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The Systems of the Jewish Year

What Went Wrong at Sinai?

By Rabbi Yaacov Haber

In today’s parsha we read the details of the construction of the “mishkan”, the portable Temple (Tabernacle).

Of course, every part of the Tabernacle has its special symbolism and its special significance, to which we cannot even begin to do justice in one short drosha.

However there is one approach I recently read, that of the Ramban, who compares the different components of the Tabernacle with the different components of the Revelation at Mount Sinai. What is the point of such a comparison? The Ramban explains it by stating that the ceremonial of the Tabernacle would serve to bring back the experience of the Revelation at Sinai long after the event.

In this connection, Rabbi Yonasan Eybschutz asks the question: Since the revelation at Sinai was, by its nature, such a unique event, how could we hope (or why should we wish) to duplicate it? His answer is remarkable. It is that the acceptance of the Torah by the Jews at Sinai was not total, and so complete acceptance was required later by means of the service in the Tabernacle. He supports this by quoting a Midrash, according to which G-d was so annoyed with with the Israelites for the sin of the Golden Calf that He said to them: “You seduced me into giving you the Torah!” The Israelites had pretended they were ready to accept the Torah, saying “Naaseh ve-nishma” ("First we will do what the Torah tells us, then afterwards we will try to understand it"). But when the first opportunity presented itself for backsliding, that is what they did—with the Golden Calf.

What went wrong at Sinai?

According to R’ Yonasan Eybschutz, the Israelites had everything handed to them on a platter. They did not have to work for it. Hence they took it less seriously. So now G-d said: “From now on, no more free open air performances! You will have to work for your divine service. Each of you will have to make a contribution, and not a fixed tax either—it must be from the heart” (Exod. 25:2).

There is a lesson to be learned here. People often ask: “What can I get out of such-and-such a mitzva?” This question is understandable, in view of the spirit of the age: “What’s in it for me?”—even where the payoff is spiritual.

The answer is clear: you can get out of a mitzva only what you put into it. This is especially clear with mitzvos such as the blessing over a tallis, which one can perform only if it is one’s own—and preferably if one has bought it!

Similarly with the mitzva of the esrog on Succos.

This situation is most striking in the case of a congregation. Suppose, in a small town somewhere, a group of ten Jewish men organize a weekly minyan, meeting each Shabbos in a different member’s living room. Now there is no doubt that this is a beautiful concept. Yet as a long term solution there is something missing. That something is a building dedicated to prayer, a shul (synagogue). And a shul will only prosper to the extent that each member contributes to it—not just annual dues, but something more, a personal commitment to the shul’s welfare. In the commentaries on Shulchan Aruch (Yora Deya) there is even a doubt expressed whether one can pray permanently in a shul which the community rents but does not own.

This expresses the same idea of involvement in a mitzva.

A mitzva is only taken seriously by the doer to the extent that he or she has made an investment of some sort in that mitzva.

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