The Torah Portion describes the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the various vessels that were to serve in it, such as the Aron HaKodesh (Ark), the Menorah and the Shulchan (table where the showbreads were placed). The Rabbis teach that there is great symbolism in each vessel in that they represent various aspects of the spiritual world.(1) Accordingly, the commentaries closely analyze the descriptions of the Mishkan in order to derive important lessons. In this vein, the Kli Yakar notes a difficulty with a verse in the description of the Aron HaKodesh. The Torah states: "And you shall cover it [the Aron] with pure gold from the inside; and on the outside you shall cover it..." (2) The Kli Yakar points out that God twice instructs Moses to cover the Ark; once on the inside, and once on the outside. This teaches us that the Ark had both an inner and outer layer of gold. However, with regard to the inner layer, the Torah says that the gold must be pure, whereas when mentioning the outer layer, there is no mention that the gold need be pure. The Kli Yakar argues that it was certainly required for the outer layer of gold also to be pure, therefore he asks why the Torah stressed the pure nature of the gold with regard to the inner layer.(3)
He answers that the Torah is teaching us an important lesson in Avodat HaShem (Divine Service). He explains that the inner gold covering alludes to performance of mitzvot done in a private fashion where no one else sees, whilst the outer gold covering alludes to public performance of mitzvot. With regard to private observance, it is quite conceivable that one have completely pure intentions when performing the mitzvah seeing that that nobody else will be aware of the mitzvah. Therefore, when describing the inner gold, the Torah can attach the description of pure. However, when a person does a mitzvah in public, there is always a very strong possibility that his intentions are not totally pure, as there may be an element of a desire that other people witness his righteous act. Accordingly, when discussing the outer gold, tt cannot say that it was pure.(4)
The Kli Yakar's explanation illuminates us as to the great power of the yetser hara (negative inclination) involved in doing Mitzvot in public. The following story involving the Kotsker Rebbe demonstrates even further the full power of this yetser hara. The Kotsker Rebbe was on his deathbed surrounded by many people. The time came when it seemed certain that he was about to pass away. At that moment, he said Shema Yisrael with great fervor. Yet, to everyone's surprise he did not die at that time. His students asked him what he was thinking whilst he was saying the Shema. He answered, that he was thinking that everyone would say about him that the final words he uttered were 'Shema Yisrael'! (5) If, at the powerful moment before death, the great Kotsker Rebbe acknowledged that he had some level of interest in what people would say about him, then all the more so, 'ordinary' people would be highly subject to this yetser hara throughout their lives.
Because it is so difficult to maintain completely pure motives when doing mitzvot in public, it is often praiseworthy to strive to do mitzvot in private. Similarly, it is commendable to hide one's spiritual achievements from others when there is no benefit in publicizing them.(6) The Baalei Mussar (7) in particular went to great lengths to hide their true spiritual level. One of the leading Baalei Mussar was Rav Yitzchak Blazer zt"l on one occasion he joined a gathering of great Torah scholars, led by the Beis HaLevi, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. The Beis HaLevi had heard that Rav Blazer was a tremendous Torah scholar as well as being a great Mussar personality, and wanted to see how Rav Blazer would contribute to a Torah discussion. The Beis HaLevi asked a very difficult question, which resulted in heated debate amongst the scholars. Eventually, the Beis HaLevi offered two brilliant solutions to the problem, one from himself, and one from his renowned son, Rav Chaim. However, during the whole discussion, Rav Blazer remained quiet. Surprised at Rav Blazer's apparent inability to answer the question, the Beis HaLevi perused Rav Blazer's commentary on the Gemara, known as, Pri Yitzchak, to see what he wrote with regard to the topic that they had debated. The Beis HaLevi was astonished to see that not only did Rav Blazer ask the same question as the one he posed, but also gave both answers that the Beis HaLevi had suggested! He recognized Rav Blazer's humility in remaining quiet and hiding his Torah greatness.
Of course, on many occasions it is important for one to contribute to Torah discussions, however, evidently Rav Blazer felt there would be no benefit in adding his opinion to the distinguished group. In a similar vein, the great Alter of Slobodka, Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel zt:l, was rarely seen with a gemara, however, late at night in his room, he would learn from the gemara in a hidden fashion, and if anyone came in he would pretend to be asleep.
We learn from the above sources, that it is extremely difficult to perform mitzvot in public without having some focus on the honor or praise that one would receive. One lesson to be derived from this is that one should strive to perform at least some mitzvot in private, where there is no chance that the purity of his intentions is tainted by desire for recognition.(8) This includes giving charity,(9) learning Torah, and other mitzvot.
1. See Yoma, 72b.
2. Shemos, 25:11.
3. It should be noted that it is possible to perhaps read the verse differently from the Kli Yakar in such a way that his observation no longer applies, however, it seems that the Kli Yakar understood that his reading was the most accurate.
4. Kli Yakar, Shemos, 25:11.
5. Given his well-known greatness, It is very likely that the Kotsker did indeed have very lofty intent whilst he was saying the Shema, and he was likely alluding to a very subtle feeling of enjoyment at what the onlookers would say about him. Nonetheless, as is often the case, the minute failings of great people are magnified to teach us lessons that we can relate to.
6. There are occasions when it is important to do Mitzvos in a public setting so that others will learn to do the same.
7. Literally translated as 'Masters of self-improvement'; these were great people who attained incredibly high levels of spiritual greatness.
8. As stated above, there are times when one should do Mitzvos in public - it is advisable to seek guidance in this matter from a Rabbi.
9. The Rambam writes that giving charity in a hidden fashion is one of the highest forms of charity (Matanos Aniyim, Ch. 10.)