The Greatest Decision You Can Make

Building the Mishkan: from Descent to Ascent

In the beginning of Parashat Terumah, Hashem tells Moshe Rabbeinu to instruct B’nei Yisrael to bring donations of various materials in order to construct a sanctuary for Him to dwell in (Shemot 25:8): וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם (And they shall make for Me a Mishkan, and I will dwell among them).

What does the building of the Mishkan have to do with us today? Is it merely an historical event or is it something much more timeless?

When we need to make a decision about whether to do something or not to do it, what criteria do we consider to help us make that decision? You may say that the question is too general and that each situation requires a unique set of conditions. Perhaps, but we can simplify things by focusing on the core issue. And what is that? Simplicity, as taught in Likutei Moharan II:12: וְעִקָּר הַיַּהֲדוּת הוּא רַק לֵילֵךְ בִּתְמִימוּת וּבִפְשִׁיטוּת בְּלִי שׁוּם חָכְמוֹת (The essence of Judaism is to conduct oneself only with innocence and simplicity, without sophistication). In other words, there exists within most of us a tendency to complicate things unnecessarily, and we have to work against this inclination. Therefore, if we don’t want to spend a lot of energy wondering about which criteria to bring into the equation for consideration and which criteria to leave out, all we need to do is act in simplicity. With this in mind, we can actually boil down every decision to a single, simple criterion (L.M. II:12): וּלְהִסְתַּכֵּל בְּכָל דָּבָר שֶׁעוֹשֶׂה שֶׁיִּהְיֶה שָׁם הַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ וְלִבְלִי לְהַשְׁגִּיחַ כְּלָל עַל כְּבוֹד עַצְמוֹ רַק אִם יֵשׁ בָּזֶה כְּבוֹד הַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ יַעֲשֶׂה וְאִם לָאו לָאו וַאֲזַי בְּוַדַּאי לֹא יִכָּשֵׁל לְעוֹלָם (A person needs to see that Hashem, may He be blessed, is present in every thing that he does without paying any attention whatsoever to his own honor [kavod]. If it brings kavod to Hashem, may He be blessed, then he should do it, if not, then he shouldn’t do it. Then, for sure, he will never stumble).

The only valid criterion that we need when making a decision is whether we will be bringing kavod to Hashem or not. It’s really that simple. Every other criteria is just a distraction. If whatever we’re considering brings kavod to Hashem, then we should do it. If it doesn’t, then we shouldn’t. Granted, this is easier said than done; yet, the challenge of one’s life is to put this advice into practical effect, not just once or twice, but all the time.

But why is making the right decision, especially for the ‘big’ things in life, so difficult for some of us? It is because the Yetzer ha-Ra within us wants us focused on ourselves, i.e. “If there’s kavod in it for me, I’ll do it; otherwise, forget it!” Admitting this truth is half of the battle, so if we feel that we can ‘only’ accomplish that much at the moment, we shouldn’t become discouraged. That itself is very good progress.

Now, if we wish, we can apply this principle to every aspect of our lives, i.e. to go to school or get a job, to marry a particular individual or not, to move away from home, to travel far from home every day for the sake of a higher paying job, to work for a particular company, to buy a home or rent an apartment, to give away money as tzedakah or invest it in a pension plan, etc. etc. etc. If whatever we’re considering will bring kavod to Hashem, then we should do it, if not we shouldn’t do it. But this is not our focus here. We’re not interested in being a guidance counselor, financial planner or therapist. We are interested, however, in what is common to us all. And not only that, but on the greatest decision we can possibly make.

Let’s explore further to discover what this could possibly be.

Although our craving for kavod tends to get in the way of making the right decisions, we cannot deny that kavod itself is the most important thing. How come? Why is it so important? Kavod is at the root of the entire creation (Yeshayah 43:7): כֹּל הַנִּקְרָא בִשְׁמִי וְלִכְבוֹדִי בְּרָאתִיו (Everything that is called by My name, I created it for My kavod). Not only is that true, but the prophet also revealed another important truth (42:8): אֲנִי יְיָ הוּא שְׁמִי וּכְבוֹדִי לְאַחֵר לֹא־אֶתֵּן (I am Hashem, that is My name, and My kavod, I will not give to another). What does this mean? It means that if something exists, an aspect of Hashem’s kavod must be embedded in it, even if that something is unemployment, debt, homelessness, heresy, depression, etc. It doesn’t matter. Hashem promised that He will not give His kavod to another. The kavod of Hashem must be present mamash even in the worst of situations. True, it may be difficult to find at times, it may be hidden, but the kavod of Hashem is present in all of creation. If it exists, then there must be an aspect of Hashem’s kavod within it. At first glance, this may seem downright absurd, or at least difficult to swallow, but it’s true. It’s a fundamental teaching of our faith.

So how can we understand this, and then be grateful for it?

