Looking back at the Jewish people's behavior over the first few months following the exodus from Egypt, one cannot help but be impressed with Hashem's tremendous patience and love for His often rebellious nation.
Looking back at the Jewish people's behavior over the first few months following the exodus from Egypt, one cannot help but be impressed with Hashem's tremendous patience and love for His often rebellious nation. The Jewish people in the desert simply don't seem to be worthy recipients of all the wonders and miracles that Hashem performed for them. This can't possibly be the group that Hashem called "the most beloved treasure of all peoples. . .a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:5-6). Before the splitting of the sea, they faithlessly and sarcastically quip, "Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us out to die in the wilderness!" (Exodus 14:11). They bitterly complain about the lack of drinkable water on more than one occasion. Even as the Jewish people witness the tremendous glory of the Almighty as He splits the sea and delivers them in miraculous fashion, the Midrash describes how they were afraid that the Egyptians had safely escaped on the other side. The list of blunders and transgressions continues throughout their sojourn in the desert. How are we to understand Hashem's apparent blind love for His chosen people?
Included amongst the detailed commands for the construction of the Mishkan (portable Tabernacle) in this week's Torah portion, Moses is instructed to craft two Cherubim out of the golden cover of the ark, and it will be from between these two figures that the Divine voice will emanate when Hashem communicates to Moses. The Cherubim, explains the Talmud, had the faces of a male and female child. The question begs itself - why, at this most holy of places, should we find golden creatures with the faces of children?
Perhaps both of these questions can be answered by a third. Throughout Talmudic and Midrashic literature, our sages are referred to as talmidei chachamim - literally meaning "students of the wise". Even the greatest rabbis and leaders are identified as being students. Why are they not simply called chachamim - wise people? The answer is that their greatness lies not only in their intellectual prowess and pristine character; a significant aspect of their wisdom is that, in their own eyes, no matter how great they become, they always view themselves as students who are continuously seeking to grow. The Vilna Gaon, the brilliant Lithuanian Torah scholar of the 18th century, points out that human beings are identified by the prophets as "holchim" - those who continually go and advance. Continued growth and struggle is what categorizes and defines human beings at their best. Like someone trying to walk up the down escalator, if one remains standing in place, he will inevitably find himself back on the bottom floor. The only hope for true success and fulfillment of purpose comes with the continued and dedicated effort to advance upwards.
The desire to continually grow manifests itself most fully in a child. Young children recognize that they don't know everything and that they are dependent on others. A child has the burning desire to grow up and become something great, to unlock his vast potential. The Torah is teaching us that the student who desires to always learn more and improve is most dear to Hashem, and it is this face that can be found in the holiest part of the Mishkan.
The Jewish people themselves are referred to as Hashem's child: "When Israel was a child I loved him, and since Egypt I have been calling out to My son" (Hosea 11:1). Even when the Jewish people show their lack of faith, Hashem continually forgives and nourishes them, demonstrating His tremendous love for His people, for Hashem knows that they will eventually grow up to become something great. A parent will forgive his child a thousand times over for making mistakes because the parent realizes that, as time passes, the child will grow to correct his errors and learn the true path. While at the splitting of the Red Sea it was Moses who initiated the song of praise to Hashem - "Then Moses sang" (Exodus 15:1) - almost forty years later the mature Jewish nation begins the song of praise for the miraculous well of water - "Then Israel sang" (Numbers 21:17). The ultimate Father and Educator had the vision and patience to wait while His beloved child developed and matured, at the same time teaching us that our greatest source of merit is our continued aspiration to grow.
Some of the ideas contained in this article are based upon the writings of Rabbi Meir Rubman, a leading master of Jewish ethics (mussar) of the past generation.
Michael Alterman, who hails from Atlanta, is enrolled in a joint program with Ner Israel Rabbinical College and Johns Hopkins University, both in Baltimore.
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