This week's Parsha is the dream of every Jewish architect and interior designer. It describes the construction of the Mishkan, the portable Temple that traveled with the Jewish People during their 40 years in the desert (and for 500 years after), until finding its permanent home in Jerusalem.

At the center of the Mishkan was the Holy Ark which contained the Tablets of the Ten Commandments. This Ark was a square box made of wood. The Torah explains (Exodus 25:11): "You shall cover the wood with pure gold from the inside and from the outside."

The need to cover the outside of the Ark with gold is understandable: The centerpiece of the Mishkan should certainly be majestic and regal. But what need is there to cover the wood on the inside of the box as well?

The Talmud (Yoma 72b) explains: A person's outward appearance must be an accurate reflection of their insides as well. In other words, don't be a hypocrite.

We all know someone who is a fake - quick with a smile, yet ready to stab you in the back just the same. Sadly, part of getting by in life is the ability to discern the genuine from the fake. (Children happen to be particularly adept at this.) Maybe that's what King Solomon meant when he said, "Better the anger of a friend than the kiss of an enemy." At least you know what you're getting.

One of the wonders of Judaism is how the Hebrew language reveals truths about everyday life. The Hebrew word for face - "paneem," is nearly identical to the Hebrew word for interior - "pineem." This teaches that the face we present must reflect our insides. (Contrast this with the English word "face," which shares its origins with "facade," meaning a deceptive appearance.)

This aversion to hypocrisy is reflected in the laws of kashrut as well. The one Jewish law that everyone in the world seems to know is that a Jew is not allowed to eat ham, pork or anything else derived from a pig. Interestingly, there is nothing in the Torah that seems to make this prohibition more stringent than eating, for example, catfish or a chocolate-covered ant. Why then have we singled out this prohibition against the pig?

The Torah tells us (and zoologists concur) that the pig is the only animal in the world possessing the outward symbol of kosher (split hooves), but not the inward symbol (chewing cud). The pig therefore represents that which is kosher in outward appearance, but is in fact unclean on the inside. This type of hypocrisy is described the Talmud as one of the categories of behavior that God detests. For that moral reason, the pig is universally viewed as reprehensible to the Jew.

Back to our Parsha... We're left with one glaring question: If the Ark is covered with gold both on the inside and the outside, then what need is there at all for the shell to be made out of wood?! Why not simply make the ark one solid piece of gold?

The answer is that attaining purity and sincerity does not necessarily happen overnight. Like any important goal, it is achieved through constant, steady growth. Wood - organic and dynamic - represents this idea.

Judaism is not all-or-nothing. Observance of Torah might begin with the lighting of Shabbos candles. Or it might mean studying the weekly Parsha, 15 minutes a day. (ArtScroll's Stone Chumash is particularly good for this.) Or it might mean reciting Shema Yisrael before going to bed.

Imagine stumbling across a gold mine. Would you turn down the gold because you know you won't find all the gold mines in the world? So too, every Mitzvah is a gold mine. Of course, we strive ultimately to fulfill them all. But even if we do just one, our lives are enriched forever.

The important thing is not where we are on the ladder, but rather in what direction we're headed, and how many rungs we've climbed. One tree does not compare its rings against another. Growth through Torah is the same way. Whatever effort you make to come close to the Almighty, whatever Torah you learn - the impact is cumulative. Perhaps that's why the Torah likens a person to a tree (see Deut. 20:19). Steady and constant, every drop counts.

The Talmud (Brachos 28a) says that in the Yeshiva of Rabban Gamliel, the prerequisite for admission was that a student's internal character had to match his outer appearance. Rabban Gamliel did not accept just anybody into the Yeshiva; he accepted only those who were honest, sincere and free of hypocrisy.

The Talmud continues: After Rabban Gamliel left his position as head of the Yeshiva, they instituted a new policy whereby any student - fitting or not - could be admitted. Hundreds of new students flocked to sign up. At which point, Rabban Gamliel became depressed and said, "Perhaps, God forbid, I have withheld Torah from the Jewish People!"

The Chiddushei HaRim (19th century Europe) asks: What was Rabban Gamliel saying? Of course he knew all along that his strict admission policy prevented some people from learning! So why is he so surprised now and getting depressed?

The answer is that Rabban Gamliel saw that because all those new students spent time in the Yeshiva, they too became honest and sincere by virtue of having learned Torah. Torah has the power to transform a person from mediocre to great.

Some years ago, I was speaking privately with a great Torah scholar and I said to him: "Rabbi, I am so grateful for the opportunity I've had to learn Torah. Without it, I don't know where I'd be."

The rabbi looked at me and said, "Me, too."

At the beginning of this week's parsha, God commands the Jewish People to "make Me a Mishkan, so that I may dwell within them" (Exodus 25:8). The Talmud points out that the verse should have read, "Make Me a Mishkan, so that I may dwell within it." Why then the language of "dwell within them"?

Because, answer our Sages, the Torah is telling us that the goal of building the Mishkan is not merely to create a House for God, but to sanctify a place for Him within the people. Each individual Jew must personally strive to become a microcosm of the Mishkan: a living, breathing bastion of holiness.

Today, let us hope to find the strength and inspiration to build our very own Mishkan. And may its Ark be crafted of fine wood, laden with gold, both inside and out.

 

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons