I’m Black, but Beautiful

How the Mishkan Was Built

In what is perhaps his most well-known lesson in Likutei Moharan, R’ Nachman of Breslov explains the importance of looking for, and finding (!), the good points in every Jew, even in someone we might consider a rasha (see L.M. 282). He also teaches there the necessity of looking for the good points in ourselves, even when we may feel that we don’t have any to our credit. The reason why it is so important to judge everyone favorably (including ourselves) is because by doing so, we facilitate the process of teshuvah in that person. And the teshuvah of even one individual brings the geulah one step closer to being actualized.

The challenge is to learn how to see the good in others all the time. This is not so simple. Nevertheless, R’ Nachman wants us to know those among us who can do this are truly worthy of being a shaliach tzibbur to lead communal prayers. In the context of his teaching there, this is considered ‘making melodies’ and ‘singing to Hashem’ (L.M. 282): וְדַע שֶׁמִּי שֶׁיָּכוֹל לַעֲשׂוֹת אֵלּוּ הַנִּגּוּנִים דְּהַיְנוּ לְלַקֵּט הַנְּקֻדּוֹת טוֹבוֹת שֶׁנִּמְצָא בְּכָל אֶחָד מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל אֲפִלּוּ בְּהַפּוֹשְׁעֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כַּנַּ”ל הוּא יָכוֹל לְהִתְפַּלֵּל לִפְנֵי הָעַמּוּד (You should know that someone who is able to make these melodies, i.e. to collect the good points that are found in each and every Jew, even in Jewish sinners, he is able to lead communal prayers). In fact, this is why he is the shaliach of the tzibbur, because everyone is pleased to appoint him as their messenger because he is able to gather up all of the good points in each of them and offer them up as a pleasing offering to Hashem in prayer.

Not just that, but there is one individual in each and every generation who excels at this beyond all of his peers (L.M. 282): וְדַע שֶׁיֵּשׁ בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר רוֹעֶה וְהוּא בְּחִינוֹת מֹשֶׁה שֶׁהוּא רְעָיָא מְהֵימָנָא (You should know that there exists in each and every generation, a shepherd corresponding to Moshe the ‘faithful shepherd’). Why is this so important, not just important in and of itself, but important for us to know? Because, as R’ Nachman teaches, וְזֶה הָרוֹעֶה הוּא עוֹשֶׂה מִשְׁכָּן (this shepherd builds the Mishkan).

This requires explanation.

Finding the good points in ourselves is an aspect of waking from sleep. David ha-Melech explains this idea in Tehillim 3, a mizmor in which he pours out his heart to Hashem over the rebellion of his son Avshalom. He begins (3:2): יְיָ מָה־רַבּוּ צָרָי רַבִּים קָמִים עָלָי (Hashem, how many are my oppressors! Many rise up against me!). Who are these oppressors? It is explained in Likutei Halachot (Hilchot Haskamat ha-Boker 1:2) that they are הַצָּרִים שֶׁל הַנֶּפֶשׁ שֶׁהֵם הַחֲטָאִים וְהַפְּגָמִים שֶׁל כָּל אֶחָד שֶׁזֶּה עִקַּר צָרוֹת הָאָדָם (the oppressors of the soul, which are the sins and the blemishes of each individual, which are the essence of the oppressors of man). On a deeper level, David ha-Melech isn’t speaking about people at all. Rather, he’s speaking of the anguish of his own soul caused by his own flaws. That being the case, we can understand the next verse a little bit better (3:3): רַבִּים אֹמְרִים לְנַפְשִׁי אֵין יְשׁוּעָתָה לּוֹ בֵאלֹהִים סֶלָה (Many say to my soul, ‘He’ll never be saved by G-d, forever!). As it is brought out in Likutei Halachot there, this is exactly the tactic of the Sitra Achra. It wants to deny us, not only of salvation itself, but even of the hope for salvation! It revels in tricking us into thinking that all is lost and there’s no point in going further, for this is the main tactic of the Satan, to have us fall into depression and complete despair.