The ministering angels [melachim] speak of Hashem’s kavod. In the Kedushah of Mussaf, we recite the words of praise from the melachim: קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְיָ צְבָקוֹת מְלֹא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ (Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh is Hashem Tzevakot, the whole world is full of His kavod). This is what we have been explaining. That being the case, why do they then ask one another: אַיֵּה מְקוֹם כְּבוֹדוֹ (Where [Ayeh] is the place of His kavod?). Since they just said that Hashem’s kavod is everywhere and fills everything, why do they ask, Where [Ayeh] is it? Isn’t that just a little strange?

Since Hashem’s kavod is everywhere, it follows that He must be present even with us when we fall into the worst situations (L.M. II:12):וְעַל־כֵּן כְּשֶׁאָדָם נוֹפֵל חַס וְשָׁלוֹם לִבְחִינַת מְקוֹמוֹת אֵלּוּ דְּהַיְנוּ לִבְחִינַת מְקוֹמוֹת הַמְטֻנָּפִים וְנוֹפֵל לִסְפֵקוֹת וְהִרְהוּרִים וּבִלְבּוּלִים גְּדוֹלִים וַאֲזַי מַתְחִיל לְהִסְתַּכֵּל עַל עַצְמוֹ וְרוֹאֶה שֶׁרָחוֹק מְאֹד מִכְּבוֹדוֹ יִתְבָּרַךְ וְשׁוֹאֵל וּמְבַקֵּשׁ אַיֵּה מְקוֹם כְּבוֹדוֹ מֵאַחַר שֶׁרוֹאֶה בְּעַצְמוֹ שֶׁרָחוֹק מִכְּבוֹדוֹ יִתְבָּרַךְ מֵאַחַר שֶׁנָּפַל לִמְקוֹמוֹת כָּאֵלּוּ רַחֲמָנָא לִצְלָן וְזֶה זֶה עִקָּר תִּקּוּנוֹ וַעֲלִיָּתוֹ בִּבְחִינַת יְרִידָה תַּכְלִית הָעֲלִיָּה, הַמּוּבָא בִּסְפָרִים (When someone falls, chas v’shalom, into these situations, i.e. [spiritually] filthy situations, falling into doubts, thoughts and great confusions, then he begins to look at himself and sees that he is very far from His kavod, may He be blessed, and to ask and to request, ‘Where [Ayeh] is the place of His kavod?’ Since he sees himself that he is far from His kavod, may He be blessed, since he fell into these situations, Rachmana litzlan, this, this, is the essence of his rectification [tikkun] and his ascent [aliyah], in the aspect of ‘a descent [yeridah] is for the purpose of the aliyah’, as is brought down in the sefarim). Although R’ Nachman uses the word מְקוֹמוֹת in this passage, instead of translating it literally as ‘places’, we have translated it as ‘situations’ because we feel this conveys his meaning more precisely.

Asking the question (and really meaning it!) Ayeh mekom kevodo is the very essence of the tikkun that we need in order to find Hashem in the midst of the terrible situations that we fall into from time to time, chas v’shalom. It is the key for getting up and rising, making that aliyah after the yeridah. But why is this so? First of all, know that the yeridah is just as important as the aliyah. There is no way to have the aliyah without having the yeridah first. Second, just as Hashem is present in the aliyah, He is also present in the yeridah. This is the meaning of what David ha-Melech wrote in Tehillim 139:8: אִם־אֶסַּק שָׁמַיִם שָׁם אָתָּה וְאַצִּיעָה שְּׁאוֹל הִנֶּךָּ (If I go up to Heaven, You are there, and if I make my bed in hell [Sheol], behold, You are there!). In other words, he knew that Hashem’s kavod fills the whole world, even in the midst of the hell that he was going through during much of his life. Whether David made an aliyah or, chas v’shalom, experienced a yeridah, He saw Hashem in the midst of it all. After all, maybe the world is really just upside down (see Yosef ben R’ Yehoshua’s testimony in Baba Batra 10b), and that what we perceive as an aliyah is really just a yeridah, and vice versa.

The question remains, Why is looking for Hashem in the midst of our personal hell, in the midst of our darkness, in the midst of our yeridah, our necessary tikkun? Why is asking ‘Ayeh‘ the key to the aliyah?

