Awakening our thirst to create a better world


Some lessons you learn the hard way, and they are never forgotten.

In Infantry Officer’s training there is an obstacle course known as the “A’son Teva” (Freak of Nature). In full uniform and gear, at one point you have to wade through an ice-cold river that gets up to your chest. When you wade out, the first thing that hits you is an 18 foot rope you have to climb.

Soaked from the river, with all the extra weight of the water in your gear and on your drenched fatigues, not to mention the psychological pressure of commanders screaming at you, that rope for me was just an insurmountable mountain. You only have so much time to finish the entire course, which means you only have a little less than a minute to get up that rope, or you don’t make the grade, and have to do the entire course over again.

I didn’t think I would make it up that rope. But there was an officer who was responsible for running us through the drill and teaching us the finer arts of the course, who was there with us on the final day when the test would count. He was a short guy who wore the beret of the paratroopers, and throughout the training I had wondered how he had made it through paratrooper training; he couldn’t have been more than five feet tall.

Just before we began the run, he walked over to me, seeing the tension on my face, and said, with a big grin: “Im Tirtzu, Ein Zo’ Aggadah (If you want it enough, it’s not just a dream).”

This was Theodore Herzl’s famous response to all those who ridiculed his determined devotion to what they considered a fairy tale dream: building a Jewish state in the land of Israel.

And I got it. You don’t climb ropes with muscle, you climb them with willpower.

Leaving Mount Sinai behind them, the Jewish people are given a new challenge. In this week’s portion, Terumah, Hashem asks us to build for Him a mishkan, a tabernacle, also known as the Tent of Meeting. This tabernacle would be the forerunner of the Temple, the Beit HaMikdash that would eventually be built in Jerusalem.

Interestingly, the initial commandment to gather the materials necessary for building this tabernacle was meant to be on a voluntary basis only. The mitzvah to build the Temple — which Maimonides states is one of the 613 mitzvoth listed in the Torah — is completely dependent on the whim and fancy of the Jewish people. Even more challenging, the building of the mishkan (and later the mikdash) also seems to run counter to a basic principle of Judaism.

Most of the major rabbinic authorities concur that in general, “Mitzvoth Einan Tzrichot Kavanah,” that Mitzvoth do not require intent.

Ultimately, the fulfillment of a mitzvah is dependent upon the commission of an action and not on the kavanah (or intent) that is meant to accompany it.

If I am not hungry all day on Yom Kippur, and end up fasting the entire day despite having no idea that it is Yom Kippur, or that there is a mitzvah to fast on that day, I nonetheless fulfill the mitzvah — because in the end, I have indeed fasted on Yom Kippur. Or if I jump into a pool to swim and it happens to be a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath, the same would apply.

But in this case, it is apparent, that without the kavanah, the mitzvah is meaningless! This mitzvah of building the tabernacle is entirely dependent on the desire of the individual. If the Jewish people don’t really want a Temple, then there won’t be a Temple.

Interestingly there are other instances where a mitzvah does indeed require intent as a pre-requisite to fulfillment. 

For example, if I am out for a run on a Rosh Hashanah day and, passing the local synagogue, I hear the shofar, I have not fulfilled the mitzvah unless I know it is Rosh Hashanah and I intended to fulfill the mitzvah when hearing the shofar! So why is Shofar different from other mitzvoth (such as tefillin, or the eating of matzah, which do not require such intent and understanding)?

Rav Chaim Brisker suggests that unlike other mitzvoth, where the intention and feeling (the kavanah) is additional to the mitzvah — here, the mitzvah of shofar is the feeling, the motivation to do teshuvah and return to who I was meant to be.

The same is true for prayer. Without the understanding of what prayer is all about, I am not even close to fulfilling the mitzvah, which is why Maimonides rules in much the same way regarding prayer as he does with shofar: without the proper intention and feeling, one cannot fulfill the mitzvah, because the mitzvah is to experience that feeling.

All of which points to the fact that if the mitzvah of building the mikdash cannot be fulfilled without the proper desire and intent, then somehow, concerning the building of the mikdash, the devotion and intention is the mitzvah.

Which leaves us wondering why the Beit HaMikdash would be considered meaningless if it were built (or even planned) without the proper desire or intent? The mishkan is our introduction to the concept of elevating the space-less through space of reaching the unlimited through the defined.

• • •

Everything about the Temple was designed to arouse our desire to become better, to be better. The detail of the artwork, the nature of the materials used, the ideas behind the functions of different vessels, not to mention all the details of the process of offering up sacrifices, each was designed to elevate a human being to a different consciousness.

The essence of the service in the Temple was what a person felt, and not what he was doing. If a person went through all the right motions, but that wasn’t combined with an arousal of the heart, then he was missing the essence of the mitzvah.

The Temple was meant to be a lesson in the effect of the right environment on all that we do and all that we are. This is also the essence of the idea that we as a people need to be in such an environment, the Land of Israel, all the time.

Perhaps the idea goes even deeper. Sometimes, an action done without the necessary motivation, does more than render the action meaningless; sometimes, such an action can damage the soul. We might wonder whether it was this type of performance, devoid of any feeling or desire, that led so many Jews to leave the beauty of mitzvoth behind, in search of disciplines that would deliver the fire and joy they thirsted for.

We look at the Temple as a building made of stone,and filled with gold. But that is just an illusion. The essence of the Temple was its ability as an environment to engender the desire for a closer relationship with G-d and a determination to make a difference in this world.

The foundation of all that we do is the essence of what we really want. What do we want? This is the question Hashem asks us to consider as we embark upon the building of the tabernacle, and later the Temple. We need to create and regularly experience an environment, be it the Temple, our Synagogue or even our Shabbat table, that is conducive to spiritual growth.

But if we want to be in a place that will awaken in us the thirst for a better world, and the belief that we can be partners in creating it, the journey begins inside each one of us. The bricks and mortar, and stained glass windows, are just the right space; the real building begins with the heart.