…a person should learn Torah and perform mitzvot even if he is not genuinely motivated, – performing the mitzvah for the wrong reasons can lead him to eventually perform the mitzvah for the right reasons.
Perfecting Through Bonding
Part of being human is being limited, the inability to do everything we want to do. So often we want to do something that is practically impossible, and other times we find ourselves being forced to do something we don’t want to do. We want to go on an exciting trip, but inclement weather makes it impossible. We don’t want to stay late at the office to finish the extra work assigned by the boss, but we have no choice.
Jewish tradition teaches us that how this disparity between our wishes and actions plays out when it comes to our religious observance. If a person truly wanted to perform a certain mitzvah, but was prevented from doing so due to extenuating circumstances, he is credited with a mitzvah nonetheless. This means that if a person has a day off on Tuesday and plans to use the time to visit a friend in the hospital, but on Tuesday morning he wakes up with the flu and needs to stay in bed, Gd credits him with performing the mitzvah of visiting an ill patient. If a person goes to the synagogue for a Torah class, only to discover that the rabbi was unable to teach that day, he gets credit for Torah study. This is true in the converse situation, as well, though there it works a bit differently. If a person feels no desire to perform a mitzvah, but is compelled to due to certain pressures, he is still credited with the performance of a mitzvah, but his reward will not be the same as it would if he was truly sincere. Our sages famously teach that a person should learn Torah and perform mitzvot even if he is not genuinely motivated, “shemitoch shelo lishmah ba lishmah” – performing the mitzvah for the wrong reasons can lead him to eventually perform the mitzvah for the right reasons. And so although we should give charity out of a sincere desire to contribute, even a donation given due to peer pressure is significant. The same is true of someone who attends a Torah class because his friend pushed him into it. Although this is far less than ideal, it is still a meaningful accomplishment, as it may likely lead to sincere engagement in Torah.
These concepts seem pretty straightforward and intuitive. However, as with all Torah concepts, there is much more going on beneath the surface, as a close study of a verse in this month’s Torah readings reveals.
Two Words, Two Worlds
Parashat Terumah begins with Gd’s command that Beneh Yisrael should donate materials for the construction of the Mishkan, the portable Temple which accompanied them as they traveled through the wilderness. The Mishkan was an exquisite structure, which included large amounts of gold, silver, and other precious materials. Beneh Yisrael responded with unparalleled generosity to the call for donations, parting with the riches they had taken from Egypt, to the point that the people in charge had to call upon them to stop donating.
Curiously, Gd actually issued two commands when ordering the people to donate materials. First, He said, “Veyikhu li terumah – They shall make for Me a donation,” followed by, “you shall take My donation from every man whose heart stirs him.” Gd first issued a general call for “terumah – a donation,” and then asked for “terumati – My donation” from those who were motivated to donate. How do we explain these two commands?
The answer, as explained by Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apta (1748-1825), in his work Ohev Yisrael, lies in the subtle but important difference between the words “terumah” and “terumati.” To understand the difference between these words, we need to understand the significance of the letters with which these words end – heh and yod.
Tradition teaches that the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are laden with spiritual meaning and power. So much so, in fact, that Gd created all of existence through the proclamation of two letters – yod and heh. The letter yod is the letter with which Gd created the eternal world of the afterlife, while our finite, physical world was brought into existence with the letter heh. What does it mean that Gd created the world with letters? This is a subject that lies far beyond the scope of this magazine article, and far beyond the knowledge and grasp of its author. For our purposes, however, it suffices that these two letters – yod and heh – are associated, respectively, with the spiritual afterlife and the physical world that we occupy during our lifetimes.
The Rebbe of Apta explained that there are two types of Jews: those who give terumah, and those who give terumati. The first donates material assets, objects belonging to the world of the heh, while the second donates spiritual assets, which are part of the eternal world of the yod. Gd turned to both groups, commanding the first to donate a “terumah,” and the second to donate “terumati.”
What does all this mean?
The Rebbe explained that when we wish to donate, to sacrifice of ourselves for an important cause, we give that which is most dear to us. For the vast majority of people, this means donating money, or donating time that we would otherwise use for our own enjoyment and comfort. Such donations are immensely significant and valuable, and we will be rewarded for them in full. The tzadikim, however, make a different kind of donation. They do not afford as much significance to material assets as the rest of us do. Indeed, I’ve been to the homes of numerous outstanding tzadikim, and I’ve seen the austerity with which they live. They are content and happy with the very basics, with simple food, clothing and shelter, and seek nothing more. And thus when they want to sacrifice for Gd, they cannot make a donation of “teurmah,” of worldly assets, for two reasons: they do not have extra assets to give, and secondly, even if they did, this would not serve to express their dedication to Gd. Since they do not ascribe too much importance to material goods, donating such goods would not, for them, be respectful. They therefore give a much different kind of donation – a donation of pure spirituality, which is represented by the word “terumati,” which ends with the letter yod, an allusion to the eternal spiritual world.
Still, more explanation is required. How does a tzadik “donate” spirituality? We understand a donation of material assets. Baruch Hashem, this is something we all do and something in which our community excels, far beyond probably any other community on Earth. But how does a righteous person make a donation of “terumati” –a spiritual donation?
“Yisrael are Holy”
The answer emerges from a seemingly peculiar remark which we find in the Gemara, in Masechet Hulin (7b): “Yisrael are holy; there are some who want [to give] but do not have, and there are some who have but do not want [to give].” The Gemara observes the phenomenon of those who wish to donate money to charity but have nothing to donate, and those who have plenty to give but have no interest in doing so. Surprisingly, the Gemara introduces this observation by noting that “Yisrael kedoshim hen – Yisrael are holy,” suggesting that both groups are sacred.
