They shall make an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold-overlay it inside and out-and make upon it a gold molding round about. (Exodus 25:10-11)
The first house that my husband David and I bought was a real fixer-upper. We had romantic dreams of doing some of the repair work ourselves, building our own little sanctuary where we would dwell together. Having spent a good part of my life living in a New York City apartment, I didn't really understand what I was getting myself into. The first (and last) project we took on was painting. We began by sanding and washing the walls to remove the old paint, then took off the door handles and primed the walls. Finally, we painted.
A question arose when we came to the closets: Should we just paint the outside or should we empty them and then crawl inside to sand, wash, prime, and paint? After all, no one but me would see the inside of my closet. So would it matter if I left the inside of it unfinished?
In this week's parashah, T'rumah, Moses is building a closet. In Hebrew the word for closet is aron, and Moses is receiving instruction from God on how to build the Aron Kodesh, the closet that will house the Torah. God told Moses to overlay this closet-inside and out-with gold.
Unlike our closets, the Aron Kodesh was not something into which a nosy relative could peek. The Aron Kodesh was located in the Holy of Holies, that part of the Mishkan into which only the High Priest could enter on one day of the year, Yom Kippur. Surely the average Israelite would never know that the inside of God's "closet" was covered in gold. So why does God command Moses to put gold where no one would see it? Why must Moses make the inside of the Aron Kodesh identical to the outside?
The Talmud tells us that the Aron Kodesh was like the body of a Torah scholar. Raba said, "Any Torah scholar whose inside is not like his outside is not a Torah scholar" (Yoma 72b). We are told (B'rachot 28), "On the day that they appointed Rabbi Eleazar b. Azaryah as nasi, they removed the watchman from the door and permitted all students who wished to enter, for Rabban Gamaliel had announced: 'Any student whose inside is not like his outside should not enter the beit midrash.'" The question is asked: How could the watchman know whether a student's inside was like his outside? After all, to know what is inside a person's mind requires Divine Inspiration. The explanation is as follows: The doors were barred to all, but any student who wished with all his might to enter would burst through all the obstacles and find a way to enter. (Torah Gems, volume 2, p. 175)
Harmonizing our inner being with our outward appearance is as difficult as breaking down the door to Rabban Gamaliel's house of study. It requires all of our strength and devotion. We study the words of the Torah with the best of intentions to be moral people, to live a Jewish life, and to make a difference. But when we close the books, how can we make those words of Torah penetrate the dark places-the insides of our closets?
Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883, Lithuania) founded the Musar movement as a response to the dichotomy he perceived between the outer appearance and the inner experience of the nineteenth-century Jew. The Musar movement advocated rigorous ethical conduct wedded to traditional Jewish practice. Over one hundred years ago, Rabbi Salanter wrote, "The busy man does evil wherever he turns. His business is doing badly [so] his mind and strength become confounded and subject to the fetters of care and confusion." Salanter went on to describe the ethical shortcuts that the nineteenth-century Jew was willing to take in hard economic times. Sound familiar? Every day our newspapers are filled with yet another business scandal. Who, after all, will know if a manufacturer compensates its wor ers fairly or if a salesman pads his expense reports? Who will know if a professor gets ahead by speaking ill of a coworker? Who will know if an executive dumps her company's stock because the company is about to go bankrupt?
The answer is, God knows. We call it yirat Shamayim, "the fear of Heaven." The secular world defines this term as a moral conscience; psychology calls it the superego. I'm partial to the fear of Heaven myself. Rabbi Salanter created an institution called the musar shtibl, a room for moral deliberation. In that space the Jews of Eastern Europe would gather during the twilight hours of Shabbat to examine their own ethical behavior. The musar shtibl was a place in which one could speak "quietly and deliberately, free of irony and sarcasm. We might estimate our good traits and our faults, how we might be encouraged to turn away from our faults and strengthen our good qualities."
After my husband and I painted the first room of our house, we decided not to paint the inside of the closets. It seemed like an overwhelming amount of work. But once the rooms were done, we went back and slowly painted the inside of our closets. It was dark inside and parts of the closets were hard to reach. Because broad strokes would not do the trick, we had to use a brush instead of a roller. The work was a strain, but the results were worth it.
Our parashah teaches that hidden intentions are as valuable as outer appearances. Where is the musar shtibl in our life? Where is such a place, free of sarcasm and cynicism, free of snide remarks and uncharitable thoughts? We need to make a space every day in our family lives, our careers, and our synagogues to crawl into the dark places with primer and paint, ready for hard work. Then the hidden places in each of us will be the color of pure gold, inside and out.
By the Way
- What emerges from all this is that a person must constantly-at all times, and particularly during a regularly appointed time of solitude-reflect upon the true path that one must walk upon. After engaging in such reflection, the person will come to consider whether or not his deeds travel along this path. By [his or her] doing so, it will certainly be easy for that person to cleanse himself [or herself] of all evil and to correct all of his [or her] ways. As Scripture states in Proverbs 4:26, "Consider the path of your feet, and all of your ways will prosper" and in Lamentations 3:40, "Let us search and examine our ways, and we will return to God." (Moshe Chayim Luzzatto, The Path of the Just, eighteenth century)
- There is hardly a person who does not submit his soul to the beauty parlor, who does not employ the makeup of vanity to belie his embarrassment. It is only before God that we all stand naked. (Abraham Joshua Heschel, I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology, edited by Samuel H. Dresner)
What are the parts of your life that you like to purify and "overlay…inside and out" with gold? What practices in your life encourage and support you to do this? What practices in or aspects of your life discourage you from doing this?
How can one discover "the true path that one must walk upon"?
Do you believe, as Heschel suggests, that God alone can see our true nature, freed from cosmetic enhancement?
Alice R. Dubinsky is the rabbi emerita of Congregation Bet Ha'am, South Portland, ME.
"T’rumah , Exodus 25:1-27:19
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 604-611; Revised Edition, pp. 543–558
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 451–472"