When Yitzchak was walking together with his father to Har Moriah, he drew attention to the fire and the wood, and then asked the famous question (Bereshit 22:7): וְאַיֵּה הַשֶּׂה לְעֹלָה (But where [Ayeh] is the sacrificial animal [seh] for the olah?). We can understand these words on their simple level, but we can also understand them on a deeper level. How so? The question Ayeh [mekom kevodo] is the seh for the olah. Now why does one who has fallen into the aforementioned terrible situations need a korban olah? It is because the purpose of the korban olah is to atone for the impure thoughts of one’s heart (see Targum Yonatan to Vayikra 6:2). And why is it called a korban olah? It is because it allows the resultant aliyah to take place. R’ Nachman summarizes these ideas in L.M. II:12: אַיֵּה הִיא בְּחִינוֹת שֶׂה לְעוֹלָה לְתַקֵּן וּלְכַפֵּר הִרְהוּר הַלֵּב שֶׁבָּא מִמְּקוֹמוֹת הַמְטֻנָּפִים כַּנַּ”ל כִּי עַל־יְדֵי בְּחִינוֹת אַיֵּה נִתְתַּקֵּן וְעוֹלֶה מִשָּׁם (Ayeh corresponds to the sacrificial animal for the olah to atone for the thoughts of the heart that come from those filthy situations mentioned above, for through this aspect of Ayeh, he gets his tikkun and ascends [oleh], i.e. has an aliyah, from there).

In other words, by seeking Hashem’s kavod instead of one’s own kavod, we merit to rise out of our yeridah, not just to get back to where we were before, but to reach new heights. Therefore, the act of asking Ayeh [i.e. Where are You in the midst of this insanity and darkness?] is the essence of teshuvah which reverses the yeridah and gives rise to the aliyah. It’s the essence of teshuvah because it acknowledges Hashem’s existence and seeks to find Him in every situation in order to draw close to Him. This is, after all, what life is all about.

We can see this with Adam ha-Rishon and the first sin. Exile [galut] is fundamentally just separation from Hashem; therefore, when Adam ha-Rishon sinned, he immediately entered galut (even before he was banished from the garden). What was the first thing that Hashem said to him in his state of galut? It was a single word (Bereshit 3:9): אַיֶּכָּה (Where are you [Ayehkha]?). Clearly, Hashem knew where he was, so what was the point of saying Ayehkha? It’s the secret that we can understand and appreciate. He wanted Adam to know what his response should be after his yeridah. He wanted Adam to ask, to seek and to call out to his Creator, Ayehkha? It was as if Hashem whispered into his ear and said, “Just ask, Ayeh mekom kevodo? Seek Me! Then you will find Me. That will be your tikkun.” Hashem tried to teach him the way out of his personal hell, to give him the key, the tikkun he needed to begin his aliyah, but Adam missed the point entirely. All he said was that he was hiding because he was afraid. And sadly, many of us continue to miss His point ever since. A fall doesn’t mean the end of the story. It’s just the prelude to the ascent!

What does any of this have to do with the building of the Mishkan?

The building of the Mishkan was perhaps the greatest single highlight experienced by the Jewish People during our 40 years in the desert (even greater than Matan Torah itself). Through it we were able to reach incredible heights of kedushah, heights that would have been impossible otherwise. And when did we actually begin to build it? The donations of the materials and the building of the items themselves did not start until after we fell into the worst situation imaginable, a literal avodah zarah, the sin of the golden calf. How far we fell! How distant we became from Hashem in such a short period of time!

Likewise, we all fall, and we all need to know how to emerge from the fall, for what defines us is not the fall itself, but rather how we rise up after we fall. And how do we rise from the fall? By making the greatest decision that we can possibly make! And what is that? Choosing to do teshuvah!

As explained in Likutei Halachot (Hilchot Geviyat Chov Mei’ha’Yetomim 3:7): כִּי הַמִּשְׁכָּן הוּא בְּחִינַת הַקְּדֻשָּׁה הַגָּבֹהַּ הַנַּ”ל בְּחִינַת אַיֵּה שֶׁזּוֹכִין לִמְצֹא עַל יְדֵי הַבַּקָּשָׁה וְהַחִפּוּשֹ שֶׁמְּחַפְּשִֹין וּמְבַקְּשִׁין בְּעֵת שֶׁרְחוֹקִין מִן הַקְּדֻשָּׁה וְהוֹלְכִין נָע וָנָד וּמְטֻלְטָל (For the Mishkan corresponds to elevated kedushah, corresponding to Ayeh, that we merit to find when we seek and search [after Hashem], after realizing our distance from kedushah, having gone wandering off here and there, traveling around). Yes, it is as we learned above, the yeridah is only for the purpose of an even greater aliyah. The only meaningful response that we could have given after the sin of the golden calf was the teshuvah itself, to offer up the true korban olah of asking Ayeh, to atone for our flawed and corrupt minds and hearts, and begin the work of that tikkun we so desperately needed. And thankfully, we had been given the soul of the faithful shepherd, Moshe Rabbeinu, to teach and guide us through the entire process.

Although we hope and pray for the complete revelation of our redeemer and savior Mashiach ben David speedily soon in our days, we remain in galut as of this day. But even from this long, long, seemingly endless galut, we can and will rise to heights of kedushah that we have never experienced before, neither individually nor collectively. The key is the secret to the building of the Mishkan, by choosing to do teshuvah especially when going through the most difficult and darkest moments of our lives.

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