Parshas Vayakhel: Embarrassment to Teshuva to Holiness

By Rav Moshe Weinberger

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We must understand how the events at the end of last week’s parsha (Ki Sisa) and the beginning of this week’s parsha connect to one another. After Moshe obtained forgiveness for the Jewish people from the sin of the Golden Calf, he descended from Har Sinai with rays of light shining from his face. The Jewish people were afraid to look at Moshe’s face so he covered it with a mask (Shmos 34:29-35). Then, at the beginning of this week’s parsha (ibid. 35:1), Moshe gathered the entire Jewish people together. He commanded them about the mitzvah of Shabbos (ibid. 35:2-3) and finally, Moshe commanded them regarding the donations of gold, silver, and copper and other materials to the Mishkan (ibid. 35:4 et seq.).

The Ohr Hachaim (on ibid. 35:1) offers a straightforward explanation of the connection between the end of last week’s parsha and the beginning of this week’s parsha. The Jewish people distanced themselves from Moshe because of his great holiness which was apparent because of the rays of light shining from his face. Moshe therefore had to gather them back to him at the beginning of Vayakhel. With the Ohr Hachaim’s foundation, we can now begin to understand why these events were followed by the mitzvos of Shabbos and the donations to the Mishkan.

Erev Shabbos is like Erev Yom Kippur

The seforim hakedoshim explain the importance of teshuva on erev Shabbos. It is known that erev Shabbos in the home of the Rebbe Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk, zy”a, was like erev Yom Kippur. It has been related by a woman who worked in the kitchen of the Rebbe’s home that the Rebbe came into the kitchen every erev Shabbos to beg for forgiveness for anything he may have done to hurt or offend them. She related that the spirit of teshuva overtook the whole home and everyone cried and begged forgiveness from each other. Whenever we approach someone or something whose holiness we appreciate, we are overcome with feelings of unworthiness and, consequently, teshuva.

This pattern of approaching holiness, being filled with regret, and then doing teshuva is built into the nature of creation. The word for embarrassment, boshes, has the same letters as the word for repentance, teshuva, because when one is embarrassed about his past, he is moved to do teshuva. And once he has done teshuva, he then merits to reach the holiness he was initially too embarrassed to approach. That holiness is personified by Shabbos. When a person looks back at his week, he thinks, Is this how a Jew spends his week?” He is embarrassed and so he does teshuva on erev Shabbos and that embarrassment/teshuva process is precisely why he merits the holiness of Shabbos.

According to this, we can understand why Moshe gathered the people to him. They saw the holiness on his face and looked at themselves, disgusted that they sunk to the level of the sin of the Golden Calf. Moshe therefore drew them close as if to tell them, I understand that you are embarrassed to look at me because of what you have done. But you know that it is precisely your feeling of unworthiness that makes you worthy to come closer.” Approaching a tzaddik has the same effect as approaching Shabbos. My father told us that he remembers lining up with others to see the Ahavas Yisroel of Vizhnitz, zy”a. He recalls how the anticipation of seeing such a tzaddik caused everyone in line to cry and wail, literally like erev Yom Kippur. The way to merit contact with holiness is contemplating how distant we are from that holiness. Ironically, we come closer by focusing on how far away we are.

We see in the parsha how we merit to approach Shabbos and the tzaddik through the embarrassment/teshuva process. But how do we see this played out in the way we merited the Mishkan, the medium through which the Divine Presence rested on earth?

The Ramban comments on the difference between how the Torah describes the men’s versus the women’s donations to the Mishkan. With regard to the men, the pasuk (Shmos 35:22) says, Every man who waved a waving of gold to Hashem.” But with respect to the women’s donations, the pasuk merely says (ibid. 35:24) that they brought” their donations. We can understand the difference between these descriptions based on a teaching of the Rebbe Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, zy”a. He explains the phrase who chooses musical songs” from Yishtabach a homiletical level. The word for musical, b’shirei, is related to the word for left over,” she’reim. According to the Rebbe Reb Bunim, Hashem gets great nachas from, He chooses,” that which is left over after our songs, after our davening. What does this mean?

After a person finishes davening, learning, or doing a mitzvah, if he is sensitive, he has a leftover feeling that he did not do everything that he could have done. When someone finishes davening, he has a lingering feeling, Did I daven the way I was supposed to? How much was I thinking about Hashem and the words I was saying just now? How much was I thinking about everything else under the sun?” And when a person finishes learning daf yomi for the day, he may feel, Did I actually learn anything? How would I feel if someone tested me on the simple meaning of the Gemara and Rashi right now?” And after Shabbos, when a person makes havdalah, does he feel, Did I immerse myself in the holiness of Shabbos? How much of the time did I spend thinking about weekday matters instead of learning, davening, singing, and spending more time with my family?” The Rebbe Reb Bunim teaches us that these leftover feelings are extremely precious to Hashem.

The Chiddushei Harim, zy”a, expands on this teaching of the Rebbe Reb Bunim based on the pasuk (ibid. 36:7) regarding the donations to the Mishkan: the work was sufficient for them… and to leave over.” After the people finished donating to the Mishkan, there was something left over. They remained with the feeling, I wish I gave more! I wish I gave with a greater feeling of love. I’m so embarrassed that I didn’t give with loftier intentions.” Hashem gets great pleasure, He chooses” those feelings when His children give with a desire to do more. That leftover feeling of broken-heartedness after a mitzvah gives Hashem so much nachas.

