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Freedom in Obedience

By: Rav David Milston

The following dvar Torah is from Rav Milston's book, The Three Pillar, Am Yisrael, Torat Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael; Sefer Shemot, one of the five books in the series.

And Moshe saw all the work, and, behold, they had accomplished it as God had commanded, even so had they made it: then Moshe blessed them. (Shemot 39:43)

This verse comes as a final summary before the Mishkan is set in place. Having accounted for the quantities of materials, balanced the books, and built the various elements of the Mishkan, the great day is about to arrive.

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch masterfully pinpoints a nuance in our verse: “They had accomplished it as God had commanded.”

Two things were imprinted on the work – ‘they accomplished it;’ the nation’s whole personality, devotion, voluntary enthusiasm, and power of accomplishment was expressed in every part; the smallest, and the greatest. Secondly, ‘as God had commanded, exactly so had they made it.’ This energetic zeal and enthusiasm had nevertheless restricted itself meticulously to the Divine commands, in part and in whole. No effort could be detected anywhere; to carry out an idea of improvement, to leave some impression of the artist’s own personality on the work, by adding or omitting.

As his highest aim, each and every workman accepted the careful and precise implementation – not of his own ideas – but the ideas and thoughts which were embodied in the commands of God. This free, joyful obedience; this freedom in obedience and obedience in freedom, which fills one with the happy consciousness of one’s own powers just by absorbing one’s own personality in complete subordination to the will of God, is what forms the most essential sign that characterizes a human being as an ‘Eved Hashem’ – the highest moral perfection that can be attained.

In these few words, Rav Hirsch has defined the complex but wonderful role of man in this world. Man is the most powerful intelligent being in the universe. He was created on the sixth day and given the keys to a ready-made world, especially prepared for him. Man’s unique ability to think and choose distinguishes him from any other being on earth. This is ‘the image of God’, and we are charged to live on this earth and use these inherent abilities under the Almighty’s direction.

But we also have egos, which if not identified and controlled, can lead us to lose all sight of a meaningful life. Indeed, at the beginning of the third chapter of Pirkei Avot, Akavia Ben Mehalalel strongly advises us to contemplate three sobering truths in order to avoid transgression:

  1. We should know we come from a putrid drop.
  2. We need to recognize we will end our days buried in the ground with the worms.
  3. We should never forget we will eventually be required to account for our actions in front of God Himself.

These words put things into stark perspective, for it is so easy to forget who is really in charge. On the other hand, it is equally important not to minimize man and his potential.[1]

Too much sobriety can lower our self-esteem and paralyze our thoughts to the extent we no longer believe in ourselves at all. Hence in addition to Akavia Ben Mahalalel’s advice, we could possibly suggest we simultaneously remind ourselves that we emanate from Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov; that we are destined for the World to Come, and there, if we succeed in our task, we will bask in the spiritual light of the Almighty Himself.

That is the balance we need: Man the achiever; man the believer. And this is what Rav Hirsch is teaching us. As man builds the Mishkan he reflects his individuality, his creativity, his personality, but he does so with the Almighty’s ‘permission’. The moment man decides to break out of those clearly defined borders, the Mishkan can no longer be.

So when Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s sons, decide to offer up strange fire to the Almighty;[2] when Korach and his followers bring the 250 offerings of incense;[3] when Uzzah insists on trying to support the falling Holy Ark[4] – in all three cases the Heavenly reaction is literally deadly. Even our greatest leaders must internalize that true divine service is doing exactly what the Almighty says, neither veering left or right, nor subtracting or adding. Subservience is defined by doing what the Almighty requires us to do. That is the reality of Mishkan and the only frame of mind conducive to Mishkan is ‘freedom in obedience and obedience in freedom’.

The truest form of freedom is our obedience, our self-control. This was our very first lesson as we left Egypt. We were commanded to eat matzot – unleavened bread – to bake yes, but to control the raw material so it would not rise beyond the required limitations. On the very first day of our freedom we were symbolically told our newly found independence must be expressed through our obedience to the Master of the Universe. Here, in our parasha, the idea of that historic night will now be encapsulated in the Mishkan for eternity.

Man cannot decide how to worship the Almighty; the Almighty will decide and tells us exactly how we should serve him. If we wish to be Avdei Hashem; if we wish to leave our own personal Egypt, accept the Torah, and build our Mishkan, we must be aware of the self-sacrifice required. The aim of Mishkan is to remove ourselves from the center and place the Shechina in the middle of Knesset Yisrael. This is why we left Egypt in the first place.

