March 2, 2000
An Attitude Problem
Parashat Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1-38:20)
"Jewish man seeks partner who will attend shul with him, light Shabbat candles, celebrate holidays, build sukkah together, and go with him to brit milah and bar mitzvah celebrations. Religion not important."
The absurdity, of course, makes us laugh, but the humorous story actually emphasizes an important message contained in this week's portion. The Torah underscores that not only is religion itself important, but our attitudes about it are crucial.
The Torah records how all the materials were obtained for building the mishkan, the Tabernacle in the wilderness. Included in this listing:
"The Princes brought the onyx stones, and the stones to be set for the ephod, and for the breastplate" (Exodus 35.-27).
The classic medieval Jewish commentary on the Torah, Rashi, asks why the spelling of the Hebrew word for Princes in this verse is defective, missing the two Yuds. Although it is true that the regular plural form of the Hebrew word for Princes appears in a variety of spellings, some omitting the first Yud while others omitting the second, never are both Yuds deleted.
Rashi, quoting the Midrash, comments that this occurs here as a type of chastisement from God for these leaders did the following:
"But the Princes had said: Let the public contribute whatever they contribute, and what they leave wanting we will complete. Since the public completed everything that was needed, as it says, 'And the work was sufficient for them' the Princes said, 'What is there left for us to do?' Therefore as the verse states, 'They brought the onyx stones etc...', which were the only items not yet contributed. And because they lagged at the outset of the construction, a letter was deleted from their name."
What a powerful lesson this Midrash teaches. The Princes wanted to donate an impressive gift to the Tabernacle. They only made one mistake. They weren't at the front lines when the call went forth for help. They acted like men who, when a need has to be met, respond, "I will wait and see what others do." This itself deserved reproach, and God subtly made His feelings known through the defective spelling.
Later, the Midrash informs us, the Princes learned their lesson. When it came time to inaugurate the altar, as recorded in Numbers (7:1-2), they were the first to contribute, not wanting to repeat their error a second time.
However, in this week's Torah portion, the Princes showed by their actions that they lacked heart and spirit, and they were devoid of leadership. Not only did they have the wrong attitude, they did not realize the difference that attitude makes in Judaism. The Torah tells us that all of the other Jews responded quickly, and were therefore called "wise hearted." God appreciated the modest but timely gifts of ordinary men and women more than He appreciated the precious stones of the Princes, which were given too late. In other words, attitude isn't something; it is everything.
Elazer Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.