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WASTE NOT, WANT NOT

by Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

A conversation you might overhear one day between two members of your local synagogue before they drive off to work in their Cadillacs:

"I feel bad that I didn't get my contribution to the synagogue's charity drive in on time."

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A conversation you might overhear one day between two members of your local synagogue before they drive off to work in their Cadillacs:

"I feel bad that I didn't get my contribution to the synagogue's charity drive in on time."

"Same here. They set a goal of $10,000, you know; I figured they'd get two or three thousand $5,000 tops and then I'd swoop in, donate the rest, save the day, and get a nice award (plus a tax break) for it. So what happens? All of a sudden, everyone gets unbelievably generous, and they collected the whole amount weeks before the deadline!"

"Well, I know what I'll do. From now on, whenever the rabbi announces a charity drive, I'll get up there first and personally contribute $100."

At this point, you might feel a little cynical. If the fellow feels so bad about not giving anything last time, then why limit his next donation to such a small amount? To judge by what you overheard (plus the power suit you see him wearing), he could surely well afford a thousand, at least.

Yet, this seems to be how the nesi'im (leaders of the tribes) acted at the dedication of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle which accompanied the Jewish people during their years in the desert. Having missed their chance to contribute to the Mishkan's construction all of the required materials were collected within two days the nesi'im put their heads together and decided to present to the Mishkan "six covered wagons and twelve oxen: one wagon for every two nesi'im, one ox for each one" (Numbers 7:3).

The fact was that this number of wagons was barely enough for transporting the Mishkan's beams and curtains; in fact, the boards had to be stacked so high that someone had to hold on to them in transit to keep them from sliding off the wagon (Talmud Tractate Shabbat 99a). So, if the nesi'im really wanted to make up for their earlier omission, couldn't they have donated more wagons one whole wagon per person, at least?

To answer this, we have to understand something about the architecture of the Mishkan. The Mishkan was designed by the Master Architect, Hashem, and every detail of its construction had enormous significance. Volumes upon volumes of Jewish thought describe exactly what each beam, hook, and decoration represents in the heavenly realms and in the physical world at large. Put differently, every molecule of matter in the universe has its spiritual source in some corresponding detail of the Mishkan. Also, since, as our sages tell us, "G-d did not create a single thing without purpose" (Talmud Tractate Shabbat 77b), it follows that there could not be any detail of the Mishkan's design that did not actually serve some purpose. That purpose is, in the classic words of the Midrash, "to make a dwelling place for G-d in the lower realms."

One aspect of the Mishkan's design, which indeed influenced all details of its construction, is that it was specifically designed to be transportable, to accompany the Jewish people throughout their wanderings. Only later in Jewish history, after the nation had achieved stability in its land, could they build a permanent structure to house Hashem's presence. Thus, when the nesi'im were discussing what to bring as a "makeup" offering, the Midrash tells us that one argument carried the day: "Do you think the Mishkan will fly in the air? It needs wagons and animals for its transportation!" In this sense, the wagons and oxen were not an "offering" to the Mishkan, but an intrinsic part of it, because the Mishkan could not have functioned properly without them. As part of the Mishkan, then, every cubic inch of the wagons had to be put to use: for the nesi'im to have donated more wagons would not have been an expression of greater honor to Hashem, but rather an unfortunate waste of resources that could better be put to use serving G-d's wishes in another way.

Each of us, too, has the job of building an earthly home for Hashem, through doing various mitzvot; and each of us is granted certain resources time, money, intelligence, etc. with which to accomplish the job. The lesson that we can learn from the nesi'im and their wagons is to perform mitzvot in the optimal fashion. If a person is studying the Torah, and thus using his or her G-d-given intelligence to fathom His words, nothing less than a total commitment working one's hardest to penetrate ever deeper to the bottom of the subject will do. Otherwise, in effect, part of that intelligence is not being used to serve Hashem and is, therefore, wasted. The same applies to other mitzvot, such as tzedakah (charity). Someone who gives a hundred dollars to charity when he can well afford a thousand is misspending the means that were meant to be used for the Divine "home on earth."

On the other hand, every time a person gives Hashem his or her all, making sure that all available means are being used to fulfill His purposes, then that accelerates the construction of his or her personal Mishkan. In turn, all of those personal Tabernacles combine to form one all-encompassing one the Third Temple, the ultimate home for Hashem's presence, whose rebuilding we await hourly.

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This essay was adapted from a public address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory.

Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer writes from Atlanta.

You are invited to read more Parshat Naso articles.

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