We never fully know our own greatness. Only G-d knows what we are capable of, what unique talents and resources lie within our neshama. But we can actualise our extraordinary potential – by having a vision, by believing in ourselves and by acting boldly.
This week’s parsha, Vayakhel, is about the actual construction of the Mishkan, the holy sanctuary in the desert that served as the prototype for the Temple that would later be built in Jerusalem.
The Ramban, one of our classic commentators from the Middle Ages, asks the question – how did they build it? Where did this former slave nation learn the highly specialised skills and craftsmanship needed to build a structure of this complexity and intricacy.
The power of boldness
The parsha (35:21) says that every person “whose heart was lifted up and anyone whose spirit was generous” came forward to contribute to the building of the Mishkan. This verse describes how people came forward to volunteer their time and their talent. The verse says “their hearts lifted them up” – meaning, according to the Ramban, they had the boldness to come forward and volunteer their services even though they had no knowledge or prior experience of working with gold and silver, or of constructing anything like the Mishkan. But they were going to try anyway – and, ultimately, they succeeded.
The Ramban asks the same question about Betzalel ben Uri, the project manager of the Mishkan. Where did he acquire the skills to oversee a project of this magnitude and complexity? And yet, when G-d instructed Moses to appoint Betzalel, he accepted the appointment; and just like everyone else, he came forward courageously, did his best and succeeded.
The actions of the people who came forward to build the Mishkan demonstrate heroism and a determination to overcome all odds. We never know the potential of another person, nor, indeed, do we know our own potential. Rav Mordechai Gifter cites the Midrash Tanchuma on Betzalel’s appointment, which says that every person has three names: the name given by one’s parents, the name given by other people, and the name given to oneself. Rav Gifter explains that we’re talking here about identity. Parents obviously have a major influence in forging a child’s identity, as do one’s peers and society. But ultimately, it’s the name that you choose for yourself that determines who you really are. This identity is buried deep within the neshama, the soul; it is our own special calling in life based on our unique, G-d-given abilities, talents and personality. In order to discover this calling, we must act boldly and with conviction – for only then can we unearth the deep inner resources of our unique neshama.
Too often, we underestimate ourselves. We think, how can I do this? The lesson of these heroes in the desert is that they just came and did it. They may not have had the requisite knowledge and experience, but they were determined to try. When we throw ourselves into something, the results will often amaze us.
This applies in many spheres in life – making a decent living, raising children, keeping mitzvot – all the different aspects of life where we sometimes feel someone else might be capable, but not us; that it’s too difficult. People sometimes say some mitzvot are too hard – I can’t give the right amount of charity, Shabbos is too difficult, etc, but if we really believe in ourselves, we will be amazed at the inner strength we have and what we can achieve when we just throw ourselves in.
The human capacity for greatness is unlimited. We are created in G-d’s image and our neshama has awesome potential, which we cannot even begin to fathom – not in ourselves, and certainly not in others.
Only G-d knows our full potential
Only G-d can see our full potential. Rav Gifter brings as an example the passage in Tanach where Samuel the Prophet anoints the new king. He comes to the house of Jesse. He knows it’s one of Jesse’s sons, but he doesn’t know which one. Eliav walks in, tall and handsome, and Samuel thinks he’s the king. But G-d says, don’t look at his appearance, for man sees what his eyes behold, but G-d sees into the heart. And as we know, in the end, it wasn’t Eliav but David who was anointed king.
Rav Gifter says we cannot entertain that Samuel the Prophet, a person of inconceivable greatness, would be swayed by superficialities. Rather, Samuel did indeed discern the spiritual greatness of Eliav and assumed he had what it took to be king; still, he was mistaken. We never fully know the incredible resources and potential that lie beneath the surface. G-d alone saw David’s inner potential. And it was only after assuming the mantle of leadership that his full potential emerged. The greatness of human potential is buried deep inside the neshama, and it only surfaces when we rise to the occasion.
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz writes that when Rav Yisrael Salanter, one of the great rabbinic leaders of the 19th century, saw people being enticed by the haskalah – the so-called “enlightenment” movement that was luring people away from Judaism – he told his students they shouldn’t be intimidated and despondent and think they couldn’t do anything about it. They should go out there and change the world, and indeed, his students did exactly that.
I have experienced this in my own life. When I sat down with a group of people with the intention of doing something to stop crime in Johannesburg, I had no knowledge about fighting crime – but I knew something had to be done. I realised that, as a community, we needed to work out a solution to the problem – and that is how Community Active Patrol (CAP) was born. Obviously, any success comes about only with G-d’s blessing, but we have to throw ourselves in and face life’s challenges.
Sometimes, G-d forbid, a person is struck by bereavement, illness or some other severe challenge and they think, how am I going to cope with this? Will I ever find the strength? But within each one of us lies the strength and ability to cope, strength that we cannot even begin to measure or realise until we put it into action.
Envisioning the bigger picture
Rav Yerucham Levovitz of Mir says that we learn from the people who built the Mishkan how to maintain a broad vision of what can be accomplished. They didn’t shirk from the task of building the Mishkan, they didn’t sweat the finer details – they kept in their minds the final product. We have to think big about what we want to accomplish. Rav Yerucham says specifically within the realm of serving G-d that one has to have the desire to achieve great things. He quotes the passage in the Talmud, which states that a person should say to themselves: “When will my deeds reach the greatness of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?” In truth, who could possibly hope for that? But we have to believe that we are capable of great things and only then can we go out and achieve them.
Having a sense of dignity and self-worth enables us to achieve
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz says that we can learn something else from the heroic builders of the Mishkan. Aside from vision and boldness, there is another prerequisite for achieving great things – self-belief. According to Rav Shmuelevitz, self-belief is probably the most effective defence we have against the yetzer hara (the evil inclination) and avoiding wrongdoing. When we have a sense of who we are, we know that sin is beneath us; as we say in Yiddish, es past nit – it doesn’t pass, it’s just not right for us. If you believe in yourself, then you realise that you are too great to engage in crass, animalistic behaviour, that it is beneath your dignity. Similarly, strong self-belief can fire a person to extraordinary achievements, unimaginable heights.
The purpose of life is to actualise the full potential of our neshama. That’s why, says the Maharal of Prague, the human being is called adam – from the word adama, earth. What is the connection between the two? The Maharal explains that humans are similar to the ground in one essential respect: they are both pure potential. Whether or not a piece of land will produce fruit depends on what is done with it. Even the most fertile piece of land will not produce fruit if it is left to lie fallow; it needs to be ploughed, fertilised and cultivated. So, too, the human being is pure potential, and to live a fruitful, productive life requires great and continuous efforts. But if no effort is put in, even the greatest potential will remain dormant.
This is what our parsha teaches us – that we never fully know our own greatness. Only G-d knows what we are capable of. But we can actualise our extraordinary potential – by having a vision, by believing in ourselves and by acting boldly.