But David ha-Melech does not allow himself to get caught up in this negative thinking. Rather, he acknowledges what’s going on, but then arouses himself out of the slumber (3:6): אֲנִי שָׁכַבְתִּי וָאִישָׁנָה הֱקִיצוֹתִי כִּי יְיָ יִסְמְכֵנִי (I lay down and slept, but I woke up because Hashem sustains me). He is not describing physical sleep, but rather a conceptual sleep associated with being distant from Hashem, of not seeing the good in himself. And what he is saying? He’s saying what R’ Nachman would later come to state explicitly (Likutei Moharan II:78): אֵין שׁוּם יִאוּשׁ בָּעוֹלָם כְּלָל (There isn’t any despair in the world, at all!). In other words, there is never any justification to remain in a state of despair or depression. One must wake up and arouse himself from this stupor and realize that Hashem is there with him, even in his depression. And how does he wake himself up? By focusing on the good points in himself, by realizing that he’s not totally terrible. He does have some good points. And one by one, he must start focusing on them. Yes, they may be tainted good points, sullied or even mixed with garbage, but they are good points nonetheless. In the words of Likutei Halachot cited earlier: אֲבָל בֶּאֱמֶת הָאָדָם אָסוּר לְיָאֵשׁ עַצְמוֹ וְצָרִיךְ לְהִתְגַבֵּר לְעוֹרֵר מִשֵּׁינָתוֹ עַל־יְדֵי הַמְעַט טוֹב שֶׁמּוֹצֵא בְּעַצְמוֹ עֲדַיִן (However, in truth, it is forbidden for a person to despair, rather he must overcome [these feelings of despair] and arouse himself from his sleep by way of the little good that he is still able to find in himself).

But why did David ha-Melech connect waking up to Hashem sustaining or reviving him (see Tehillim 3:6 quoted above)? The reason these two ideas are connected is because the revival from sleep was a direct result of the good that he found within himself. And specifically, the good that he found was an aspect of Hashem because all good emanates from Hashem, as it is written (Tehillim 34:9): טַעֲמוּ וּרְאוּ כִּי־טוֹב יְיָ (Taste and see that Hashem is good). Therefore, we can apply this principle to ourselves just as David applied it to himself: the good that I can find even in me is an aspect of Hashem, and since it’s an aspect of Hashem, it’s an aspect of His very life. Therefore, it is the life of Hashem which revives me from my slumber.

That’s why David ha-Melech writes in the very next verse (3:7): לֹא־אִירָא מֵרִבְבוֹת עָם אֲשֶׁר סָבִיב שָׁתוּ עָלָי (I will not be afraid of the tens of thousands of the nation [i.e. the numerous sins and blemishes that threaten to keep me down] who set themselves around me). Why not? How has his fear been dispelled? As mentioned above, by focusing on the good, he moved from the side of demerit to the side of merit and became zocheh to teshuvah. How so? Because even a little light dispels a great amount of darkness.

This is the meaning of ‘waking up the dawn’ (Tehillim 57:9): עוּרָה כְבוֹדִי עוּרָה הַנֵּבֶל וְכִנּוֹר אָעִירָה שָּׁחַר (Wake up, my soul! Wake up the nevel and kinnor! I will wake up the dawn [shachar]). As mentioned above, waking up from slumber has everything to do with making music, of creating melodies and singing to Hashem of one’s good points. But there is more to it than that. The phrase אָעִירָה שָּׁחַר (I will wake up the dawn) can be understood as, “I will wake up because of the dawn.” And what is the shachar, the dawn? It is the collection of good points which can transport someone from darkness to light. Continuing in Likutei Halachot (Hilchot Haskamat ha-Boker 1:3): כִּי הַנְּקֻדָּה טוֹבָה הִיא בִּבְחִינַת שַׁחַר בִּבְחִינַת (שיר־השירים א, ה): ״שְׁחוֹרָה אֲנִי וְנָאוָה בְּנוֹת יְרוּשָׁלָיִם״ (For the good point corresponds to shachar, which corresponds to [Shir ha-Shirim 1:5]: ‘I am black [shechorah], but beautiful, O daughters of Yerushalayim’). Even our good points can look black, easily being overlooked when they’re covered over by gloom and darkness. This is no great marvel. The real wonder is that Knesset Yisrael says to Hashem, ‘I may be black, but I’m beautiful!’ Yes, truly. Just wash off the dirt and take a look. What will You see? You’ll see the true beauty. The blackness is just superficial. It’s not the essence of who I am. And in what merit is one able to say, ‘I am black, but beautiful’? It is in the merit of finding the point of good within oneself. This is what wakes up the dawn and transforms the shechorah into shachar, the darkness of night into the light of the morning.

Going a little further, we see that this is exactly what the Midrash says about this verse from Shir ha-Shirim (Shemot Rabbah 49:2): שְׁחוֹרָה אֲנִי בְּמַעֲשֵׂה הָעֵגֶל, וְנָאוָה אֲנִי בְּמַעֲשֵׂה הַמִּשְׁכָּן (‘I am black’ in the making of the golden calf; ‘but I am beautiful’ in the building of the Mishkan). Do not look at my appearance of blackness; rather, look at the true me, the true beauty of my soul, because in my essence, I am You—we are one—and therefore, I am exceedingly beautiful!

