayers rather than remain there and learn Torah for an hour or two?” he will explain that he is merely, “turn[ing] toward the north,” That is, “I am not going north; I’m merely turning north.” In other words, “I am forced to devote a little time to making a livelihood in order to put food on the table for myself and my household.

   But what happens? The verse continues, turning and turning. The person becomes so preoccupied with that slight “turning” to the north until, the ruach goes – his soul departs from this world. The verse laments, and on account of his turnings – because he had become overly involved with that slight turn to the north, the ruach returns – the person is sent back to this world to correct the wrongs he committed during his lifetime.  (Chofetz Chaim)

The Jewish people left Egypt with “great wealth” as Gd had promised Avraham.  In Parashat Ki Tisa, that wealth is misued in the incident of the Golden Calf.  In our portion, Gd instructs us to use that wealth for a more positive purpose: to build a Sanctuary so that Gd might dwell amongst us.  As our quote from the Chafetz Chaim indicates, our portion deals with the relationship between the material and the spiritual, and our place in that relationship.

There is a tradition that if one faces slightly to the south when praying it brings us wisdom, while if we face slightly north it brings us wealth.  We actually face towards Israel when we pray, which in the west means we’re facing east.  In Israel we face towards Jerusalem, in Jerusalem we face the Temple Mount.  In the West when we show the directions, North is on top and East is to the right.  In the Jewish way of describing the world, East is on top, so South, wisdom, is to the right (which is considered the favored hand, as it is for 90% of the population), and North, or wealth, is to the left.

This little excursus on the compass points should give us an idea of the relative values Jewish tradition places on wisdom and wealth.  Wealth is fine, but it is secondary to wisdom.  In fact we find that wealth is a tremendous challenge, and one that many are ill-equipped to handle.  How many lottery winners do we see making good use of their new-found fortune?  How many do we see frittering their money away and winding up worse than they started after a few years?  Wealth has the potential to give us a false sense of self-sufficiency and control (see: Pharoah) and can lead us to separate ourselves from Gd (Yeshurun became fat and kicked, Devarim 32:15).  On the other hand, wealth can be a source of tremendous merit for us, if it is used properly, to enhance the life of individuals and the community.  Wealth brings power, and, as with any source of power, the results for those who wield that power depend on the purposes for which they wield it.

Wisdom, on the other hand, seems not to have such a downside.  We should not make the mistake of conflating wisdom and knowledge.  Knowledge is bounded, and like wealth can be used for good or otherwise.  Knowledge of nuclear energy is an obvious case in point.  Wisdom is something much deeper than mere knowledge.  Knowledge is something separate from the knower – we know some object, but we and the object are two separate things, linked by our knowledge.  Wisdom is something that we are – it is our intimate connection with our infinite source.  Since the basis of our individuality is universal, it is also the basis of all other individualities.  When we experience our own source then, we are experiencing, we are identifying with, the basis of all other aspects of the universe as well.  This universal perspective is wisdom.  And this wisdom is not discursive in the same way that knowledge is; rather it is lived as a direct experience.

I think from this we can understand that wisdom deals with ultimate, core issues – who we are and why we are here, while wealth is merely a modality for achieving wisdom.  In this way our passage reflects the essential/peripheral duality of the spiritual world within us and the material world “outside” us.  The question before us at every moment of our lives, is which way shall we turn,  right or left, south or north, towards the fundamental or towards the peripheral?

It would seem obvious that we should prioritize our spiritual development.  I think everyone understands this, intellectually at least, but nevertheless, in practice, we all find it terribly difficult.  In the Chafetz Chaim’s words, we start out turning a little bit to the north, to take care of our legitimate physical needs, and find ourselves drawn further and further into a quicksand pit of material desire, until our entire focus is on meeting our physical “needs,” and somehow there is no time or energy left for our own inner self.  Why does this happen?

