The Centrality of Shabbos to Spiritual Growth

Parshat Vayakhel primarily discusses the contribution of the materials used to construct the Mishkan, and the actual construction itself. However, before delving into these matters, the parsha starts off with the command to observe the Shabbos (verses 2 and 3). From the juxtaposition of the laws of Shabbos and the Mishkan, the rabbis learn that the labors required in the construction of the Mishkan are those labors which are prohibited on the Shabbos. Further, from the phrase "ay'leh hadevarim" (35:1), the gemara determines that there are 39 such labors.

What is the significance of the connection between the Mishkan and Shabbos?

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What the Dreams of Yaakov and Pharoah Can Teach Us About Cultivating Spirituality

Continuing an approach we followed last week of identifying the repetitive use of an unusual phrase in two different parts of the Torah and seeking an underlying message, I came across an observation of Rabbi Aharon of Karlin I (b. 1736, d. 1772, a student of the Maggid of Mezritch and founder of the Karlin-Stolin Chassidic dynasty) brought down in the sefer Parperaot L'Torah.

R' Karlin notes that following Yaakov's dream with the angels in which Hashem assures him that his descendants will inherit Eretz Yisroel and of Yaakov's own well-being during his travels outside Eretz Yisroel, the Torah states, "V'yikatz Yaakov mishenato v'yomer achayn yesh Hashem bemakom hazeh - Yaakov awoke from his slumber and said "There is G-d in this place..." (28:16).

Contrast this with the first dream of Pharoah in which he saw seven thin cows devour the seven fat cows. Given that the Egyptians worshipped cows, you'd think this dream would have made a tremendous impression on Pharoah - his "g-d" was eaten! Yet, the Torah records, "V'yikatz Pharoah...v'yishan v'yachalom shenit - Pharoah woke up...then fell asleep and dreamed again... (41:4-5). Yes, after this momentous dream, Pharoah fell asleep - a sleep so deep he had another dream!

Of course, the careful reader will notice that the same word "Vayikatz" is used to describe both Yaakov's and Pharoah's awakening from their dreams. What's the message?

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The Purpose and Psychology Behind Mitzvah Performance

A key symbol of the recently celebrated chag of Sukkos is the arba minim - lulav, hadasim, aravos and esrog. It is well known that, when purchasing arba minim, observant Jews carefully examine the details of the samples offered for sale in the hope of purchasing as beautiful a specimen as possible - i.e., a "mehudar" for each of the minim. In other words, we don't just want "kosher" arba minim; we want the best.

The source of purchasing "mehudar" arba minim is the pasuk "zeh keli v'anveyhu - This is my G-d and I will beautify him." (Shemot, BeShalach 15:2). As the gemara in Shabbos (133b) explains, how does one beautify Hashem? The first opininon (Tanna Kamma) states that one beautifies Hashem through the embellished performance of mitzvot - i.e., making a beautiful sukkah, purchasing beautiful arba minim, a beautiful shofar, etc. That is, instead of being content with performing mitzvos within the letter of the law, we seek to optimize our performance through "hidur mitzvah" - that is, by acquiring the most beautiful specimen we can find (as an aside, in the sefer Iyun B'Lomdus by Rav Yitzchak Adler, pages 20-23, there appear some interesting analyses revolving around the chakira of whether "hidur mitzvah" is deemed part and parcel of the core mitzva, or constitutes its own independent mitzvah separate and apart from the core mitzvah being beautified; various nafka minot are discussed).

What's interesting is that a second opinion is brought down in the gemara concerning the meaning of the pasuk, "Zeh keli v'anveyhu." Abba Shaul states that "V'anveyhu" teaches us to emulate Hashem: "Ma hu rachum v'chanun, af ata rachum v'chanun - Just as Hashem is merciful and compassionate, so too, you [i.e., man] should be merciful and compassionate." (Shabbos 133b). This is how we "beautify" Hashem - by emulating His attributes.

