The Measure of Man
Adapted from Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
Written by: Braha Bender
Enthusiasm in the wrong can destroy, but it was enthusiasm that built the Mishkan. When Moshe (Moses) commanded the nation to donate the finest of their possessions towards the construction of the penultimate sanctuary for the worship of the Almighty, not only did the Jewish People acquiesce, but their donations flowed with enthusiasm straight from their heart.
The Torah depicts the high point of the campaign: “Moshe commanded that they proclaim throughout the camp, saying, ‘Man and woman shall do no more work toward the gift for the sanctuary!’ And the people were restrained from bringing. But the work had been enough for all the work, to do it - and there was extra.” (Exodus 36:6-7 LISTED INCORRECTLY IN THE HEBREW AS 5-7 RATHER THAN 6-7)
“And there was extra…” These words complete the description of the Mishkan donation campaign, but more importantly, provide eloquent testimony to the greatness of Israel’s spirit at that hour. We can see in our mind’s eye the many men and women carried on wings of enthusiasm and purity as they rushed to donate everything that they could towards their service of the Almighty. The campaign had come to define them in that moment, expressing their sincere willingness, heartfelt generosity, and elevated spirits.
But the Torah reveals that in commanding them to donate towards the building of the Mishkan, Moshe had another goal. The sin of the golden calf had taken place only months prior. Every nuance of Moshe’s guidance to the nation in building the Mishkan was oriented towards an opposite, parallel experience to that of the sin of the golden calf.
For example, Moshe began the Mishkan building campaign by gathering the Jews around him. Months ago, the nation had gathered around Aharon (Aaron) towards the building the golden calf. Even Moshe’s usage of words paralleled the recent sin. His expression, “These are the things…” (Exodus 35:1) was the self-same expression that had used for entirely different purposes only a short time before.
Why did Moshe seek to parallel the behaviors that had been used for sin? Moshe was teaching a lesson not only to that generation, but to ours.
Atoning for an act of evil can not end with apology alone, but must also include an equal, parallel act in the same arena for the good. Although regret is important, no emotion can completely erase the impression sin leaves on the heart. Cruel behavior, for example, is destructive not only in the damage it wreaks on society, but in the vein of cruelty and callousness it leaves imprinted in the sinner’s inner being.
By sinning, the trajectory of an individual’s character is altered ever so slightly towards evil, a direction which will influence both choices and behavior far into the future. Words alone can not erase this. It is only by reaching outside of himself in an act of compassion that the sinner can entirely uproot the grisly knots of evil from furrowing deeper into his heart. It is only through making himself into a different person by his actions that the sinner can return to his forsaken purity. This principle is expressed in the Torah’s guidance to us time and again.
As the guiding figure of the Jewish People, Moshe found himself confronted with a nation sullied by their involvement in the ugly sin of the golden calf. His actions paralleling those that had constituted the sin were intentional. Moshe knew that only in repeating the same behaviors that had constituted their sin towards an act of holiness would the sin and all associated with it be entirely uprooted from their hearts. The primary element characterizing the sin of the golden calf had been the Jewish People’s enthusiasm. Moshe’s wise guidance drove the Jewish People back into a state of enthusiasm, but this time, their enthusiasm was for the most beautiful of purposes rather than for a tragic and terrible mistake.
After all, one of the most accurate measures by which a man may be judged is by that for which he shows enthusiasm. A window into the innermost ambitions secreted away from the public eye, the ready limb and the flushed cheek can speak volumes more than allegiance expressed by words alone. Truthfully, enormous sums of money may be contributed to a project with no generosity whatsoever. While social pressure may exert an influence, or the craving for honor may move the hand signing the check, or any other of a plethora of potential selfish agendas may be at play, it is the enthusiasm behind the contribution that often signifies whether the giver is genuinely identified with the cause or not.
Our enthusiasm transports us and defines us. The fervor of the Jewish People’s destructive impulses in the sin of the golden calf had found its match in their enthusiasm for the building of the Mishkan. Though atonement had been granted prior, now their purity had been reclaimed in completion. The Jewish People were restored to spiritual wholeness once again.