Obligation and Self-Expression

  • Rav Yoel Bin-Nun
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion




Obligation and Self-Expression


Adapted by Shaul Barth

Translated by Kaeren Fish



In this week's parasha, we read about the conclusion of the construction of the Mishkan. The Torah provides a tally of the silver that was collected and a description of what it was used for; inter alia, we are told:


The money of the counting of the congregation was a hundred talents and a thousand seven hundred and seventy-five shekels, by the shekel of the Sanctuary; a 'beka' per person – a half shekel – by the shekel of the Sanctuary, for all who passed among those who were counted, from the age of twenty years and upwards, for six hundred and three thousand, five hundred and fifty. And the hundred talents of silver were used to cast the sockets of the Sanctuary, and the sockets of the curtain: a hundred sockets corresponding to the hundred talents; a talent per socket. (Shemot 38:25-27)


In other words, the half-shekels donated by Bnei Yisrael were used for building the basis of the Mishkan – the sockets. But we know that Bnei Yisrael donated more than what was necessary; hence, the remainder was used for other construction needs related to the Mishkan.


A contribution is usually given out of goodwill on the part of the donor; hence, he is able to bring as much as he wants, and to direct it to whichever cause he chooses. In the case of the contributions to the Mishkan, though, the situation is quite different: the Torah stipulates exactly how much every individual is to donate, and for what exact purpose the contribution is to be used. This may be a hint to us that the basis and foundation of every building, every endeavor, must start with a layer of obligation. The people involved cannot be left to do as they wish; first there must be certain rules, regulations and limitations, in order that the proposed project can be realized. It is for this reason that the contributions collected from every individual in Bnei Yisrael are used to build the sockets of the Mishkan – in other words, the basis upon which everything else stands.


This does not mean to say that there is no room for personal freedom of expression: all of the contributions beyond that which was needed for building the sockets, were used for the other components of the Mishkan. This tells us that there is certainly room for individual, personal involvement and creativity – but their turn comes after the layer of obligation, with which the work begins.


Often, people complain about the set prayers, claiming that they do not reflect the worshipper's true emotions and intentions; there are voices that question our obligation to pray three times every day just because that is what Chazal decided. But it should be noted that throughout the Amida there is room for personal expression: a person may add into any of the blessings whatever he wants to say on the subject of that blessing. In the blessing "Shome'a Tefilla," one may add requests about any subject. In truth, there is plenty of room for personal expression in prayer. So what is all the dissatisfaction about?


Apparently, the problem is the very existence of eighteen blessings that everyone must recite. But, as we have said – this is our obligation. Prayer, too – like the Mishkan – starts with a certain layer of obligation. Beyond that, every individual may express himself to his heart’s content within this framework, which indeed facilitates such self-expression.


It is important to understand that the layer of obligation is necessary not only for the purposes of establishing a framework for action; it also lends the action a dimension of equality. If every individual were left to contribute whatever he wanted to the Mishkan or Temple, a situation would arise whereby a group of wealthy Jerusalemites would end up financing all the building materials and all the sacrifices – and they would do so happily and willingly. After all, what would motivate the simple folk to contribute towards the Mishkan, if there were others who were more capable of doing so - and happy to do it? Everyone else would become distanced – psychologically – from the Temple, eventually ceasing even to visit.


Thus, by obligating everyone to give a contribution, rather than leaving it all to personal initiative and generosity, the Torah establishes the principle of equality in relation to the establishment of the Mishkan. The Mishkan belongs to everyone, and everyone can and should feel personally involved in its construction and operations.


Purim presents an idea that may be related to this: we read that Haman's proposal of genocide begins with his assertion that "There is one nation, which that is scattered and divided among all of the king's provinces." In other words, the fact that the Jews are a single nation – a fact that was immediately apparent to Haman – is what makes Am Yisrael special, and it is this that preserves us in difficult times. It is precisely this concept that the Mishkan represents, by means of the principle that every person brings a contribution, such that it is built – first and foremost – upon a basis of obligation.


(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat Parashat Pekudei 5763 [2003].)