So we have two opinions: the Tanna Kamma say that "zeh keli v'anveyhu" teaches hiddur mitzvah, and Abba Shaul opines that "zeh keli v'anveyhu" teaches emulation of Hashem's attributes of mercy and compassion (i.e., moral excellence).

I wonder - are these two tanaim arguing? Are their opinions mutually exclusive? IMHO, the answer is "No," and instead, based on the teachings of Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, what we may actually have here is a progression; namely, that the stellar performance of mitzvos b'hiddur leads one to moral excellence (i.e., emulation of Hashem's attributes of mercy and compassion). If so, how does that work?

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Serving Hashem Without Expectation of Reward

The third mishnah in the first perek of pirkei avos discusses the optimal attitude one must assume to achieve true yiras Hashem (fear of G-d):

Al tiheyu k'avadim ha'meshamshim es harav al menas l'kabel pras; elah heyu kavadim ha'meshahshim es harav shelo al menas l'kabel, v'ihi morah shamayim aleichem

Be not like servants who serve the master on condition of receiving reward. Rather, be as servants who serve the master without the condition of receiving reward, and fear of Heaven will be upon you.

What seems unclear is why being motivated by reward (and deterred by punishment) should detract from one's yiras Hashem. If one tries to do the right thing (and avoid the wrong things), motivated by a desire to obtain reward (and avoid punishment), why should that person's yiras hashem be less? Indeed, isn't fear of punishment synonymous with yiras Hashem? I try to avoid sin in order to avoid Hashem's wrath, and pursue good in order to obtain Hashem's blessing. What is wrong with that?

Yet, in the fourth chapter of Mesilas Yesharim, we see that reward and punishment is considered the lowest form of motivation for choosing good and avoiding evil (which R' Luzzato refers to as "vigilance" or zehirus). The highest motivation for exercising vigilance in one's actions is the realization that perfection of character is an ideal in and of itself, irrespective of reward.

Insights provided by Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky of Jersualem in a recently taped Tisha B'Av shiur can help shed some light on these issues. Briefly, R' Orlofsky described 3 types of relationships with Hashem by analogy to relationships with other people with which we are all familiar in our daily lives. Since we understand the dynamics of these human relationships so well, the analogy can help us model a relationship with Hashem of the kind described in the mishnah. That is, because we understand which relationships in life give us the most satisfaction and pleasure, we can begin to understand why a relationship with Hashem that is not based on reward will be the most spiritually uplifting.

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The Torah as a Roadmap to Spiritual Growth

For the inaugural post of the Chizuk Shaya blog, I'd like to share an insight from pirkei avos (a/k/a pirkei avot) (note: for those unfamiliar, pirkei avos (Hebrew: פרקי אבות‎) (literally, Chapters of the Fathers) is a compilation of the ethical teachings and maxims of various Talmudic sages divided into six chapters traditionally studied each Shabbos during the summer months).

Before studying a chapter of Pirkei Avos, it is customary to read from an introductory mishnah from Sanhedrin as follows: "kol yisrael yesh lahem chelek b'olam haba, sh'nemar, "v'amech kulam tzadikim, l'olam yirshu ha'aretz; netzer matai, ma'aseh yadai l'hitpaer." (transl: "Every member of Israel has a portion in the world-to-come, as it states (in Isaiah 60:21), "Your people are all righteous, they shall inherit the land forever; they are the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, so that I may be glorified.").

The mishnah is saying that all Jews have a share in olam haba (i.e., world-to-come) based on a pasuk (i.e., verse) that states that all Jews are righteous. But is it true that we are all righteous? Are we all tzadikkim? The reality is that everyone has their flaws and areas of weakness - both in areas of b'ein adam l'makom and b'ein adam la'chaveiro - and it is the very rare individual who can truly be described as a tzaddik. So how is it that the pasuk can state that all Jews are tzaddikim?

By the same token, the mishnah also seems to be giving every Jew a "free pass." Simply by virtue of one's Jewishness, one obtains a share in olam haba. What happened to all the hard work and striving required to achieve piety, as outlined in such sefarim as mesilas yesharim? Seems to good to be true.

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