To connect people with different visions of life
Thoughts on Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei
Shabbat has come – our most precious day of the week. Along with Her, we receive the two ministering angels (malachei hasharet) familiarized in the song Shalom Aleichem. We know from Hassidic tradition that one of the angels is a “good” angel and the other one “bad”. Malachei hasharet represents the opportunity of Shabbat: we can reach the heavens on this precious day or we can neglect it completely and not celebrate Shabbat. Shabbat is a celebration, both to honor God’s day of rest after the creation of our universe and a weekly reminder of our delivery from slavery. Albert Einstein said, “freedom, in any case, is only possible by constantly struggling for it.” Yes, the struggle to relax, break free from day to day commitments and celebrate Shabbat is our freedom. The life of a Jew that neglects Shabbat is a life that leads him back to Egypt. As with all freedom if we do not cultivate it then we can lose it.
Studying Talmud I found illustrations of our two angels a different context:
Ilfa and Rabbi Yochanan studied Torah together and they became very hard-pressed for money. They said: Let us get up and go and engage in business, and we will fulfill, with regard to ourselves, the verse: “There shall be no needy among you”. (Deuteronomy 15:4). They went and sat under a dilapidated wall and were eating bread, when two ministering angels – malachei hashareit – arrived. Rabbi Yochanan heard one angel saying to the other: Let us knock this wall down upon them and kill them, as they abandon eternal life (i.e. of Torah study) and engage in temporal life (for their own sustenance). The other angel said to him: Leave them, as there is one of them whose great time has yet to come. […] Rabbi Yochanan said to Ilfa: Did the Master hear anything? Ilfa said to him: No. Rabbi Yochanan said to himself: Since I heard the angels and Ilfa did not hear, I can learn from this that it is I whose time of achievement stands before me. Rabbi Yochanan said to Ilfa: I will return home and fulfill with regard to myself the contrary verse: “For the poor shall never cease out of the land” (Deuteronomy 15:11). Rabbi Yochanan returned to the study hall, and Ilfa did not return, but went to engage in business instead. By the time that Ilfa came back from his business travels, Rabbi Yochanan had been appointed head of the academy, and his financial situation had improved.
In this week’s Torah we have Betzalel, a very young and incredibly talented man who was appointed to design everything needed for the Mishkan. The Torah speaks that:
[God] has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft and has inspired him to make designs for work in gold, silver, and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood – to work in every kind of designer’s craft and to give directions. (Ex 35:31-34)
Now, follow me while I connect these two stories.
Batzelel was the grandson of Hur. According to the Midrash, the Israelites came first to Hur to make the golden calf – BEFORE Aaron. Hur rebuked them and refused to help, so they murdered him. Hur’s uncle, Aaron, witnessed this and is said to have thought, “If I don’t help them they will kill me, too. Hur was God’s prophet and I am God’s priest. If they murder the prophet and the priest their sin will be unforgivable.” He therefore decided to help them, to minimize their sin. (Vayikra Rabba 10:3)
Do you see what these two stories have in common? How about the two characters – Hur and Rabbi Yohannan? They were both devoted to the Torah and they made their sacrifices for the Torah. Hur paid the highest price, with his life. Rabbi Yohanan followed his rabbinc calling, even though the economic reality of time was very difficult. They both were rewarded; Rabbi Yohana was appointed the head of academy and became Rosh Yeshiva. Hur was rewarded posthumously through his grandson, Betzalel, who was given the honor of designing the dwelling place for the Holy One.
But let’s go back to the Torah verses from our Talmudic story. The verses:
There shall be no needy among you […]
For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land […]
refer to the two ends of the social spectrum, the two ends of it that should be connected and never detached from each other. Both, socially – people should understand the needs and dreams of others and psychologically – within ourselves we need to find necessary balance and not fall for the extremes. There will always be people who will, even recklessly risking their life, choose their paramount values above everything else or simply follow what they believe no matter what. And there will always be people who will sacrifice everything they believe on the altar of temporariness and usefulness. What we need is to make these ends come a bit closer to each other, or at least to establish good communication and possibility of cooperation between them. If this works properly, the need for sacrifices, especially the painful ones, is much decreased, and nobody has to pay the highest price because some other people are just impatient and need to have what they want immediately, no matter what, like the Israelities wanting the god-like figure to show off before other peoples.
Rabbi Yochanan became the head of the academy and earned eternal life on the pages of Talmud. We don’t know much about Ilfa’s success in business but we know that his teachings are also found in Talmud, both Bavli and Yerushalmi. We even find Rabbi Yochanan quoting his teachings.
Ilfa and Rabbi Johanan, before their ways departed, once studied Torah together and shared a meal with each other under the dilapidated wall. That is something many of us have experienced at some point in our life. And these are moments worth remembering because it brings us all closer, even our life paths distanced us from each other.