A few weeks ago we read the Parasha of Vayakhel; the parasha begins with a verse describing how Moshe gathered the nation together after Parashat Ki Tissa.
Quite a number of our commentaries question why specifically here the Torah chose to emphasize that Moshe gathered the masses; surely every time he spoke publicly he acted similarly?
There are numerous answers offered; in the context of this sicha, however, I would like to perhaps offer a suggestion of my own:
Parashat Vayakhel occurred almost immediately after the events of “The Golden Calf”. In the aftermath of that sin, the Leviim, at the command of Moshe, killed 3,000 central perpetrators. Although 3,000 instigators is indeed a relatively small percentage of the entire nation, the reality of people from the same nation fighting each other to the death must have been devastating to experience.
Indeed, the events that began with unity prior to Matan Torah, and ended with a nation on the verge of civil war at the time of the sin of the golden calf, were so “roller coaster” in nature that they surely threatened to undermine the future of the people as a whole. And though the episode was now technically over, such extreme changes in the morale and experience of the masses cannot and must not be overlooked. Just because an event has technically ended, one can never assume that all is well; quite the contrary. Bitterness and ill feeling can linger and ferment, only to reemerge in a more devastating and extreme form at a later time.
It would therefore be unthinkable for Moshe Rabbeinu to now simply go ahead as planned with the building of the Mishkan without firstly gathering the people together for national reconciliation. Hence “Vayakhel” – the purpose of this gathering was not simply informative, but rather a matter of re-unification.
And what is true on a national level is equally true on an individual one:
“You shall not hate your brother in your heart: you shall certainly rebuke your neighbor, and not suffer sin on his account. You shall not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Vayikra, 19: 17, 18)
The Rambam, in Chapter 6 of Hilchot Deot, has an ingenious way of explaining the above verses:
“Halacha 6: When a person sins against his fellow man the insulted individual should not keep his pain to himself as Avshalom did with Amnon; on the contrary. The offended party should confront his fellow and tell him exactly how hurt he was by his actions. If his friend asks for forgiveness as a result of this discussion, he should readily forgive him.”
Clearly the Rambam has linked the initial words of the verse: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart” with the next phrase, “You shall certainly rebuke your neighbor.” He seems to propose the primary reason for rebuking our fellow man is to enjoy a healthy relationship with them. If we keep our feelings to ourselves, they will undoubtedly accumulate and affect our ability to build genuine, long-lasting relationships. In a real friendship there must be openness; a willingness to be frank and honest with each other.
This explanation flows beautifully into the following verse too, for if we are unable to speak freely with our friends and admit our feelings, we will undoubtedly sin. Why? – Because if we harbor hate and insult we will come to avenge ourselves either consciously or unconsciously. It is almost impossible for us to totally detach inner feelings from outer actions. If we are offended and don’t make peace with the culprit, it will inevitably become expressed either overtly or perhaps more subtly in our behavior towards him.
This is not simply an instruction aimed at improving our relationships with other people, but also sound advice regarding how we can be happier and more fulfilled within ourselves. We cannot function properly if we walk around with a chip on our shoulder. Of course we must be careful not to be too sensitive to every comment, for this is an obvious sign of an overpowering ego, but it is perfectly human to feel hurt. The right thing to do is to learn to approach our friends and express that pain.
Indeed, part of our lifetime search for truth is being pure and honest with ourselves. It is admirable to be able to totally ignore insult, for this often reflects genuine humility. However, if we have not yet reached that level we must at least rid ourselves of bitterness and resentment. And when expressing our feelings we must be careful not to insult our friends in return. There is a time and a place for everything; and even the Rambam does not expect us to simply say what we feel irrespective of our surrounding social realities.
The Rambam’s micro-message is identical to our macro-message from parashat Vayakhel. When people or a nation have experienced friction or trauma, they must endeavor to get it out in the open, to reach conciliation. The alternative is disaster.
Over the last few months here in Israel, we have experienced one of the most personal and potentially dangerous election campaigns in the history of the State. There have been no red lines, the rhetoric has been horrific, the mediums utilized unlimited. There have even been accusations of foreign leaders personally involving themselves in the funding and campaigning of specific leaders and their parties here in Israel – all sides are guilty for this regression from the acceptable norms of democratic behavior – the ends does not justify the means.
I have been in Israel for twenty-five years, and experienced many election campaigns. They have always been lively and full of rhetoric – after all, the issues are critical; but on this occasion the line has been crossed time and again so severely that alarm bells should be ringing loud and clear.