It appears that the mechanism behind this is built into the nature of our mission as human beings.  Our inner self is subtle, ethereal, hard to grasp.  Our body, by contrast, is concrete and tangible, and feels pleasure very intensely.  It also feels pain and lack very intensely.  It takes a great deal of training and self-discipline before we get more pleasure out of learning a page of Talmud than gossiping with friends over a hot fudge sundae.  In fact, the purpose of leading one’s life according to the plan laid out by our Torah is precisely to provide this training and self-discipline.  With it, we can fulfill our mission, to infuse our spiritual essence, which is infinite, into the finite world.

I am writing this during the week of Parashat Vayishlach.  In this portion Ya’akov has a reunion of sorts with his twin brother Esav after having lived with Lavan for 20 years.  Esav, who represents the material world, at first declines Ya’akov’s gifts, saying, “I have a lot!”  Ya’akov replies, “I have everything.”  Ya’akov, the ish tam / simple, straightforward man, represents the integration of the infinite inner core of life into the outer aspect of life.  His reply is that of a person grounded in the infinite, who can never lack anything in the finite.  Esav focused on the external, subsidiary aspect of life, and achieved some success.  Ya’akov focused on the inner core of life, and achieved the ultimate success.  We who are Ya’akov’s descendants should be asking ourselves how we can grow so that our lives can begin to measure up to his.

 Shemoneh Esrei

Be favorable Hashem our Gd to Your people Israel and to their prayers

And return the Divine Service to Your holy Temple,

And receive with love and favor the fire-offerings and the prayers of Israel

And may the Divine Service of Israel Your people ever be acceptable to You.

<Ya’aleh v’yavo is inserted here at the appropriate times>

And may our eyes behold Your return to Zion in mercy.

Blessed are You, Who returns His Divine Presence to Zion.

We are now entering into the last three b’rachot of Shemonei Esrei, which are the same for all prayers during the year.  (On Rosh Chodesh and Chol haMoed [new moon and intermediate days of Pesach and Sukkot] the prayer Ya’aleh v’yavo is added, which, like the brachah itself, asks Gd to accept our Service on these special days.)  These three b’rachot are all classified as b’rachot of thanksgiving, where we thank Gd for all the goodness He has showered on us, in the past, and hopefully in the future as well.  It’s obvious how the second of these three (Modim anachnu lach / We gratefully thank You) expresses thanksgiving, but this first and the third (Sim Shalom / Grant peace) appear to be supplications, albeit for spiritual blessings rather than material ones.  Since I don’t really have an answer to this question I’ll leave it as an “exercise for the reader.”

Ya’aros D’vash writes:

Pray for the restoration of the Divine service to the Beit haMikdash.  The Creator of the universe derives pleasure from the offerings, which brings a satisfying aroma to Hashem, yet they are missing!  How can we rest and relax when our precious treasure has been captured? …

When reciting the phrase, May our eyes behold when Your return joyously to Zion, bear in mind that one will not see the splendor of this miracle unless he is personally worthy; one cannot rely on the merit of his ancestors for this…

R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (d. 1993) trained several generations of Orthodox Rabbis in the US.  He is reputed to have commented about a particular Orthodox community that it was a very good community, but the people seemed to have forgotten that they are in exile.  We are blessed to live in a country where we can live openly as Jews without fear, and where we can participate in the economic life of society and prosper.  (We are also blessed that we have been able to return to the Land of Israel and establish a state there, with somewhat more than half the Jewish people living there.)  It can be a very comfortable existence.  Perhaps too comfortable.  What Ya’aros D’vash is telling us is that with no Temple and no Land (in his day), we cannot allow ourselves to feel too much at home anywhere.  In truth, no human being is truly “at home” in the material world.  We are all primarily souls, as we saw in our discussion above, and as such, we are only temporarily operating in the “exile” of this world, until we complete our assignment and can return “home.”  As a people, our assignment is to be a “light unto the nations,” living in an ideal society in our own Land, serving Gd both in the Temple and in every aspect of our daily lives.  It is vital for our life as individuals and for our collective life as a people, that we never forget that we still have much to do and far to go to fulfill this mission, and that we pray for Gd’s help so that we may be successful.  For our sake and for His!