When Defeat is the Ultimate Success

Rabbanit Sally Mayer is the Rosh Midrasha of Midreshet Lindenbaum‘s Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program

Rabbanit Sally Mayer

In Parshat Pekudei, the mishkan finally comes together. The Jewish People invested greatly in this holy project, donating precious gems and materials, fashioning the beautiful vessels and curtains, carving beams and forming connectors, and putting it all together into the grand resting place for God’s Presence in the camp.

In the final pesukim of our parsha and of Sefer Shemot, we hear that the cloud symbolizing God’s Presence filled the mishkan. However, there is a discordant pasuk inserted just before the end of the parsha (40:35): “And Moshe was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting, for the cloud had rested upon it, and the Glory of Hashem filled the mishkan.” Why mention again that the cloud filled the mishkan, and point out that Moshe could not go inside? It seems strange – the point of the mishkan was for Moshe and the Kohanim to go inside, to speak to God and serve Him; isn’t it disappointing that Moshe, who invested his soul in the project, cannot enter right at the climax of the dedication?

Upon reflection, however, the fact that Moshe cannot enter the mishkan is actually the symbol of its success. Imagine an architect who designs a couple’s dream house, and the builder who takes the plans and brings them to fruition. The greatest success of those experts is when the couple takes the keys and begins to live there – and by necessity, then, those who designed and built it are locked out! Our greatest joy is when our children grow up and lead independent, successful lives separate from us, not when we have access to every detail of what is happening with them as we did when they were small.

This idea is also reflected in a famous story about the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai. The Talmud in Menachot 29b relates that when Moshe went up to receive the Torah, he saw that Hashem was “tying crowns” atop some of the letters in the Torah, and asked Hashem why He was doing so. Hashem responds that in the future, there will be a sage named Akiva ben Yosef, who will build interpretations based on these crowns. Moshe asks to see this incredible scholar, and finds himself transported many centuries into the future, sitting in Rabbi Akiva’s beit midrash. Moshe hears the discussion but doesn’t know what they are talking about, and feels despondent – how can he be the one receiving the Torah from Hashem but not understand the give-and-take in the beit midrash of the future? Moshe is mollified when he hears a student ask Rabbi Akiva the source of a certain halacha, and Rabbi Akiva responds, “This is a law that was given to Moshe at Sinai.” But why does this make Moshe feel better? They are saying this law came from him, but it isn’t familiar to him! The answer is the same as we discussed above: he knows he has succeeded when his work, his creation, surpasses him. When the Torah Moshe taught is taken further, to places he didn’t dream of. When the mishkan he built is off limits because Hashem’s Presence has moved in.

There is another Talmudic story that takes this idea one step further. In Bava Metzia 59b, we read of a debate between the majority of the sages at the time and the great scholar Rabbi Eliezer, over the ritual purity status of a certain type of oven. Proper protocol in such a case is to follow the majority view, based on the pasuk in Shemot 23:2. However, Rabbi Eliezer will not accept this outcome. He calls down miracles to prove he is right – may the carob tree be uprooted from its spot, may the stream flow in the opposite direction, may the walls of the beit midrash begin to cave in – yet Rabbi Yehoshua, representing the majority, says we must ignore these supernatural events and follow the regular method of decision-making in halacha. Finally, Rabbi Eliezer calls down a heavenly voice, which states unequivocally that the law is in accordance with Rabbi Eliezer in every case. Rabbi Yehoshua stands up and declares, “It is not in Heaven! (Devarim 30:12)” – once the Torah has been given, we do not pay attention to heavenly voices. This is, at first glance, shocking – is the point of the Torah not to follow God’s Will? If He lets us know what that is directly, why would we follow the usual decision-making protocol? The answer to this question comes in the next line of the Talmud: the sage Rabbi Natan met Eliyahu HaNavi and asked him how Hashem reacted when Rabbi Yehoshua said that. Eliyahu answers that Hashem smiled and said, “My children have bested Me, my children have bested Me.” Once again, we see that even for God Himself, the greatest success is when our children and our students take what we have taught them and bring it to a new place, even if that place is beyond us.


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