Standing the Test of Time: The Lessons of the Mishkan
Parshat Pekudei begins by naming the individuals involved in constructing the mishkan (38:21). On this pasuk, the commentator Seforno remarks that in constrast to the two batei mikdash, which were conquered and destroyed by our enemies, the mishkan was never conquered and destroyed. Seforno claims the reason is that the shechinah of Hashem rested more securely within the mishkan than within the first Beit Hamikdash, and did not rest at all within the second Beit Hamikdash (see Yoma 9b and 21b). What was so special about the construction of the mishkan that it merited to never be destroyed and what lessons can we learn?
Seforno makes two observations. First, Seforno observes that construction of the mishkan was led by the most righteous leaders of the generation (Moshe, Betazlel, etc.), and that the laborers involved were none other than the holy Levi’im – under the direction of Itamar – Aharon’s son (yes, the levi'im got their hands “dirty” with physical labor).
In contrast, as recounted in sefer Melachim Alef, the labor force that constructed the first Beis Hamikdash was comprised in major part of architects and workmen contributed by the Phoenician king, Hiram, of Tzur (Tyre). Similarly, as described in sefer Ezra, foreign laborers were also heavily involved in constructing the second Beit Hamikdash.
The idea here is echoed by a Meshech Chochma on Bereshit 4:3, which states that Hashem rejected Kayin’s offering because it consisted of fruit, which grows to completion through natural forces without man’s intervention. Whereas Hevel made an offering from sheep, which he first had to raise and nurture from birth. The message is that Hashem values personal exertion and effort in one's avodas Hashem. To illustrate the point, Meshech Chochma cites two examples in halacha. On the one hand, the Torah prohibits the sacrifice of a "Mechusar Zeman" – an animal that it is less than eight days old -- because its birth was the result of a natural process, and it has never been raised by man. On the other hand, the Torah requires that the "korban mincha" (meal offering) be comprised of a mixture created by man consisting of flour, oil and other ingredients.
The Meshech Chochma's point that exertion is valued by Hashem can help shed light on an interesting gemara in Rosh Hashana 16a where the following questions are asked:
"Why did the Torah command us to bring the omer offering (consisting of barley) on Pesach?" The reason given is that Pesach is a time of judgment for produce, and therefore Hashem commanded us to bring an offering of barley so that the produce in the field will be blessed.
The gemara then asks: "Why did the Torah command us to bring an offering of two loaves ("shetei halechem") on Shavuos?" The answer given: "Because Shavuos is a time of judgment for the fruit on the trees, Hashem commanded us to bring the shetei halechem so that the fruits on the tree will be blessed."
An inconsistency is apparent. While it makes sense to bring an offering of produce (barley) to effectuate a blessing on produce in the fields, since bread loaves are not fruit, how can an offering of bread loaves cause the fruit on the trees to be blessed?"
One answer given is that prior to Adam's sin, when man was in a state of spiritual perfection, bread actually grew on trees. In fact, there is an opinion that the eitz ha'da'at from which Adam and Chava ate was a wheat tree (Sanhedrin 70b). It was only after Adam's sin that Hashem decreed the bread would no longer grow on trees as a ready-to-eat product, but rather man would have to work to produce bread from grain. However, on Shavuos, which celebrates ameilus ba'Torah (we stay up all night learning), our exertions in Torah raise us to a level of perfection that provides us with a license to view "bread" as "fruit." Symbolically, our exertions in Torah restore us to the state of Adam before his sin.
What we see again is that man elevates himself, and cleanses himself of sin, through exertion until at some point the extent of the effort exerted restores man to a spiritual state of perfection. Just like bread is only produced from grain with exertion, so too Torah can only be mastered, and spiritual perfection can only be achieved, with effort.
Broadly, the message emerging is that contributions dedicated to Hashem are most beloved to Him when they are the result of personal exertion and effort. Perhaps because it is so easy to contribute something that was produced without exertion, the contribution does not reflect a sense of devotion. That is, it's easy to part with something in which we didn't invest time and effort. In contrast, when our contribution requires exertion, we signal devotion towards Hashem since the effort involved sacrifice on our part.
A second observation of Seforno concerning the Mishkan is that the value of the precious metals contributed to its construction was far less than the quantity of gold used in the construction of the two batei mikdash. Yet, the mishkan was never destroyed, while the two batei mikdash fell into enemy hands. The message says Seforno is that wealth and splendor do not impress Hashem, and thus do not attract the shechina. Instead, the hallmark of the mishkan was the righteousness of the individuals involved in its construction (as demonstrated by their strict accounting of the quantities of gold, silver and copper used), and righteousness is the magnet that draws Hashem’s protection.
Perhaps the reason for the distinction is that all wealth belongs to Hashem and thus when we undertake lavish projects that communicate wealth, while the intent may be noble, we are ultimately dedicating to Hashem what He gave us to begin with. There is no exertion. On other hand, we know that "hakol b'yedei shamayim chutz mi'yirat shamayim" -- righteousness is a choice we make. Thus, the choice to be righteous - coming from man's free will - and requiring effort - is something beloved to Hashem. Thus, Seforno's two points are, in fact, related.
These are thoughts that are important to keep in mind when we undertake communal efforts that we hope will stand the test of time. As but one example, to the extent the construction of a new shul might draw away funds from other worthy community causes that provide assistance to those in financial distress, it might be better (especially during these trying economic times) for the construction to be less lavish in order to preserve funding for less visible, but perhaps more critical services that assist the less fortunate. While giving charity often does not leave any visible mark to show for our efforts (since the money is gone), whereas lavish construction leaves a highly conspicuous structure, we ultimately need to consider what Hashem values most, and according to Seforno, the duration of the Mishkan provides us with an answer. Of course, it also goes without saying that any communal effort must be marked by a strict adherence to ethics and the highest moral values.
In sum, the factors that contributed to the eternity of the mishkan, as identified by Seforno (and echoed in part by the Meshech Chochma), provide us with a blueprint for the "ingredients" we need to focus on when undertaking communal causes, and indeed, even when building relationships such as marriages, that we hope will stand the test of time. “Im Hashem lo yivneh bayit, shav omlav bonav bo.” Understand what Hashem values - sincere exertion and effort, and honesty and integrity - and make that your focus.