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Parashat Vayakhel 5774 — 02/19/2014

Parashat Vayakhel 5774 — 02/19/2014

The leaders brought the onyx stones… (Shemos 35:27)

Rashi cites the [elaboration of the] midrash: Rabbi Nosson asked, “Why did the leaders of the tribes later see fit to contribute to the dedication of the Mizbei’ach [Altar] first, whereas (here), for the construction of the Mishkan [Tabernacle], they were not the first to contribute?” He answered, “The leaders thought [regarding the dedication of the Mishkan], Iet the community contribute whatever it will, and we will supply whatever is lacking.’ However, when [they saw that] everything needed for the Mishkan had been contributed by the community, the leaders said, ‘What is left for us to do?’ [Under these circumstancesj the leaders brought the onyx stones.

   For this reason, they contributed to the Mizbeiach dedication first. But since they were somewhat lax initially [regarding the Mishkan], a letter is missing from their title. Instead of calling them nesi’im (with two yod’s), the Torah calls them nesiim (with just one yod).”  (Chafetz Chaim)

R. Pinchas ben Ya’ir says:

Alacrity brings to cleanliness; Cleanliness brings to purity; Purity brings to abstention; Abstention brings to holiness; Holiness brings to humility; Humility brings to fear of sin; Fear of sin brings to saintliness (chasidut); Saintliness brings to Divine inspiration (ruach hakodesh); Divine inspiration brings to the resurrection of the dead; and the resurrection of the dead will be brought about by Elijah, who is remembered for good.  Amen.  (Baraita of R. Pinchas ben Ya’ir, cited in Avodah Zarah 20b.  Translation by Artscroll)

The Chafetz Chaim’s comment is based on a famous Midrash, which itself turns on an orthographic oddity of the Torah text.  In reporting the tribal leaders’ contribution of the onyx stones, the word “princes” (nesi’im) is spelled without either of the two yod‘s it has if spelled out fully.  (The quote says that one of the two yod’s is missing, but my texts all have both yod‘s gone; I think the reason for this apparent discrepancy is that in Parashat Naso the word is spelled with one yod.)

In general, the addition or elision of letters from a name is interpreted as reward or punishment for some action.  Thus, when Ephron the Hittite finally names Avraham an extortionate price for the field and cave of Machpelah, Torah removes the vav from his name.  By contrast, both Avraham and Sarah are given “lifetime achievement awards” consisting of an extra heh in their names.  Those cases of course are actual name changes, whereas the nesi’im and Ephron keep their names, albeit with a reduced spelling.

We have discussed in previous drashes that the Hebrew language mirrors the structure of reality.  Physics tells us that all we see around us is, at its basis, the modes of vibration of underlying fields.  Somehow the sound structure of Hebrew mirrors this vibratory structure, or perhaps a deeper vibratory structure on a level that is beyond physical reality.  I would hazard a guess that the shapes and patterns of the written Hebrew letters also, in some way, mimics or reflects this underlying structure.  If this is true, then the the fact that the nesi’im lost their yod‘s (and Ephron his vav) reflects an actual diminution in their stature due to some incorrect behavior.  In Ephron’s case the catalyst was greed.  The vav has a numerical value of 6, the number of “ordinary” days of the week, and therefore represents the outer, material world.  Ephron was concerned with greedily grabbing as much material wealth as he could, but on a subtle level, in some way, he lost the basis of that wealth.

In the case of the nesi’im, our Sages tell us the catalyst was a lack of alacrity (try saying that 10 times fast…).  These wealthy men had the very fine idea of acting as “guarantors” of the Mishkan project, standing ready to supply whatever would be missing from the community’s donations.  In this way they showed a lack of faith in the Jewish people, much as Moshe Rabbeinu had showed a lack of faith in the Jewish people when Gd was trying to convince him to accept the mission to take us out of Egypt.  Moshe objected, saying, “They won’t believe me.”  Gd struck him with tzara’at, a type of skin lesion that our Sages associate with improper speech.  Moshe Rabbeinu is quickly healed.  The nesi’im, on the other hand, have to earn their yod’s back by being first in line when it comes to the dedication of the Altar (in Parashat Naso, the second parashah in Bamidbar/Number).

