Rabbi Daniel Stein
Our Core Values
Parshas Terumah discusses the construction of the Mishkan and all of its utensils, but undoubtably the centerpiece of the entire project was the aron. The Mishkan is referred to as the "Mishkan of testimony" (Shemos 38:21) by virtue of the fact that it housed the "tablets of the testimony" (Shemos 31:1) which were contained within the aron. The Ramban writes that the entire purpose of the Mishkan was to provide a resting place for the aron, and thereby recreate on an ongoing basis the divine interaction experienced at Har Sinai. This is perhaps alluded to in the letters of word "terumah" itself which the Zohar Hakadosh (Parshas Korach) rearranges as "Torah - M" or "Torah - 40," because by entering into the Mishkan a person was meant to encounter the Torah which was received over a period of forty days at Har Sinai.
However, the pasuk (Shemos 25:10 - 11) states, "they shall make an aron of acacia wood etc. and you shall overlay it with pure gold from inside and from outside." Rashi explains that the aron consisted of three parts. It had a golden shell on the inside, a golden shell on the outside, and a wooden core. If in fact the aron was the focus and purpose of the entire Mishkan compound, why was the aron designed primarily out of wood and not solid gold like so many of the other items found in the Mishkan, such as the cover of the aron (the kapores) or the menorah?
Rav Simchah Shepps (Moreshes Simchas HaTorah) explains that while gold is certainly more precious than wood, wood is more stable than gold. Any metal when heated become flexible and pliable. Under the right circumstances it can be bent and reshaped depending upon the will and imagination of the sculptor. However, wood is stiff and rigid, while it can be cut and broken it does not bend. The aron had a wooden core in order to demonstrate that the moral and ethical principles of the Torah do not bow to the winds of time or to the whims of society. The mitzvos of the Torah represent truths that, just like wood, can't be manipulated or bent even when exposed to heat or extreme pressure. This is so critical, because without the anchor of yiras shamayim and a commitment to the core values of the Torah and mitzvos, almost anything can be justified when it furthers a political purpose or social agenda.
In Parshas Shemos, after Pharaoh decreed that all of the Jewish baby boys should be drowned in the river, the pasuk states (Shemos 1:17), "the midwives, however, feared Hashem, so they did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them, but they enabled the boys to live." The Torah indicates that the Jewish midwives defied the orders of Pharaoh out of a profound sense of yiras shamayim. However, why does one have to possess yiras shamayim to realize that it is wrong to kill innocent babies? What could be more abhorrent and repugnant than murdering children in cold blood? Rav Mordechi Gifter (Pirkei Torah) observes that in the absence of yiras shamayim, without a firm commitment to the core values of the Torah, even the worst atrocities can be explained and misrepresented as a necessary evil, when it aligns with a preferred political agenda or social narrative.
In fact, this lesson was already taught to us by Avraham Avinu earlier in Parshas Vayeira. When Avraham arrived at the home of Avimelech in Gerar he presented Sarah as his sister and not as his wife. After discovering the truth, Avimelech was incredulous and asked Avraham to explain his actions and why he felt compelled to lie about Sarah's identity. Avraham responded, "for I said, surely, there is no fear of Hashem in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife." The Malbim writes that Avraham was making the argument, that in a world of moral relativism, where there are no absolutes, and the line between right and wrong is flexible and fluid, even an otherwise moral and ethical people can be pressured into justifying criminal activity when it is expedient.
Similarly, at the beginning of Parshas Shemos, the pasuk describes Pharaoh as (Shemos 1:8) "a new king arose over Mitzrayim who did not know about Yoseph." According to one opinion in the Midrash it was in fact the very same Pharoah but he had a change of heart and adopted "new" policies. The Midrash proceeds to record the reason for his transformation and new perspective. When the Egyptian people initially asked Pharaoh to enslave the Jews, he refused, because he sincerely had gratitude to Yosef for all that he contributed to Egyptian society. He acknowledged that without Yosef, Egypt would likely not have been able to persevere and prosper throughout the seven years of famine, and therefore, he was unwilling to mistreat Yosef's descendants. However, the Egyptian people threatened to replace Pharaoh with a "new king" who would comply with their demands, and indeed they succeeded in removing Pharaoh from office for a period of three months. Ultimately, in order to remain in power, Pharaoh relented. His moral fortitude caved and he quickly became the merciless and evil despot the people had hoped and cheered for.
Rav Moshe Feinstein (Darash Moshe) derives from here that without an uncompromising dedication to yiras shamayim and the moral compass of Torah values, everything is negotiable and everything is up for discussion, even basic human decency. Therefore, as frum Jews, above all other political and social considerations and priorities, we must pledge our allegiance to the principle of yiras shamayim and the eternal and immutable morals and values of the Torah, which are relevant to all situations and circumstances, and do not bend even under intense pressure.
The Gemara (Shabbos 104a) states that one of the miraculous aspects of the luchos was that they were legible on both sides, as the pasuk says (Shemos 32:16), "tablets inscribed from both their sides, on one side and on the other side they were inscribed." The Talmud Yerushalmi (6:1) even quotes one opinion that the luchos were not actually tablets but rather cubes, and all of the Ten Commandments were written on all four sides of each cube. This is perhaps hinted to in the language of the pasuk, "meezeh u'meezeh heim kesuvim - on one side and on the other side they were inscribed", which could alternatively be read as, "mem bazeh u'mem bazeh - forty on this one and forty on that one." Rav Yechezkel Abramsky (Chazon Yechezkel) suggests that the Ten Commandments were legible from all directions and at all angles, in order to indicate that the mitzvos of the Torah apply equally in all times and in all places.
It seems that Klal Yisrael failed to appreciate this fully during the times of Megillas Esther. The pasuk (Esther 4:5) states that Esther summoned Hasach "ladaas mah zeh v'al mah zeh - to know what this was and why this was." The Gemara (Megillah 15a) understands from the language of the pasuk that Bnei Yisrael at time of the Megillah ignored the fact that the luchos were legible from both sides and "meezeh u'meezeh heim kesuvim." In what way did the Jews of that time violate this unique aspect of the luchos?
The answer can be found in the Gemara (Megillah 12a) and Medrash (Shir Hashirim 7) which state that the Jews at the time of the Megillah were punished because they attended the party of Achashveirosh where they enjoyed food that was prohibited because it was prepared by non-Jews (bishul akum). How could they have deliberately eaten food which they knew was bishul akum? Rav Yosef Salant (Be'er Yosef) suggests that the Jews of the time reasoned that it was simply not possible for them to create the political alliances and strategic relationships they needed without attending affairs and functions where bishul akum would inevitably be served. They felt that the prohibition of bishul akum was meant for a different time and place, and was not relevant to their political climate and current situation. Therefore, by eating at the meal of Achashveirosh, they disregarded one of the central messages of the luchos. They failed to recognize that the luchos were legible on both sides because the mitzvos of the Torah are axiomatic truths which speak to us equally in every generation, and must not be bent or manipulated for the sake of political or social aspirations.
Bayamim haheim baseman hazeh, in our times as well we need to internalize the lesson of the luchos, that mitzvos of the Torah are axiomatic truths that apply equally in all times and situations. And just like the Aron was made out of wood which can't be bent or twisted even when heat or external pressure are applied, so too our commitment to the core values of the Torah must be consistent and uncompromising even when confronting the most significant challenges of our time.