What does any of this have to do with the fact that a ‘faithful shepherd’ corresponding to Moshe Rabbeinu exists in each and every generation who is able to build a Mishkan?

To answer that question, we need to understand how Moshe Rabbeinu was able to build the Mishkan.

What did Moshe do after Hashem told him that B’nei Yisrael committed the terrible sin of avodah zarah associated with the golden calf? He begged Hashem to forgive them. And what was the essence of his argument? How did he convince Hashem to forgive the people? This is what he said (Shemot 32:11): לָמָה יְיָ יֶחֱרֶה אַפְּךָ בְּעַמֶּךָ (Hashem, why should You have burning anger against Your people?). This is almost incomprehensible. Why should Hashem be angry?! The people built the golden calf and engaged in the most despicable conduct around it! Why shouldn’t Hashem be angry? Did Moshe not fully grasp the severity of what they had done? No, he understood very well—probably more than anyone else. Yet, he brought forth an argument that only he was capable of bringing forth. In the words of Likutei Halachot: כִּי הוּא מָצָא הַטּוֹב שֶׁבָּהֶם וַאֲזַי נִדְחֶה הָרָע לְגַמְרֵי כַּנַּ״ל וְעַל־כֵּן אָמַר: ״לָמָּה ה׳ יֶחֱרֶה אַפְּךָ בְּעַמֶּךָ״, כִּי הָרָע אֵינוֹ נֶחֱשָׁב כְּלָל כְּנֶגֶד מְעַט הַטּוֹב שֶׁיֵּשׁ בָּהֶם עֲדַיִן (For he found the good that was in them, and as a result he was able to dispel the darkness completely; and therefore, he said, ‘Hashem, why should You have burning anger against Your people? For the evil wasn’t regarded as anything in relation to the little good that was still in them). Read those words again if you need to, and let their import really sink in.

So how come Moshe was the only one capable of bringing forward this argument? Because he was totally good, as it says in Shemot 2:2: וַתַּהַר הָאִשָּׁה וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן וַתֵּרֶא אֹתוֹ כִּי־טוֹב הוּא וַתִּצְפְּנֵהוּ שְׁלֹשָׁה יְרָחִים (And she [Moshe’s mother] got pregnant and gave birth to a son, and she saw him that he was good, and she hid him for three months). Only someone who is totally good can see the good point in every Jew, even in a Jew who commits the grave sin of avodah zarah.

What was the result of Moshe’s good eye? It is written (Shemot 32:14): וַיִּנָּחֶם יְיָ עַל־הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת לְעַמּוֹ (And He relented of the bad that He said He was going to do to the people). Not only did Hashem relent, but later, in the aftermath of this terrible sin, Moshe gained even greater favor in the eyes of Hashem to the extent that Hashem revealed to him the 13 Attributes of Mercy.

So what was the Mishkan actually built out of? It was built out of the good within each Jew, as explained in L.H. (Hilchot Haskamat ha-Boker 1:4): כִּי הַמִּשְׁכָּן נִבְנָה מִכָּל הַטּוֹב שֶׁנִּתְבָּרֵר מִכָּל אֶחָד מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל…שֶׁהֵבִיא כָּל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד כְּפִי הַנְּקֻדָּה טוֹבָה שֶׁלּוֹ (For the Mishkan was built from all the good that was refined from every single Jew…each and every one brought [a gift for building the Mishkan] according to his good point). Some brought gold, some brought silver, others brought copper and so on, each one bringing a physical gift that corresponded with the spiritual light of his good point. This is the meaning of that which is written in Shemot 25:2: דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ־לִי תְּרוּמָה מֵאֵת כׇּל־אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ תִּקְחוּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִי (Speak to B’nei Yisrael that they should take for Me terumah, from everyone whose heart motives him, you should take My terumah). Those gifts, freely given from the willing hearts of each Jew, were the good points that Moshe was able to see even in the immediate aftermath of the sin of the golden calf. Their actions here proved that he saw correctly. She wasn’t really black. She was truly beautiful!

In conclusion, what then was the Mishkan? It was the physical manifestation of the good from within each and every Jew, an embodiment which provided the necessary kedushah from below for the Shechinah to rest upon it from above. This is also a valid description of the Beit ha-Mikdash, which we hope and pray will be built soon, speedily in our days, by the hand of Moshe Rabbeinu, the Faithful Shepherd, our righteous Anointed, Mashiach ben David.

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