Alacrity (zerizut) is the quality of seizing opportunities.  In our context, it refers to seizing the opportunity to serve Gd through performance of the mitzvot we have been given, either as regular mitzvot from Torah, or as ad hoc opportunities, such as the opportunity to build the Mishkan.  Alacrity is also identified by R. Pinchas ben Ya’ir (2nd century) as the very basis of the path of spiritual development.

Now the Baraita of R. Pinchas ben Ya’ir (quoted above) is the basis for the great R. Moshe Chaim Luzzato’s (1707-1746) Mesillat Yesharim (The Path of the Upright), so I will not have the temerity to try to expound upon it.  However it is easy to see how basic this trait of alacrity must be.  Its opposite is laziness.  If we are too lazy to get up and make our spiritual development a priority, how can we expect to make any progress in this area?  (The same is true, of course, for material pursuits.)

In terms of the Baraita, if we are lazy we will not come to cleanliness.  Now anyone who has ever tried to stay on a program of self-improvement, be it a diet or an exercise program, or a 12-step program to combat some addiction, or just trying to change a bad habit, knows that it is hard work, and one which often does not promise immediate rewards.  The lazy person will not put in the required time and effort, nor will he have the perseverence to see it through, and hence he will never “clean up his act,” and be able to move to higher levels.

The nesi’im were fortunate enough to recognize their problem, and to have the opportunity to correct it.  Perhaps Gd hinted to them by removing the two yod’s from their title.  Our esoteric tradition tells us that the earth was created with the letter heh, while the heavens were created with the letter yod.  Perhaps by removing specifically the yod’s from their title, Gd was hinting to the nesi’im that they were letting slip away the opportunity to ascend the ladder of spirituality, which has “it’s top in heaven.”  Another idea: the double-yod is the abbreviation often used for Gd’s Name.  (I believe it comes from the Aramaic actually, and nowadays it appears to have become more the norm to use either H” [for Hashem] or dalet (the 4th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, alluding to the 4-letter Name.)  Perhaps Gd was hinting that coming close to Him is the work of a lifetime, and if one doesn’t get off his duff and get started, his efforts will not succeed.

We are all physical creatures.  When we are stationary, it takes force to get us moving, as it does any mass (Newton’s law of inertia).  When we are already in motion, the same law of inertia tells us that we will continue moving – now it takes a force to stop us.  The lesson here, as taught by the nesi’im, by R. Pinchas ben Ya’ir,  by the Chafetz Chaim is, exert that initial force and get moving!  Heaven helps those who help themselves!

Shemoneh Esrei

Grant peace, goodness and blessing, grace and lovingkindness and mercy

To us and to all Your people Israel.

Bless us all, Father, as one, by the light of Your Countenance,

For by the light of Your Countenance You have granted us Hashem our Gd

A Torah of life, and love of kindness, and righteousness and blessing and mercy and life and Peace.

And may it be good in Your Eyes to bless Your people Israel at all times and at every hour with Your peace.

Blessed are You Hashem, Who blesses His people, Israel, with peace.

(Said during the morning and musaf services, and in the afternoon service on public fast days)


Grant abundant peace to Israel Your people forever

For You are the King the Lord of all peace.

And may it be good in Your Eyes to bless Your people Israel at all times and at every hour with Your peace.

Blessed are You Hashem, Who blesses His people, Israel, with peace.

(Said during the afternoon and evening services, except as above).

The Shemoneh Esrei ends by asking Gd to grant us peace.  Actually, shalom conveys the connotation of wholeness more than simply peace.  We think of peace in terms of peace and quiet, comfort, a lack of disturbance.  Generally, we’re most at peace when we’re in deep sleep.  Wholeness is something much greater than that of course.  Wholeness is a characteristic of Gd, Who is completely unique and self-sufficient, infinite, silent, unmoving and yet also infinitely dynamic.  Real shalom, real wholeness, is an integrated state where even opposite values like silence and activity, restfulness and dynamism, coexist and complement one another.  The daily Shemoneh Esrei consists of numerous prayers for all our daily needs – livelihood, health, knowledge, forgiveness.  This last b’rachah sums everything up – we ask Gd to give us not only all the things we have asked for, but to give them to us in an integrated fashion.  We are asking Gd for nothing less than to be able to live life on the highest plane of human existence, a completely integrated personality, as at home in the infinite as we are in the finite.  From our mouths to Gd’s ears!