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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Terumah 5771 "The Underlying Truth"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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“Papa’s favorite expression was, “I am a soldier of the Boss, and I obey His commands.[1]

“He was concerned with every phase of Jewish religious life in America. Papa’s indomitable courage, and his willingness to take up the defense of Yiddishkeit uncompromisingly, earned him ridicule and derision, but this did not deter him from his unswerving path.

“I recall when Papa came home from shul one Shabbos morning with the familiar gleam in his eye that spelled a fighting mood. “Aidel, I will be back soon,” he told Mama. “See that the guests start eating.”

“Mama gave Papa a worried look and quickly motioned to me, “Ruchoma, go with Papa and see where he is going. If anything happens to him, at least I will know.”

“I hurried after Papa and soon caught up with him. He smiled at me. “I see Ruchama, that Mama has sent you after me.”

“I could hardly keep pace with Papa as he strode down East Broadway. At the Young Israel synagogue, he stopped and said, “Wait for me.”

“Curiosity impelled me to follow Papa. I entered the corridor and peeked inside. The synagogue was packed to capacity. The reading of the Torah had just finished.

“Papa stood for a moment at the rear of the synagogue. Then he suddenly ran over to the pulpit, banged his hand on the table, and called out loudly, “You have a sign outside that advertises, ‘Young Israel Dance Tonight’. The Torah forbids mixed dancing. Either erase the words, ‘Young Israel’, or the word ‘dance’. Both cannot be on the same sign.”

“There was an uproar, and someone yelled, “Throw him out.” Two husky young men picked up Papa bodily and unceremoniously set him down in the street.

“Papa, don’t you feel ashamed that you were thrown out of a shul?” I cried.

“Not at all Ruchama,” Papa said calmly. “I do not know if they will take heed of what I said, but I had to register my protest.”

“Papa straightened his shoulders and clutched my hand tightly as we marched home to Mama and the guests.”

The Torah had been given and the Nation had accepted it selflessly. The time had come to construct a Mishkan (Tabernacle), i.e. a symbolic abode for G-d, as it were, in the center of the Jewish camp. The Mishkan would continue to be used until the Holy Temple would be constructed atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem by King Shlomo over four hundred years later.

G-d instructed Moshe exactly how to build the Mishkan, which materials were required, how they were to be used, and the exact dimensions of each vessel and garment.

One of the required materials was Shittim wood.

Rashi comments, “From where did they get Shittim wood in the desert? Rabbi Tanchuma explained: Our forefather Yaakov foresaw through Divine Inspiration that Israel was destined to build a Mishkan in the desert. He brought Shittim[2] trees to Egypt and planted them there, and he commanded his sons to take them with them when they would depart from Egypt.”

There is another Medrash[3] which notes that those trees have an even more profound history. Yaakov Avinu was not the original planter of those trees. When the Torah states regarding Avrohom Avinu[4], “He planted an aishel in Be’er Sheva, and there he proclaimed in the Name of Hashem, G-d of the universe.” it is referring to these Shittim trees.

Before Yaakov descended to Egypt he cut down the trees which his grandfather planted and had them transported and replanted in Egypt. When the time of the exodus arrived the nation carried those trees out with them. It was from those trees that the frame of the Mishkan was constructed.

There was deep symbolism invested in the wood which composed the planks which surrounded the Mishkan. Avrohom Avinu was the paragon of chessed (kindness). He dedicated his life to altruistic loving-kindness, thereby making others feel special and valued. Despite being challenged and tested repeatedly Avrohom never abandoned his path of selflessness and love which he espoused to the world.

Yaakov Avinu was the paragon of Emes (truth). He lived his life with tenacious and steadfast integrity, even in the face of adverse challenges and personages who represented the antithesis of all he stood for. Yaakov was resolute and steadfast in his faith and conviction. The myriad vicissitudes he endured did not shake him as he remained the man of truth throughout his life[5].

The verse[6] states “Through kindness and truth, iniquity will be forgiven.” Similarly, the prophet[7] stated, “Grant truth to Yaakov, kindness to Avrohom, as You swore to our forefathers from days of old.”

When we follow the footsteps of our patriarchs who dedicated their lives to the pursuit of truth and the fulfillment of good deeds, we merit forgiveness and transcendence over our sins. The Mishkan afforded the nation the opportunity to feel an elevated sense of closeness with G-d. One of the greatest detriments to that feeling of connection is sin. Therefore, it was specifically on the altar in the Mishkan where one offered sacrifices to atone for sins he committed. The walls surrounding that structure were constructed from the wood planted by Avrohom and transported by Yaakov to symbolize the attributes they dedicated their lives to – truth and kindness.

Perhaps there is a deeper significance of the fact that the Shittim wood which Avrohom planted was transported specifically by Yaakov.

