The following is an expanded write-up of remarks originally delivered this past Shabbos at Cong. Ahavas Achim in Highland Park, New Jersey.
Good Shabbos everyone. This morning, I’d like to discuss one of the most pressing issues in the Jewish world today: matchmaking.
I know what you’re thinking–but hold that thought. Because it’s not dating and marriage that I’m talking about. No, when I say “matchmaking,” what I’ve got in mind are matching campaigns. You know–like, fundraising.
Because, if you haven’t noticed, matching campaigns are all the rage in the world of Jewish philanthropy today. And while these campaigns usually result in smashing success, this week, Jews around the world are all talking about the campaign that ended in shocking failure.
Now, this campaign wasn’t quite a “matching” campaign–though its organizers did promise to top up donor contributions. And the campaign didn’t quite make global headlines–but, I know for a fact that everyone in this room has read about it.
Actually, we all did so, about fifteen minutes ago.
You see, in this week’s parshah, Moshe makes a tzedakah plea. He’s looking to build the mishkan, and so he gathers together b’nei Yisrael to ask them to contribute materials towards its construction. That’s the basic storyline.
Rashi, though, fills us in on its intriguing backstory. According to the medrash which Rashi cites, the campaign to build the mishkan wasn’t just run like your standard capital campaign. It was a variation on the “matching campaign.” Because when Moshe delivered his pitch, Rashi tells us, the nesi’im—the leaders of the twelve tribes—came together and made a deal. They pledged that they would donate directly any materials which were still needed once all of b’nei Yisrael’s contributions had been collected. It seemed like a wonderful idea.
But it totally backfired. Because when they tallied all the donations b’nei Yisrael had gathered, you know what they found that they were still missing? A few gemstones. That’s it.
And it ended up putting the nesi’im in a pretty awkward position. Here they thought they were going to come out as the heroes of this campaign, and yet, when it was all said and done, they found themselves barely able to contribute anything at all. They completely underestimated the giving capacity of their donor base.
And as you read this story, you’ve got to scratch your head and wonder: Why? What could possibly have led to such an enormous miscalculation–what could possibly have led the nesi’im to so grossly mis-assess the generosity of b’nei Yisrael?
The truth is, our parshah doesn’t give us any clues. In fact, as we mentioned, the story doesn’t really appear in our parshah at all–it only appears in Rashi.
But I think we can solve this mystery anyways.
Because if we want to understand what the mindset of the nesi’im might have been coming into this moment in history, maybe it would help to consider where they’d been prior to this moment in history. And, in fact, that’s a pretty easy thing to do, because there is actually only one story where the nesi’im appear as an independent group of leaders prior to this one. Anyone know what it is?
Let’s read it together, and see if it triggers your memory:
ויהי ביום הששי – And it happened on the sixth day–on Friday,
לקטו לחם משנה, שני העמר לאחד – That they gathered double portions of bread, two omers per person
ויבאו כל נשיאי העדה, ויגידו למשה – So all of the nesi’im came, and reported it to Moshe.
In case you’re still wondering, the scene we’re quoting from here takes place just a month after b’nei Yisrael leave Egypt, when Hashem rains mann from heaven for them to eat. The nesi’im notice b’nei Yisrael gathering more than Hashem has commanded them to, and so they immediately alert Moshe of the problem. That’s the one and only context in which we see them mobilize as a group, prior to this week’s parshah.
And at first glance, it might not seem like this background bears much insight for our purposes. But the more you think about it, the more you realize that it actually does. In fact, if you pay really close attention, you’ll notice that there are a whole host of clues connecting this week’s episode to that earlier one. All we need to do is play a little “matching” game.
After all, what was it exactly that was bothering the nesi’im in the mann episode? It was that b’nei Yisrael were collecting too much for themselves. And what do the nesi’im assume, in this week’s parshah? That b’nei Yisrael won’t contribute enough. And, based on the mann episode, that seemed like a pretty fair assumption to make.
But something funny ended up happening instead. Because as soon as Moshe issued his call for materials, b’nei Yisrael begun bringing those materials—as the Torah puts it–“morning by morning:” בקר בבקר — exactly as they used to collect the mann: “morning by morning” — בקר בבקר.
And just as they were “מרבה,” “excessive,” in bringing the mann, our parshah tells us that they were “מרבים,” “excessive,” in bringing materials for the mishkan.
And whereas the excess mann they gathered “rose with worms,” “וירם תולעים,” the gifts they brought to the mishkan were a “תרומה,” an “elevation offering,” which they wove into a “worm-like” pattern for its fabrics — “תולעת שני.”
And whereas b’nei Yisrael disobeyed Hashem by “leaving over” excess mann from one day to the next–ויותירו–they now honored Him by donating so much to the mishkan that they even had materials “left over”–והותר.
And there are several more connections like these. But without going into all of them, what we’re picking up on here, if you’re starting to piece it together, is something absolutely remarkable. What we’re discovering is that the way b’nei Yisrael went about contributing to the mishkan seems to directly parallel the way they had once gone about collecting the mann. It’s almost as if the Torah is hinting to us that these two stories are really one–that the energy and attitude which led them to collect the mann the way they did is the very same energy, the very same attitude, which led them to contribute to the mishkan in the way they did.
And if that’s something you find difficult to understand — well, you’re not alone. Because it was probably this very point which eluded the nesi’im as well. See, the nesi’im never could have imagined that the same people who took so much when it came to collecting the mann would go on to give so much when it came time to contribute towards the mishkan.
