What can we do to experience God’s presence? The first Midrash on this week’s parsha compares the giving of the Torah to a sale. Usually, once the sale is executed the seller is no longer attached to the item that was sold. However, the Torah is different. The Midrash says that when God “sold” us the Torah, he “sold” Himself with it. It follows that through the Torah, we can experience God in our lives. How?
The Midrash alludes to the answer when it says that, unlike other “sales” the Torah includes everything. The significance of this is that that unlike a regular sale in which the item being sold is acquired once in one transaction, it is not possible to acquire the Torah all at once. We must constantly approach the Torah to try to grasp its wisdom. Each time we approach the Torah God allows us to understand what was previously beyond us until eventually God Himself is revealed. The Midrash understands this from the pasuk, “כִּי לֶקַח טוֹב נָתַתִּי לָכֶם תּוֹרָתִי אַל־תַּעֲזֹבוּ/For I have given you a good teaching, do not leave My Torah.” Do not leave the Torah, rather constantly delve into it for more and deeper understanding. Because the Torah is infinitely deep, no matter how experienced we are in Torah we can always approach it with a beginner’s mind as if we are seeing it for the first time. The Midrash is teaching us that according to our desire to acquire the Torah, we will experience God’s revelation.
The Sfas Emes explains that this concept is true not only for studying Torah but also for fulfilling God’s will through our actions. He understands this from the beginning of the parsha. This week’s parsha begins with an appeal to the nation for materials with which to build the Mishkan, “דַּבֵר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ־לִי תְּרוּמָה .../Speak to the children of Israel that they take an offering for me …” The wording of this pasuk is awkward. Shouldn’t it state that they give an offering to God? Why does the pasuk state that they take an offering for God?
The Sfas Emes explains that the pasuk is a metaphor. We spend our lives working hard to take things for ourselves. We are in constant need of things, food and shelter to name a few. Our relationship with God is similar to the relationship of a poor person and one who sustains him. Chazal teach us that although the wealthy individual supports the poor person, in reality the giver receives more than he gives. The recipient is giving the wealthy person the opportunity to fulfill an important mitzvah.
When we take things that we need, we should understand and intend that we take them in order to fulfill God’s will. Accordingly, the pasuk states, “... וְיִקְחוּ־לִי תְּרוּמָה .../…take an offering for me ...” Everything we take should be for God. When we do this, we feel God’s presence in our lives because, as the Midrash makes clear, this pasuk is also an allegory for taking God Himself. In fact, Sfas Emes says that the very things we take intending to fulfill God’s will helps us to fulfill His will.
The Zohar as well makes this concept clear. The Zohar says that God’s presence resides in the person who has a strong desire to come close to God. The Sfas Emes understands this also from the halachah of acquiring a woman in marriage. Chazal teach us that one of the ways a woman can be acquired in marriage is through a monetary transaction. In fact, this is how we marry nowadays. By custom, the groom gives the bride a ring and she becomes his wife. He can just as well give her money. The Sfas Emes understands that metaphorically this halachah teaches us how we can experience God’s presence. The Hebrew for money – כסף – is the same root as that for yearning. The woman represents God’s presence. Hence, we can “acquire” God’s presence by yearning for it.
Another avenue to succeed in fulfilling God’s will and experiencing His presence is by identifying closely with the nation of Israel. He learns this from the continuation of the pasuk above, “... וְיִקְחוּ לִי תְּרוּמָה מֵאֵת כָּל אִישׁ .../... and you shall take an offering for me from every person …” The Sfas Emes understands that “every person” is a reference to the entire nation as we find another pasuk, “... כָּל אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל .../… every man of Israel …” This pasuk can also be translated as, “every man is Israel” meaning that each person who is part of the nation is like a microcosm of the nation. It defines him. When a person acts as part of the nation, his actions have powerful spiritual ramifications.
In the same vein, the Chiddushei HaRim explains a Mishna in Avos. The mishnah states, “אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי מִי לִי וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי מָה אֲנִי/If I am not for myself, who will be for me and if I am only for myself, what am I? The Chiddushei HaRim explains that each and every Jew came into this world in order to rectify something that only he can rectify. Each one of us has a unique mission that no one else can accomplish. This, the Chiddushei HaRim teaches, is the meaning of the first half of the sentence, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me.” If I do not fulfill my unique task, who will fulfill it for me. No one else can.
Although only I can fulfill my unique task, when I succeed I affect the entire nation and really, the entire Creation. Each unique mission is one part of a fabric which comprises all the unique missions together. This is the meaning of the second half of the sentence, “… If I am only for myself, what am I?” My deeds, my mission is meaningful and effective only because it is part of the nation.
May we merit experiencing God’s presence through our Torah, our actions and our identification with the nation of Israel!