The reaction of the left to the results of the election has been telling to say the least. People, who on the whole truly believe in democracy, have been crushed by the surprising outcome; the rhetoric since last Tuesday, has not been one of acceptance but one of bitter disappointment and the friction has continued on both sides. The elections are over, but they are far from being over. Our nation is totally divided, but to a degree that is so extreme, it should be tremendously worrying to all of us who really care – because, as our past has taught us time and again, without Am Yisrael, there will be no Eretz Yisrael.
Though I have lived in Gush Etzion for twenty-three years, and though I am clearly affiliated to the central right faction of the political spectrum, it is clear to me that what is required of our Prime Minister is to form a National Unity Government. It is time for all of us to forget our parochial needs and come together as a people before it is too late. The leftist faction in Israel has been made only too aware that the majority of the nation disagrees with their political ethos, but now the victorious rightist factions must also acknowledge and accept that there are a substantial amount of citizens to the left of center who are a decisive minority, and an imperative section of Am Yisrael Hayoshev BeTzion – to ignore them and their frustrations will lead to internal disaster.
Instead of prioritizing international peace in the Middle East, reconciliation of the nation must be first and foremost on the list. It is over and not over. Yitzchak Rabin (z”l) made the mistake of passing the Oslo accords through Knesset with a slight majority disregarding the feelings of close to 50% of Am Yisrael; Ariel Sharon (z”l) pushed through disengagement without any true regard for democracy; both events caused enormous bitterness that has to this day never really been reconciled. Binyamin Netanyahu must not make the same mistake.
Before we move on, “Vayakhel” needs to take place and quickly. Maybe “Kikar Rabin” could be hired for purposes of unity and not just to emphasize our differences? The leaders of the main political parties must sit together and make peace; surely this is more than possible?
There is no better time like the present as we approach the festival of Pesach – the chag that celebrates Am Yisrael, the original Yom Haatzmaut:
Pesach is the festival that commemorates the birth of our nation. Shavuot honors the giving of the Torah; Sukkot with Simchat Bet Hashoeva in the Mikdash at its center is a celebration of Eretz Yisrael. But Pesach comes first! Am Yisrael comes first! Without Am Yisrael there can be no redemption, and Am Yisrael means the entire people irrespective of who they vote for.
If we wish for the people to unite then the leaders must lead by example!
The ultimate enemy of the Jewish people is not idolatry; not assimilation; not even Iran! Our ultimate enemy is internal strife. We are our own worst enemy!
And that is exactly how the Hagadda begins:
The Talmud in Pesachim (114b) explains the dipping of ‘karpas’ in salt water at the commencement of the Seder night, as an action performed simply to raise the interest of the children sitting around the table.
However, the Talmud does not explain why our Rabbis specifically chose this action in order to gain our children’s attention. There is no limit to unusual behavior that would have the same effect. Furthermore, we are perplexed as to why we chant a short Aramaic prayer inviting strangers into our house to join us, and finish that very same prayer by saying that now we are in exile, but next year we will be in Jerusalem. What is the relevance of this prayer at this stage of the evening, before starting the Haggada with the four questions of ‘Mah Nishtana’?
Rabbeinu Manoach, explains that dipping the karpas in salt water at the beginning of the Seder symbolizes the brothers dipping Yosef’s coat in blood immediately after having sold him as a slave. This is not simply a nice idea; it can be proved from the text, as my Rabbi and mentor of blessed memory, Rabbi Bernstein, explained:
The word ‘karpas’ is found in Megillat Esther (1:6) and is used there in reference to a type of linen. It is more than interesting to note that Rashi, when describing Yosef’s ‘coat of many colors’ (Bereishit 37:3,) explains that the coat was made from ‘karpas.’
Thus, before discussing how God brought us out of slavery, which is the essence of the first night of Pesach, it is essential to understand how we got there in the first place. We arrived in Egypt because of internal strife; because one Jew sold another Jew. And according to Chazal, we are in our current exile because of ‘Sinat Chinam’ – purposeless hatred.
Therefore, immediately after having dipped the ‘karpas’ in salt water to remind us how we initially arrived in Egypt and why we are in exile now, we say the ‘Ha Lachmah Anya’ prayer. We invite people into our houses in the hope that if we start to behave in this loving manner towards our fellow Jews, we will merit being back in a rebuilt Jerusalem next year.
This is the essential starting point on Seder night, and it must be our starting point today.
When our people are divided, driven by personal ambition, and egocentric ideals, then we are, Heaven forbid, the one and only cause of our demise. When we are united, Bezrat Hashem, we are a spiritual force that can change the world.
We need Vayakhel, and we need it now!
Chag Kasher VeSameach
Rav David Milston