When G-d first appeared to Moshe during the Egyptian exile and informed him that he was destined to be the emissary to lead the Jews out of Egypt, Moshe resisted. For a few days Moshe bargained and pleaded that he was not the right man for the job. Finally, Moshe implored G-d that He allow his brother Aharon to be the leader instead of him. At that point G-d informed Moshe that it was no longer up for discussion. “The wrath of G-d burned against Moshe and He said, ‘Is there not Aharon your brother the Levite?... He shall speak for you to the people; and it will be that he will be your mouth and you will be his leader.[8]

The gemara[9] notes that whenever the Torah records ‘burning with anger’ it denotes an anger that left a mark, by expressing itself in some form, i.e. as rebuke, curse, or a blow. The gemara quotes Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai who explained that by not accepting his role right away Moshe forfeited his rights to the Priesthood. Originally Moshe who was supposed to be the High Priest while Aharon was to be the Levite. Because G-d became angry with Moshe here the roles were reversed.

Rambam[10] additionally notes that whenever burning with anger is mentioned in the Torah it connotes some level of idolatry. Where was there any idolatry here?

When Moshe finally returned to Egypt Aharon went out to greet him. Despite the fact that his younger brother was given the role of leader over him, Aharon was genuinely happy for Moshe. The Medrash states[11], “About this (encounter) was written[12], “Kindness and truth met, righteousness and peace kissed.” ‘Kindness’ refers to Aharon… ‘truth’ refers to Moshe… ‘righteousness’ this is Moshe… ‘peace’ this is Aharon…”

Rabbi Shimon Schwab zt’l explained[13] that the Medrash is saying that when Aharon kissed Moshe it was far more than a physical kiss. That kiss symbolized the connection of peace and truth, and that is why the Torah records it. Moshe was the transmitter of the Torah, he was the leader who possessed an indomitable spirit and relentless effort to transmit the unadulterated Word of G-d. Aharon was the champion of love and peace, with a penchant for promoting brotherhood and unity among his brethren. When they embraced it was symbolic of the fusing of the character traits they embodied.

Rabbi Schwab continues that Truth and Kindness are the hallmarks of the Jewish People. However, there are situations when the two conflict, and one must decide which path to follow - the path of truth or the path of peace and love. For example, at times one may be faced with a situation which is in contrast with the dictates of halacha. The path of peace requires one to look the other direction and smile. But the path of truth requires him to stand up for his beliefs and cause a ruckus to defend the honor of the Torah.

The Torah teaches that truth must prevail. The greatness and importance of peace cannot be overstated. However, “peace must be subservient to truth, like a Levite is subservient to the Priest.” Thus, the verse[14] states that “Love truth and peace”; truth is mentioned first because it must be granted supremacy.

Originally, G-d wanted Aharon – the lover and the pursuer of peace - to be the Levite, while Moshe – the man of truth whose Torah is truth – was to be the High priest. But when G-d became angry with Moshe it had a lasting effect, in that Moshe became the Levite while Aharon became the High Priest.

That role reversal had a dramatic, if not catastrophic, result. Soon after the Torah was given, when the nation panicked because they thought Moshe would not be returning from Sinai, they aggregated around Aharon and demanded, “Get up and make for us a god”. Because Aharon was the champion of peace and because he was indeed the High Priest he could not detain them. The egregious sin of the golden calf resulted, which was tantamount to idol worship.

Had Moshe still been the High priest Aharon would have been able to detain them because he would not have possessed the authority to make such a decision.Thus there indeed was a form of idolatry that resulted from G-d’s anger with Moshe when he did not immediately accept his role.

According to Rashi, G-d authorized the construction of the Mishkan to serve as atonement for the sin of the golden calf. The sin resulted from the fact that there was a subtle prioritization of peace over truth. Perhaps that is why the perimeter of the Mishkan was constructed from wood planted by Avrohom – the champion of peace and kindness, but cut down and hauled away by Yaakov – the champion of truth. We are a nation that must live and personify both kindness and truth. But ultimately truth must lead[15].

“Righteousness and peace kissed”

“Love truth and peace”

[1] This story is excerpted from Mrs. Ruchama Shain’s exemplary book, “All for the Boss” about her saintly father Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Herman zt’l.

[2] Arazim is commonly translated as Cedar wood. However, the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 23a) notes that there are ten varieties of the tree that are referred to as arazim.

[3] Bereishis Rabbah 94:4

[4] Bereishis 21:33

[5] The commentaries explain that ‘truth’ refers primarily to the study of Torah, where truth is to be found. It is for that reason that Yaakov is also the symbol of intense Torah study, as the verse (Bereishis 25:27) states, “Yaakov was a wholesome man, abiding in tents,” i.e. the tents of Torah.

[6] Mishley 16:6

[7] Michah 7:20

[8] 4:14-16

[9] Zevachim 102a

[10] Moreh Nevuchim 1:36

[11] Shemos Rabbah 5:10

[12] Tehillim 85:11

[13] I am grateful to R’ Menny Schwab for sharing this insight from his Zayde with me this past Shabbos. Menny noted that throughout his grandfather’s insights, he almost universally demonstrates how an event/encounter mentioned in the Torah which seems critical and negative really has a very positive twist. The following thought seems to be a rare exception to that approach.

[14] Zechariah 8:19

[15] As Rabbi Schwab once quipped on another occasion, “99% truth is 100% falsehood.”

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