What Can We Give to Hashem?
The Medrash (Tanna Dibay Eliyahu chapter 17) brings a Pasuk from the beginning of this week’s parsha that reads: “Bisha’ a She’amru Yisrael Naase Vinishma Miyad Amar Hakadosh Baruch Hu Viyikchu Li Terumah (Shemos 25:2).“ When Bnei Yisrael said ‘We shall do and we shall hear’, Hashem immediately responded saying, ‘Take for me Terumah (a tithing)’.” The message conveyed by this Aggadic Medrsah seems somewhat obscure and should be explained. How is Hashem’s declaration “Take for me a tithing”, responsive to the proclamation of Bnei Yisroel, “We shall do and we shall hear?”
To discern the meaning of the above Medrash, we must first raise the question: What did Hashem mean when He commanded the Bnei Yisroel to take for “His” sake a terumah? Does not the pasuk (Chagai 2:8) say “Li HaKesef Li HaZahav Ni’um Hashem”, “All silver and gold belong to Me”, so says Hashem? If so how can one take for Hashem silver and gold donations when they are His to begin with? Likewise another pasuk (Iyov 41:3) clearly states “Mi heekdeemani v’ashalem” – Who has preceded Me, that I must repay him?” Medrashic sources take this to mean that Hashem is asserting that all mitzvos can be performed only after Hashem has provided man with the means to fulfill the commandments and therefore Mankind has no legitimate claim for reward. How then can we be commanded “take ‘for me’ a terumah”, if whatever is it to be gathered is already His?
In answer, allow me to introduce some concepts which are to be found in the books of our Sages. The secular world and society are predicated upon the idea that the choices we make in our lives ought to be based on the anticipated results of those choices. People expect practical action to yield tangible, predictable and often immediate rewards. Paradoxically, popular opinion posits that indulgence in pointless, unreasonable behavior will result in positive consequences. Directly in opposition to these thoughts, as committed Jews, our steadfast observance of Hashem’s holy Torah and performance of mitzvos often earns us contempt and disdain from society at large. What they fail to understand is two underlying aspects of the nature of heeding Hashem’s directives:
- The primary reward for mitzvah performance is not found in this temporal, finite world, but rather, in the eternal World to Come, as stated in the Gemarah (Tractate Kiddushin 39B) in the name of Rabbi Yakov, “There is no reward for a mitzvah in this world,” i.e., all reward is reserved for the World to Come.
- Torah and mitzvos are Hashem’s directions for our way of life and will, in fact, provide tangible benefit in this world.
These concepts are highly profound and their complete explanation is beyond the scope of this essay. We will therefore limit this article to what we can say about the first point.
The Rabbinical commentators explain that mitzvah performance cannot be rewarded in this world since the physical world is fundamentally flawed, and it therefore lacks the means to adequately reward the righteous. So a person’s reward is reserved for the world to come. How pathetically inadequate is any reward in this world? Rav Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953, he was known as mashgiach ruchani of the Ponevezh yeshiva in Israel) declares that if all the happiness and pleasure of a lifetime, coupled with the joy of every person in every city and country who have ever lived, could be concentrated into one moment, it still would not provide adequate reward for even the smallest mitzvah compared to the delight man will experience in connecting with Hashem in the world to come (Michtav MiEliyahu I, p 4-5).
Yet we do exist in the physical world and pragmatically we need physical amenities to be productive and function normally. The great rabbis have therefore suggested that, the above notwithstanding, a reward for mitzvah observance is given here in this world so that the mitzvah may be enhanced in its performance both quantitatively and qualitatively.
A quantitative enhancement is achieved by spending more time focusing on the mitzvah before its performance. This is what is called a “hachana” (preparation) to a mitzvah. The quantity of the mitzvah increases by the additional time devoted to its performance. For example, one might complete Mincha prayers in five minutes, while a quantitative expansion of the mitzvah might involve spending some time in meditation before davening.
A qualitative increase is determined by the level of “hiddur” (beautification of the) mitzvah that one brings to the mitzvah performance. Although a kosher mezuzah might be procured at a reasonable cost, one might subject oneself to some financial strain to obtain a mezuzah written with a more exquisite penmanship.
A hachana to perform a mitzvah and a hiddur mitzvah are both things that one adds and does of his accord; they are not anything demanded of him. He therefore can receive abundance in this world, not as a reward per se, but as providing the means with which to enhance the mitzvos as described above.
By saying “we will do and we will hear” – we will do prior to our hearing, the Bnei Yisroel implied they will “do”, meaning will prepare to perform mitzvos even before they hear the mitzvah, meaning the actual fulfillment of the mitzvah.
But the statement of “Na’aseh V’Nishmah” is not just a commitment to engage in careful preparation to perform the mitzvah; it is also the acceptance of the obligation to beautify the performance of the mitzvah. As our Rabbis (Tractate Shabbos 88A) taught us, when Bnei Yisrael put “Na’aseh” before “Nishma”, a Bas Kol (a Divine voice resounding from Heaven) said ”Who revealed to My children this secret that the angels use?” Performing a mitzvah on the level of heavenly angels certainly qualifies as a true hiddur mitzvah.
There is yet a third way in which to attain reward for mitzvah in this world. The Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, 1555 – 1631) was a renowned rabbi, famous for his commentary on the Talmud, Chiddushei Halachos. He suggests that Rabbi Yaakov’s claim cited above, that reward is reserved exclusively for the World to Come refers only to reward given to an individual for his good deeds. When the community as a whole is deserving, however, the reward is, indeed, manifest in this world. The Maharsha adds that all the Biblical promises for worldly good represent reward for the community, rather than the individual.
The pasuk relating to na’aseh v’nishma reads “And they said, ‘Everything that Hashem has said, we will do and we will listen.” The “they” is plural, inferring that the entire assembly of Jews at that time proclaimed “we will do and we will hear.”
The Bnei Yisroel were at that time worthy of receiving rewards for their actions even in this physical world, firstly by what they meant by the words “na’aseh v’nishma” and secondly, by how they said it – “biyachad” (in unison).
We can now understand Hashem’s request of “וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה”, take for me a terumah, in response to the Bnei Yisroel proclaiming “Na’aseh v’Nishmah.” Since they offered to do more than the basic mitzvos, they were obligating themselves to give something of themselves – something more than they were asked by Hashem, namely the “hachana”, preparation, and the “hiddur mitzvah”, the embellishment of the mitzvah. Hashem’s response was therefore to ask that they further “give” of themselves in contributing to the building of his Sanctuary.
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Rabbi Dovid Sochet