We can now understand the difference between the Torah’s description of how the men gave to the Mishkan versus how the women gave. The pasuk (ibid. 35:22) says that the men came to the women.” Rashi explains that this means the men came with the women. But the Chiddushei Harim offers an amazing explanation. He says that the women never committed the sin of the Golden Calf, so all of their gold was still available to donate to the Mishkan. The men, however, had already donated their gold to the appeal held for the building of the Golden Calf. They had nothing left to give to the building of the Mishkan! Humiliated, they had to approach their wives and ask, Do you think I could borrow a ring or necklace?”

The men brought whatever little gold they were able to borrow from their wives and daughters and brought it to Moshe with such embarrassment and broken-heartedness. The Torah simply says that the women brought” their donations. The women brought their donations in a normal way because they had nothing to be ashamed of. The embarrassment and feeling of unworthiness with which the men brought their donations, however, caused a great stir in Heaven. That is why, with regard to the men, the pasuk describes more of a tumult when every man who waved a waving of gold to Hashem.” Through their embarrassment/teshuva, they achieved a high level of holiness and merited to draw the Divine Presence down into the Mishkan.

The desire to give and do more sometimes means even more than one’s actual accomplishments because it comes with that leftover feeling of embarrassment and teshuva that makes a person worthy to touch holiness.

The power of desire even when one does not have the ability to attain his goals is illustrated beautifully by a well-known story about Rav Yitzchak Vorker, zy”a.

The Rebbe had two chassidim who were neighbors: Reb Moshe, who had some money, though he was not wealthy, and Reb Yankel, who was extremely poor. Reb Yankel borrowed money from Reb Moshe from time to time when he was in need. Sometimes he paid him back and sometimes he was not able to. When he did pay him back, it was sometimes sooner and sometimes later, though it was usually later. Reb Yankel approached Reb Moshe one day with a special request. Reb Yankel needed one thousand rubles to marry off his daughter. This was an exorbitant sum for Reb Moshe but Reb Yankel promised him that he desperately needed the money for his daughter and that he would do whatever he could to pay it back.

Reb Moshe lent the money though it was such a sizable sum for him that he truly needed to be repaid. The wedding passed, and weeks and months went by. As often happens when one person owes a debt to another that he cannot repay, Reb Yankel began davening at a different shul from Reb Moshe because he could not bear to look at him in the face without the money to repay him. Desperate to get his much-needed funds back, Reb Moshe visited Reb Yankel, but every time, his wife told Reb Moshe that Reb Yankel was not home.”

One day, Reb Moshe saw the Rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Vorker, paying Reb Yankel a visit at Reb Yankel’s own home! Seeing his opportunity to ask for the Rebbe’s assistance, Reb Moshe walked over to Reb Yankel’s house and knocked on the door. The Rebbe himself answered the door, asking how he could help Reb Moshe. Somewhat embarrassed, Reb Moshe said, Rebbe, I feel bad bringing this up but I saw an opportunity for a private moment with just the Rebbe and Reb Yankel. You see, Reb Yankel borrowed a thousand rubles from me to make a wedding for his daughter. I am not a rich man by any means and I very much need these funds back. Is there anything the Rebbe can do to help?”

The Rebbe turned to Reb Yankel and asked if Reb Moshe’s words were true. Reb Yankel confirmed everything Reb Moshe said and admitted sadly that he wanted more than anything to pay his friend back but that he simply had no money to repay the loan. The Rebbe then told Reb Yankel to scour the house and search for every kopek with which to pay back Reb Moshe. Reb Yankel began searching every corner of his little house like he was searching for chometz before Pesach. Eventually he brought the Rebbe everything he was able to collect fifty-seven kopeks, not even a single ruble. Yet the Rebbe exclaimed, Reb Yankel, amazing! This is even more than I expected. Let us sit down together to count out the money so you can repay Reb Moshe.”

When they were seated at the table, the Rebbe began counting the kopeks one by one: One, two, three, four…” He continued counting, fifty-five, fifty-six, fifty-seven…” But instead of stopping there, he continued counting the same coins as if there were more there: fifty-eight, fifty-nine…” He continued counting: ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one ruble!” But the Rebbe did not stop there. He continued counting the same rubles for a couple of hours until finally he said, nine hundred ninety-nine rubles and ninety-nine kopeks, one thousand rubles!” He then turned to Reb Moshe, handed him the fifty-seven kopeks, and said, Here you go Reb Moshe. Full repayment of the one thousand rubles from Reb Yankel and even a bit extra…”

It goes without saying that Reb Moshe soon built a great fortune with Reb Yankel’s fifty-seven kopeks. Just like Reb Yitzchak Vorker taught Reb Moshe, Reb Yankel’s desire to repay Reb Moshe produced much more profit” than the actual money Reb Yankel could repay.

We too should not dismiss our davening, Torah, or mitzvos as inadequate. Rather, we must embrace our embarrassment at not being able to do more and realize that it is precisely that feeling that makes us worthy to approach Hashem.

May that feeling of embarrassment and the teshuva we do because of it make us worthy to draw down Hashem’s ultimate dwelling place, the Beis Hamikdash, may it be rebuilt soon in our days.

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