But b’nei Yisrael did just that. Just as they collected more mann than they could possibly need, they contributed to the mishkan more than it could possibly need. One drew criticism, the other drew praise; but ultimately — and this, I think, is the penetrating psychological insight of our parshah — it was the same impulse which drove them to both. It wasn’t a selfish impulse. It wasn’t a selfless impulse. It was something far more basic than that.
What was it?
You know, this week, as I was thinking about the story of these nesi’im, and trying to get to the bottom of it, I stumbled across a story involving another kind of nassi. This nassi was known as Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, also referred to as the seventh “nassi” of Chabad. And many of you know that the Rebbe had a practice of offering brachas to those who came to visit him. But, for one person, the Rebbe’s bracha wasn’t enough.
His name was Yehudah Leib, and for decades he was a staple of the Lower East Side, where he ran a small store called “Leibel Bistritzky Kosher Gourmet Foods.” Business was really tough when Reb Leibel started out; sometimes, he’d literally go an entire week without seeing his family, as he spent every waking hour in the store, trying to make ends meet. And so he went to visit the Rebbe. And the Rebbe listened to Leibel’s story. And when Leibel was finished, the Rebbe told him: “Leibel, Hashem will help you.”
But to the Rebbe’s surprise, Reb Leibel wasn’t satisfied. “Rebbe,” he pleaded, “please promise that it’ll be so.” So the Rebbe once again assured Reb Leibel that Hashem would take care of him. And at that, Reb Leibel began to weep. Through his tears, he cried: “Rebbe – I am not leaving here until you issue it as an unequivocal decree.” And so, finally, the Rebbe, moved by this man’s persistence, gave Reb Leibel his guarantee.
With time, Reb Leibel’s business picked up, and he eventually became one of the most prominent members in Chabad. He continued to work tirelessly, day in and day out–and, in 1977, the New Yorker ran a feature article about him in which they described him as a man of “rigid devotion,” who “didn’t believe in half measures.”
But they weren’t talking about the way he’d run his business. They were talking about the way he’d close it. Because while Reb Leibel would work till 4:00 AM if necessary in order to secure income for his family, every day at 4:00 PM, he would close his store, right in the prime of the business day, and turn his shop over for a mincha minyan. The practice started in 1970, when Reb Leibel lost his father, and was suddenly obligated to recite kaddish on his behalf. And though he might have relied on the possibility of catching a minyan later at shul, Reb Leibel wasn’t one to rely on probabilities. He wanted guarantees.
So he personally recruited his neighboring shop owners to daven mincha with him at 4:00 each day. And he personally called them, each day, to make sure they were coming. And sometimes, he’d even run out into the streets, yelling “mincha, mincha,” just to make sure that they’d heard him. And dozens of people davened mincha who wouldn’t otherwise–all because Reb Leibel made sure it was going to happen.
It’s an inspiring story, Reb Leibel’s. And, you know something–I think it’s really the story of this week’s parshah. Because the New Yorker had it right: Reb Leibel was not a man of “half measures.” He was not a man who left things up for grabs. When an outcome mattered to him — whether it was making it in business, or making a minyan in the middle of the work day — he did everything he could to make sure it was going to happen.
And, ultimately, it’s this attitude which drove b’nei Yisrael in the stories we’ve been studying. Why were they so “מרבים,” so “excessive,” in the way they gathered the mann, and in the way they contributed to the mishkan? Clearly, they weren’t motivated by a desire to take; what drove them was their insistence on taking no chances. It was because they weren’t prepared to leave over to chance that which mattered to them, that they gathered so many leftovers when collecting the mann–but also, that they brought so many leftover materials to ensure the successful construction of the mishkan.
And so the lesson they leave over for us is complex. Because, on the one hand, Chazal teach us that we always need to balance hishtadlus, personal effort and initiative, with bitachon–trust in Hashem. On the other hand, it’s clear that hishtadlus, directed towards appropriate ends, is something to be celebrated. See, the nesi’im may have protested that b’nei Yisrael gathered double mann on Friday–but do you know how Moshe responded when they brought this complaint to him? He actually praised this action–because it was taken in honor of Shabbos preparation. And do you know what Moshe did, with some of that leftover mann? He put it in a jar, and displayed it prominently in the center of the mishkan which b’nei Yisrael built this week. And maybe the message was that whatever energy we’re willing to expend on behalf of the mann, and on everything that it represents, we must always be willing to expend on behalf of the mishkan, and everything that it represents.
So perhaps we ought to launch a “matching campaign” of our own–to set a goal, that we’re going to match the hishtadlus we take towards mundane matters, with equal levels of hishtadlus towards the matters which really matter.
If we’ll invest lots of effort into choosing the right phone plan, then let’s invest lots of effort into choosing the right words when we speak on that phone, so that we’re always being sensitive and considerate when we talk to others.
If we’ll spend lots of time keeping up with the daily news, let’s spend lots of time keeping up with the weekly parshah.
If we’ll go to great lengths to understand what our boss and our customers need from us, let’s go to great lengths to understand what our spouse and our children need from us, too.
The same way we’ll leave nothing to chance, we’ll go the extra mile, to get the results we want in other important areas of our lives–let’s go all out, let’s do whatever it takes, to guarantee that we’re striving spiritually, as well.
It’s not always an easy thing to do. But if we put our mind to it, then we will find–just like b’nei Yisrael, in this week’s parshah–that the challenges really are no “match” for us.
Special thanks to Rabbi Steven Miodownik for offering helpful comments on an earlier draft, and to Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky for sharing the story about Reb Leibel Bistritzky.