“Moving the Rods” Parashat Vayakhel – Pekudei – HaChodesh 5780

It was a fundraiser’s wildest dream. G-d had commanded the Jewish People to contribute towards the building of a Mishkan – a sanctury – where G-d’s Divine Presence would rest. An assortment of raw materials were required: gold, silver, copper, fine wool and linen, and more. Betzalel, the Chief Artisan, heads the fund drive. The Jewish People respond with gusto, literally flooding Betzalel with gold and silver. The artisans run to Moses and they tell him [Shemot 36:5] “The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that G-d has commanded to be done”. Help! Too much gold! Too much silver! What will we ever do?! Moses, seeking to staunch the flow, issues an emergency proclamation [Shemot 36:6]: “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” The donations immediately cease. The Torah summarizes the fund drive [Shemot 36:7]: “Their efforts had been enough for all the tasks to be done and there was left over”.

When else in Jewish history has a fund drive been shut down as soon as its goals are met? To paraphrase our Sages[1], “You can never have too much gold”. Rabbi Chaim ben Atar, known as the Or HaChaim HaKadosh, who lived in Morocco and in Israel in the first half of the eighteenth century, explains that gold and silver were not the problem. The problem was with the fine wool and linen, which would be ruined were they put in long-term storage. But if this is the case, then why didn’t Moses shut down only the textile track? Why didn’t he allow the donations of the precious metals to continue?

Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, who lived in Italy in the sixteenth century, suggests that it was indeed possible to donate too much gold and silver: “The donations of the people exceeded what was needed to perform the specific tasks which alone G-d had commanded to be performed. [Regarding the Mishkan,] G-d wanted no additions, nor omissions… This was different from the Temples built by Solomon and Herod”. To paraphrase Dr Suess, G-d wanted the Jewish People to donate exactly what was required to build the Mishkan and its utensils, so much, and no more! This begs a question. The temples built by Solomon and Herod were opulent. The Talmud in Tractate Bava Batra [4a] teaches, “A person who has never seen Herod’s Temple has never seen a beautiful building in his life”. The Talmud in Tractate Sukkah [51b] describes how Herod actually plated the walls with blue and white marble in a way that made them look like moving ocean waves. Why was only the Mishkan limited in its beauty?

I would like to propose an answer based on the explanation of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who lived in the early eighteenth century in Apta, Poland. Full disclosure: Rabbi Heschel’s explanation is deeply rooted in Hassidism and can only be understood by a person with at least a minimal background in nuclear physics. So here goes.

One of the biggest television hits of the past year was “Chernobyl”, a miniseries on HBO[2]. “Chernobyl” tells the story of the Chernobyl Disaster in which a nuclear reactor exploded and contaminated large parts of the USSR and Western Europe. The ruins of the reactor are now contained under a metal shell and will remain highly radioactive for the next twenty thousand years. A thirty kilometer “Exclusion Zone” around the reactor will become inhabitable in only three thousand short years. In order to understand what happened in Chernobyl, we need to understand how a nuclear power plant works. At the core of a reactor lies a radioactive substance such as uranium or plutonium which undergoes radioactive decay, a process in which atoms split and release energy. The decay creates heat, which boils water, which creates steam, which spins a turbine, which creates electricity. The radioactive decay is sustained by a chain reaction, called fission, in which neutrons released by the decay of one atom cause the decay of other atoms, releasing even more neutrons into the mix. In order to regulate the rate of fission, boron control rods are inserted into the reactor core to absorb neutrons. In the Chernobyl Disaster, the control rods were nearly completely removed from the reactor core, causing the fission reaction to spin out of control. Technicians tried to slow the reaction by reinserting the control rods, but to save money, the control rods had been tipped with graphite, which caused the rate of fission to temporarily spike. The reactor became so hot that the control rods cracked before they could be fully inserted into the core. The fission reaction continued unabated until the core exploded.

Now we can return to Rabbi Heschel. Rabbi Heschel directs our attention to the concluding verse describing the fund drive: “Their efforts had been enough for all the tasks to be done and there was left over”. This verse is self-contradictory: if their efforts “had been enough”, then there should have been nothing “left over”! Here is where Rabbi Heschel takes a deep dive into Hassidism. It is axiomatic that G-d is an infinite source of good. Moreover, G-d wants His good to cascade into our corporeal world. The problem is that not only is G-d an infinite source of good, but His good expands at an infinitely large rate. It is metaphysically impossible to fit an infinite amount of good into a finite world. Our universe is limited in volume and would burst if that volume were exceeded. Therefore, G-d must withhold some of His good. The Talmud in Tractate Hagigah [12b] quotes the verse [Bereishit 17:1] “I am the A-lmighty G-d (E-l Sha-ddai)” and explains: “I am He Who said to the world ‘enough (dai)’, instructing it to stop expanding[3].” G-d is like a fission reactor that generates a chain reaction of good. That good can only positively affect the world if it is regulated with metaphysical control rods – if G-d does not release all of His good into our world[4].

Even though some of G-d’s goodness must necessarily be withheld, it does not mean that it is inaccessible. G-d lets man operate the control rods, giving man the opportunity to complete the process that G-d began. The Midrash Tanchuma discusses a conversation between Rabbi Akiva and Turnus Rufus, a provincial governor under the Roman Empire: “[Turnus Rufus] asked, ‘Why do you circumcise yourselves?’…Rabbi Akiva brought him wheat and cakes and said to him, ‘These are made by the A-lmighty and these are made by man. Aren’t these [cakes] better than the wheat?’ Turnus Rufus retorted, ‘If G-d wanted circumcision, then why doesn’t a baby come out circumcised from his mother’s womb?’ Rabbi Akiva responded, ‘Because the A-lmighty gave commandments to the Jewish People only to improve ourselves with them.’” By circumcising ourselves, we operate the control rods, pulling them away from the radioactive core, infusing the world with additional G-dliness that G-d Himself could not infuse. Another way of manipulating the control rods is by mapping the laws of an immutable Torah onto an ever-changing world. When we plumb the depths of the Torah to try to determine whether or not we may use a LED light on Shabbat, when we derive an innovation clarifying a difficult section of the Talmud, when we uncover an insight into the story of the Exodus from Egypt, we are releasing previously untapped G-dliness into the world.

Now we are ready to address our original question. Why were the donations to the Mishkan halted? Since the first release of G-dliness into our world was at the consecration of the Mishkan, the Mishkan had to be limited in its grandeur. That chain reaction had to be tightly controlled. It had to be “just enough”. Nevertheless, there was still “left over” for future generations. Years later, when Solomon and Herod each built his Beit HaMikdash, they were able – they were directed – to nudge the control rods by making their sanctuaries progressively more and more magnificent.

Man has been given a tremendous responsibility. G-d has given us an imperfect world with the potential for perfection. We perfect the world by gradually moving the control rods – carefully but ever steadily – toward the final redemption, speedily in our days.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and David ben Chaya.

[1] The source for this is unclear.

[2] The entire miniseries can be binge-watched on the flight from Melbourne to Tel Aviv via Hong Kong.

[3] This expansion is not referring to the physical expansion of the universe after the Big Bang, but, rather, to a metaphysical expansion caused by the influx of good.

[4] In Hassidic jargon, this is called “Chessed she’bigevura” – “Mercy in Power”.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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