The question is obvious. Why is the second group holy? What is holy about a multimillionaire who refuses to donate some of his fortune to charity? Can a miser be “holy”?
Tosafotexplains that the Gemara speaks here of those who do not wish to give but give anyway. Although their donation is made begrudgingly, they are nevertheless considered “holy.”
The question remains, however, as to why this is considered “holiness.” Why should we consider a person “holy” if his donation was not given with any sincerity or desire to help?
The famous Hassidic master Reb Zusha of Anapoli (1718-1800) offered a fascinating approach to the Gemara’s comment. He explained that when the Gemara says, “Yisrael kedoshim hen,” it does not mean that each of the two groups is independently holy. Rather, it means that the Jewish Nation is collectively holy because we are able to complement one another and compensate for each other’s shortcomings. Some people want to give donations but are unable to do so, whereas others have no desire to give but give against their will. Together, these two groups combine to form the “perfect mitzvah.” The actions of one and the thoughts of the other come together, producing a pristine act of selfless giving.
Reb Zusha’s teaching sheds new light on the famous rabbinic proverb cited earlier: “shemitoch shelo lishmah ba lishmah.” This is commonly understood to mean that even if a person’s motives are insincere, his mitzvah is valuable, because it can eventually lead him to sincere performance of mitzvot. Reb Zusha, however, explained this adage differently. When a person performs a mitzvah with insincere motives, it is then “ba lishmah” – it combines with the altruistic thoughts and intentions of others who are incapable of performing the mitzvah. The reason why one should observe mitzvot even if he lacks sincerity is because his acts can join together with the thoughts of others, resulting in a proper mitzvah.
And thus the sages teach us the concept that Gd is “metzaref mahashavah lemaaseh” – which literally means that He “combines the thought to deeds.” Gd merges one person’s sincere intentions with another person’s insincere actions – and then they are both credited with the complete performance of a mitzvah.
This neatly explains the double command at the beginning of Parashat Terumah. First, Gd turns to those with wealth – the vast majority of the nation – and commands them to donate materials, even if they feel disinclined to do so. Then, He says that “every man whose heart stirs,” meaning, those pious individuals who wish to give but have nothing to give, would make their donation – a donation of “terumati,” of their genuine desire to participate in this endeavor. These two donations would blend to create the perfect foundation for the Mishkan, the home of the Divine Presence.
The final question we need to answer is, how does this work? How is it possible for a person’s intentions to be “transferred” to his fellow, and for him to receive his fellow’s actions?
The answer, quite simply, is that this merging occurs when there is genuine love and harmony among Jews. When we love and respect one another like family despite our differences, then we combine into a single organic whole. And we are then able to share our achievements and gain from each other’s successes.
At the heart of this concept is the basic reality that no person is perfect. We all have our faults and limitations. But we can transcend our limitations through Jewish unity, by feeling sincere kinship and closeness with our fellow Jews. When we come together, we gain access to each other’s accomplishments, we complement one another, and form a perfect whole.
With the year 5776 being a leap year, we have an extra month to contemplate the profound messages of the great holiday of Purim. One such message directly relates to the concept we’ve discussed here.
Kabbalistic thought teaches that Purim is as significant and sacred a day as Yom Kippur. This has been explained to mean that Purim, like Yom Kippur, is a day of atonement: Yom Kippur atones for our sinful actions, whereas Purim atones for our lack of sincerity and concentration. On Yom Kippur, we abstain from normal human activity as we seek forgiveness for inappropriate behavior; on Purim, we drink to the point where we cannot think straight, to atone for our lack of sincerity and concentration in the performance of mitzvot.
Not coincidentally, Purim is also characterized by a very strong emphasis on camaraderie. It is the only day on the Jewish calendar when we have a halachic obligation to give gifts (mishloah manot), we must give charity on Purim beyond our normal tzedakah obligations, and we get together with family and friends for a festive meal. As we seek to atone for our lack of sincerity and thought in our religious observance, we bond with our fellow Jews. When we get together in friendship and camaraderie, the actions of one combine with the thoughts of the other, and we all perfect ourselves. If we’ve failed to be sufficiently attentive to our service of Gd, then we correct this mistake by being attentive to the people around us. By creating and maintaining meaningful bonds of friendship, we access the part of others that we are lacking, and share with them the part of us which they are lacking. And then we all move together ever closer to perfection.
Having reached this point, we need to correct something we said in the introduction to this essay. We began by noting that we human beings are limited and incapable of doing whatever we want. In light of what we have seen, this is only partially correct. True, we are very limited beings, but we are able to transcend our limitations through our relationships with our fellow Jews. When we bond with others who have capabilities that we lack, we gain access to those capabilities and effectively perfect ourselves.
This is a very exciting concept, but a challenging one, as well. It requires us to bond meaningfully with those Jews who are different from us, who don’t think or act exactly as we do. If we want to perfect ourselves, we need to extend beyond our “comfort zone” and connect with those who are different.
Gd wanted the entire nation, all different types of Jews, to participate together in the construction of the Mishkan, and this merging of all Beneh Yisrael is what produced the perfect abode for the Divine Presence. May we, too, succeed in coming all together, transcending our differences, and thereby building a beautiful community with the Divine Presence in our midst, until we are ready for Gd to take residence in His permanent home, the rebuilt Bet Hamikdash, speedily and in our days, amen.