This period of the year is a time when many people struggle to keep their interest in the weekly Torah reading, which speaks a great deal, and in great detail, about the Mishkan, the portable Bet Hamikdash, which our ancestors constructed at Sinai.  They carried the Mishkan with them throughout their travels, erecting it at each encampment so sacrifices could be offered there.  In the latter section of the Book of Shemot, the Torah goes into the nitty-gritty particulars of the Mishkan, specifying precisely how the structure itself, and all its various appurtenances, were built.  While this section might at first seem intimidating – and, dare we say, tedious – it goes without saying that there is endless depth and profundity in each and every detail in the Torah, this section certainly being no exception.

The One Person Who Did Not Donate

Here we will turn our attention to one oft-overlooked detail of the Mishkan’s construction.

This section begins with the opening verses of Parashat Teruma, where Gd commands Moshe to ask the people to donate the materials that were needed for the Mishkan.  This proved to be the most successful campaign in the history of fundraising, as the people donated so generously that Moshe had to announce that they should halt further donations.

The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 1) relates that although the nation responded with remarkable enthusiasm and generosity to the call for donations, there was one prominent member of the nation who did not donate anything – Moshe Rabbenu!  Surprisingly, while Moshe was the one who instructed the people to contribute, and oversaw the entire project, he did not donate any materials.  The Midrash tells, “Hayetah nafsho shel Moshe agumah alav” – Moshe felt despondent over having not participated in the donation of materials for the Mishkan.  Gd consoled Moshe by assuring him, “By your life, your speech is more beloved to Me than everything.”

The question is obvious.  Why did Moshe not donate materials?  The Sages teach that Moshe was a wealthy man.  He certainly had what to contribute.  Why didn’t he?  And if he had a good reason not to donate materials, then why did he feel despondent and left out?

The Hatam Sofer (Rav Moshe Sofer of Pressburg, 1762-1839) offers what might at first seem to be a simple answer – but which in actuality provides us with a profound, eye-opening insight.

A number of sources teach that Gd commanded the people to construct the Mishkan in order to atone for the sin of the golden calf.  Just 40 days after beholding Gd’s revelation at Sinai and jubilantly accepting the Torah, Beneh Yisrael betrayed the Almighty by fashioning a golden image of a calf, and worshipping it.  To rectify this grievous sin, the people were now called upon to donate precious materials for a site that would be used to serve Gd.

Accordingly, the reason why Moshe did not participate in the donation of materials for the Mishkan is plainly obvious – he did not require atonement.  As the Mishkan was needed to rectify the sin of the golden calf, Moshe did not donate towards this project, as he took no part in the golden calf, and, to the contrary, he reprimanded and punished the people for this grave incident.

However, as the Hatam Sofer acknowledges, this raises another difficult question: why does the Midrash describe Moshe as feeling “left out”?  Why did it disturb him that he did not donate to the Mishkan, if the donations were needed only for the purpose of rectifying a sin which he did not commit?  Are we upset over not having the “privilege” of paying a ticket because we did not speed or park illegally?

Transforming Sins Into Mitzvot

The Hatam Sofer offers an astonishing answer, noting a number of famous rabbinic teachings regarding the great power and value of repentance.

In Masechet Yoma (86b), the Gemara establishes that proper repentance does more than simply protect a person from punishment.  If a person repents “me’ahavah” – out of love, with a sincere desire to draw closer to Gd, then his sins are converted into sources of merit.  Teshuvah does not simply erase guilt – it actually lifts the person higher than he had been previously, as his sins are retroactively transformed into merits.

The Hatam Sofer demonstrates how this works in a very dramatic way.  He gives the example of somebody who ate non-kosher food – let’s say, a cheeseburger.  He ate the cheeseburger knowing full well what he was doing, with the clear understanding that he was transgressing the Torah.  Later, he sincerely regrets his mistake – not simply out of fear of punishment, but because he is overcome by love of Gd and a genuine desire to fulfill Gd’s will.  Once this person repents, the Hatam Sofer writes, the cheeseburger he ate is retroactively considered like the meat of the pesach sacrifice which he ate in the Bet Hamikdash in Jerusalem.