Leaving Egypt was not just an historical event; we left with a purpose – freedom through obedience! If we exist without that reality, our lives remain superficial. Our religious optimum is defined by freedom through obedience, and the Mishkan is the medium for that message; not just the physical building, but the way of life it reflects.

Yerushalayim is the center of the world, and the Mikdash is the center of Yerushalayim. When we turn towards Yerushalayim, we encapsulate this idea of freedom through obedience. We do not look at ourselves as being the center of the universe; we look out of ourselves towards the Holy Shechina residing in the Mikdash.

We can only really grow if we yearn for Yerushalayim and Shechina. It makes no difference where we are geographically; we are regressing if we are not ‘in Jerusalem’. We go ‘up’ to Yerushalayim even from the most northern cities of Israel. Hence, when the physical Mikdash does not exist it is a warning sign for us that the reality it represents does not exist either.

Even if it appears we are serving the Almighty, the truest indication we aren’t is the perpetuation of chorban. We are obviously not yet living in a way that warrants Mikdash. In fact, we are in a very dangerous reality we must not accept as normal! We cannot, must not even contemplate a long-term existence without Mikdash. We left Egypt with an objective, and we have still to achieve it in its entirety. We must not rest until our work is done.

As we conclude Sefer Shemot, let us see how the entire sefer emphasizes our theme:

Throughout this sefer, we see the Ramban’s emphasis in his introduction - this is the book of Galut and Geula, of exile and redemption. We begin in slavery, and we are released onto a new path in life; a new direction, culminating with the Revelation at Sinai. But that is not enough. The Revelation cannot be a one-time occurrence. It must be transformed into eternity.

And this is the role of the Mishkan. The Mishkan is the continuation of Sinai, enabling Am Yisrael to make their way to the Promised Land without losing any of the essence of Revelation. That is the plan, and with Hashem’s help that is what eventually will transpire. The events of Sefer Bamidbar will be a 40-year break before finally reaching the ideal: Am Yisrael living in Eretz Yisrael according to Torat Yisrael.

Even in the Land of Israel itself, we remain in exile until we have the Beit HaMikdash. Our potential remains unfulfilled; our essence untapped. By viewing Sefer Shemot in its entirety we understand that without Mishkan/Mikdash we have not reached our final goal!

There is a fascinating parallel to this idea in the laws of mourning. When a close relative dies, the mourners must go through various halachic stages of mourning. The immediate response to bereavement is the status of aninut, during which the relatives of the deceased are released from certain halachic obligations, particularly positive commandments. However, once the deceased has been buried, that stage ends, and the mourners are once again obliged to observe those commandments.

As we know, the next stage is shiva. For seven days the mourners remain at home, forbidden to work, sitting on the floor, shoes removed, in deep contemplation of the past, present, and future. During the first three days, conversation is minimal; visitors are encouraged to sit and console, but idle chatter is strongly discouraged. During the second half of the shiva, the limits of conversation are expanded but an atmosphere of subdued introspection still hangs in the air.

After a week of intense mourning, the close relatives are expected to slowly but surely return to normality. They can put on their leather shoes again, and return to work, but for the next 23 days, they are still under certain halachic restrictions concerning clothing, bathing, or shaving.[5] When mourning for parents, the halachic period of sadness officially extends to the whole year, but for other relatives the code only lasts for the first month.   

When viewed in this light, we can see a real process of rehabilitation.[6] In the immediate aftermath of the death, the Torah does not demand too much from the mourner. Refrain from negative prohibitions, but otherwise let the realities sink in. Do not busy yourself with specific mitzvot at the moment.

This spiritual ‘no man’s land’ lasts until the funeral. Now we start the long uphill climb to normality. We must once again fully perform mitzvot, but we must stay at home. Don’t rush back to normality; take it slowly, step by step.

After seven days, we move forward. The shiva ends and the relatives are encouraged to ‘re-enter’ civilization, whilst simultaneously reminding themselves they have not quite yet returned to normal, either by their symbolic dress or by a certain physical discomfort.

And after 30 days (or 12 months for parents,) the mourners are expected to gradually accept the tragedy and move on. Excessive mourning is not acceptable - in the long-run our challenge is to rehabilitate ourselves in the goodness of time.

With this in mind, it is astonishing to note that the laws of mourning for the destruction of the first and second Temples follow the exact opposite pattern![7]

The three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av begin with minimal restrictions in hair cutting, shaving, or conducting weddings and other smachot, which are not dissimilar to the individual’s mourning restrictions during the 12 months of mourning for a parent.

