Parashat Shemini tells of the heavenly fire that descended into the courtyard outside the Mishkan on the first day Aharon and his sons served as kohanim, after they completed offering the special sacrifices that God commanded to bring on that day. The Torah relates that the fire, signaling the descent of the Shekhina (divine presence) into the Mishkan, consumed the sacrifices that had been placed on the altar, whereupon the entire nation – who had assembled around the outside of the Mishkan to observe the day’s events – prostrated: “The entire nation saw…and fell on their faces” (9:24).
Rashi (9:23), citing the Midrash, relates that the people had been anxious, uncertain whether the Shekhina would take residence in the Mishkan. Throughout the seven-day miluim process, during which Moshe offered special sacrifices in preparing the Mishkan and the kohanim for their role, the people wondered whether perhaps all their donations for the Mishkan and all their effort may have been for naught. After all, the Mishkan was erected precisely the way God had commanded, sacrifices were being offered every day, and yet, there was no sign of the divine presence. The people were eager to see the Shekhina so they would know for certain that God had forgiven them for the sin of the golden calf. When this did not happen, day after day, they felt ashamed, figuring that they would never be worthy of God’s presence among them due to the sin of the golden calf.
On the basis of the Midrash’s account, Rav Shmuel of Slonim, in his Divrei Shmuel, suggests a creative explanation of the Torah’s description of the people “falling on their faces” upon beholding the sight of the Shekhina’s descent into the Mishkan. The simple understanding, of course, is that the people “fell on their faces” as an expression of respect and reverence. However, the Divrei Shmuel explains that they covered their faces in shame, embarrassed over having questioned whether the Shekhina would arrive. After seeing the heavenly fire, the people realized that their concerns were unfounded, that they were foolish to doubt whether they would be worthy of the divine presence simply because it had not arrived when they had expected it.
The Divrei Shmuel here is teaching us about the dangers of impatience and unrealistic expectations in religious growth. When we find that our efforts to bring the “Shekhina” into our lives are not succeeding, we might begin to feel despair. In our impatience, we often feel that our initial failure means permanent failure, that just as our efforts have not brought the desired results until now, they never will. The Divrei Shmuel urges us not to feel anxious if we struggle to reach the level we seek to achieve, or if our efforts to change and grow do not immediately succeed, because the process of growth is not meant to unfold rapidly. We must expect change to occur slowly and gradually, and to entail many setbacks and challenges.
The Midrash cited by Rashi relates that each day during the miluim, Moshe assembled and then disassembled the Mishkan, likely signifying the phenomenon of repeated unsuccessful efforts – and this is precisely what discouraged the people. We are taught not to feel discouraged when our work to “build” a “Mishkan” does not immediately succeed, or does not proceed smoothly. We must continue “building” with faith in our ability to succeed and in God’s loving acceptance of our efforts, and His desire to reside among us as long as we try to be worthy of His presence.