This is how powerful sincere teshuvah is.  Sitting in a non-kosher restaurant eating a cheeseburger can become like sitting in the courtyard of the Bet Hamikdash in a state of purity partaking of a sacrifice!

The Gemara (Berachot 34b) teaches, “The place where penitent sinners stand – the perfectly righteous cannot stand there.”  While it goes without saying that we must do everything we can to avoid wrongdoing, nevertheless, after the fact, once we’ve done something wrong, we have the opportunity to become even greater than we would have been otherwise.  Our heroic efforts to pick ourselves up, to rise from the depths, to change our behavior, to chart a new course, and to embark on a fresh beginning – this is an incalculably precious source of merit for us.  And so our sins are actually transformed into mitzvot.

In a remark that only a towering sage of his stature could write, the Hatam Sofer applies this principle to Moshe Rabbenu and the Mishkan.  Recognizing the precious value of teshuvah, Moshe felt dismayed.  Quite obviously, he did not regret his having not participated in the sin of the golden calf.  However, when he saw the people’s repentance, how they so inspiringly sought to change their past and rebuild their relationship with Gd, he was awed – and even felt a tinge of envy.  Their efforts retroactively transformed the worship of the golden calf into the devoted worship of Gd.  And so, in a sense, Moshe felt left out.  He was excluded from what might have been the greatest public process of teshuvah of all time, and he envied the great merit that such a process brings.

Gd comforted Moshe, as mentioned, telling him, “Your speech is more beloved to Me than everything.”  The Hatam Sofer explains that as Moshe was the one who led and inspired the people to repent, their repentance is partially credited to him.  He would reap the great rewards of the people’s teshuvah, because of the seminal role he played in that process.

A New Look at the Purim Feast

It is worth reflecting on this concept during this month, the month of Adar, as we prepare for the joyous celebration of Purim.

One of the mitzvot that we perform on this day is the se’udah – the festive meal.  At least according to some commentators, our Purim feast is more than just a means of celebrating the Purim miracle.  There are those who explain that our Purim feast commemorates Ahashverosh’s lavish feast for the people of Shushan, as described at the beginning of Megilat Ester.  This feast was a grotesque display of sheer gluttony and decadence, and the Jews of Shushan happily participated.  This marked a shameful low point in our people’s history.  And yet, we gleefully commemorate it each and every year, with fine foods, wine, singing and merriment.

The reason is because of the end of the Purim story – when the Jews wholeheartedly repented and recommitted themselves to the Torah.  This repentance had the effect of transforming their sinful participation in Ahashverosh’s feast into a great mitzvah.  And so that feast is, in retrospect, an event worthy of jubilant commemoration.

This discussion sheds new light on the special joy of Adar, as we prepare for Purim.

A conscientious Jew cannot help but feel troubled and unhappy with himself, at least on occasion.  We have all made mistakes, some more serious than others.  We are all far from perfect, and if we take our religious lives seriously, we will at times feel upset at ourselves, and at times we might even feel despair.  Voices in our minds might be saying things like, “Gd isn’t interested in me anymore;” “It’s too late for me, I’ve done too many really bad things;” “I shouldn’t even bother.”  The Purim feast teaches us that the precise opposite is true: the mistakes of our past give us great potential for the future.  We can, in a very real sense, turns those mistakes into great sources of blessings.  We can learn from them, grow from them, and gain from them.

Can there be any greater joy than this, than knowing that all the mistakes we’ve made, everything we’ve ever done wrong in our lives, can turn around and become precious mitzvot?

Knowing this, we can enjoy an especially exciting, joyous and meaningful Adar.  We can experience the unparalleled satisfaction of knowing that we can turn everything around, that our decisions for the future fundamentally transform our past, that we have no reason to worry about what we’ve done, as long as we are now trying to be better.

During this month, let us stop worrying about what we’ve done wrong, and instead recognize the potential we have to use our past mistakes to build for ourselves a beautiful future.