From the first day of Av, the restrictions are expanded to include clothing, bathing, eating meat, and drinking wine. The halachot of the ‘Nine Days’ clearly remind us of the individual mourner during the 30-day period.  Tisha B’Av, the actual day commemorating the destruction of our Temples, is a day of absolute mourning – we are essentially sitting shiva.

What is the explanation of this reversal? Why is national mourning any different from individual mourning?

We could suggest that Halacha is interested in rehabilitating the individual mourner, but has no desire to see Am Yisrael come to terms with the reality of no Temple.  

Without Mishkan, we are unfulfilled; the redemption cannot be complete, and we still need an annual reminder that we cannot return to normality. Tisha B’Av is not an integral part of the Jewish calendar – it should not be there at all!  

When Yehuda, our second son, had his Brit Mila on Tisha B’Av, Rabbi Simcha HaCohen Kook, Chief Rabbi of Rehovot (who was speaking in our Yishuv at the time) told of an interesting incident:

A congregant had approached him asking if he should encourage his 11- year-old son to fast on Tisha B’Av in order to educate him in advance of his Bar-Mitzvah. The Rabbi told him that this is not Jewish education at all! It is a fundamental flaw for a Jew to think that Tisha B’Av will happen on a yearly basis. Many have recalled how the Chafetz Chaim would bury his Sefer Kinnot after every Tisha B’Av with a real belief he wouldn’t need it the following year.

How do we match up to these standards? Baruch Hashem, some families (mine included!) are relatively well-organized for Shabbat. We leave very little to the last minute and we do our best to have the house clean by Thursday night, with the aim of entering the holy day in an atmosphere of learning and spirituality, without panic and hysterics. But when it comes to Tisha B’Av, we wait until the very last moment before partaking of our ‘final meal’, in the real hope the fast will be cancelled.

We do not wish to come to terms with Tisha B’Av; we do not wish to be a people unfulfilled. Our aim is to return to the heights of Am Yisrael in the days of King Solomon. Our aim is to move from exile to redemption, from darkness to light. Anything less than absolute redemption is simply unacceptable, and we are committed to prepare for Mikdash!

How can we, 21st Century Jews, prepare for the Beit HaMikdash?

We know the first Mikdash was destroyed because of idolatry, murder, and promiscuity and we know the second Mikdash was destroyed because of needless hate.[8] These are the areas we must focus on if we are to return to full redemption.

There is indeed no idolatry today, but there is ‘avodah zara’.

The phrase ‘avodah zara’ literally means ‘strange service’. In its wider sense (and not its halachic definition) it means making something the center of your life when it shouldn’t be. We need to make the Torah the center of our lives – when one enters a Jewish home one should be surrounded by kedusha, an atmosphere of Avodat Hashem.

We must be careful not to follow the western trends of turning sport, music, and other hobbies into modern day idolatries. There is clearly no harm in listening to certain music; participating in sport is even to be encouraged, but the hysterical worship of pop idols, or the addiction to sports teams, is a shocking waste of human potential, to say the least, and freedom without obedience at worst.

The other flaws that led to destruction all involve our interactions with others, and we know that our task is even more formidable in an increasingly selfish world. But if we are to return to our ideal status, we must work at improving our middot. We should be looking to improve our relationships with people, and correct the flaw of senseless hate with warmth, affection, and care.

Finally, we must seize the moment. If we really are yearning for Mikdash, there is no time like the present – literally. After 2,000 years we have merited a unique window of opportunity. We have independence in Israel; we even have Yerushalayim – so near but yet so far! Today more than ever we have the freedom to obey the call of the Almighty – “Come Home!” because the Jewish people only has one home, with the Mikdash at its heart.

Let us pray that our contemporary ‘Exodus’[9] will conclude in the same manner as Sefer Shemot – with the successful building of the Beit HaMikdash. May it be rebuilt speedily in our days! 


[1] See Tehillim, 8:5-6, for a beautiful summary of this idea.

[2] Vayikra, 10.

[3] Bamidbar, 16. A task the Almighty had already designated to Aharon HaKohen.

[4] Shmuel Bet, 6.

[5] For a detailed understanding of the laws of aninut and aveilut see Gesher HaChaim, second edition –  Rav Yechiel Michel Tikochinsky of blessed memory: Volume 1: 18 – regarding aninut, 21 regarding shiva, and 22 regarding post-shiva restrictions.

[6] I have heard this idea attributed to Rav Soloveitchik.

[7] See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim Simanim 551-561, with additional reference to the Mishna Berurah there.

[8] See Yoma 9b.

[9] See the introduction on page?


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