There is a wonderful story told about a very wealthy man who passed away and left two wills, one to be opened upon his death and the other to be opened after the period of Shloshim, the 30 days of mourning, had passed. In the first will, he instructed his children to bury him with his socks on. When the children went to the Chevra Kadisha, the burial society, and said that their father had left in his will that he wants to be buried with his socks on, the Chevra Kadisha refused because it is against Jewish law which dictates that a person be buried wearing shrouds only. The matter was brought before Rabbinic authorities and it was ruled that he must be buried without his socks. The children pleaded that the burial society respect their father’s dying wishes. Nevertheless, they were told that if the wish expressed in the will is in contravention of halacha, Jewish law, it cannot be respected. And so he was buried without his socks.
After the 30 days of mourning had passed, they opened the second will, in which the deceased was now allocating the enormous wealth he had accumulated during his life. He began the will by saying to his children, ”I am sure you found that the Chevra Kadisha would not bury me with my socks on. I wanted to give you the following message: you can have all the money in the world, but you cannot even take your socks with you when you die.”
This story conveys an important lesson: ultimately, the only things we take with us are our actions, our good deeds, and how we have lived our life. All of these qualifications can be grouped into one concept, what our Sages call a shem tov, a good name. A shem tov relates to the totality of the person, what remains long after all else is gone.
The crown of a good name surpasses all others
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot speaks about the concept of crowns. There is a crown of Torah which refers to Torah learning; there is a crown of kehuna, of priesthood, which refers to the priests designated to serve in the Temple; and there is a crown of malchut, kingship. These three crowns represent the three different parts of greatness that are achieved and are symbolized by three different items that were in the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which we read about in this week’s portion. In the previous portions we read about the design, the architecture and the materials that needed to be collected, and in this week’s portion we read about the actual implementation of all those architectural plans. Among the various items in the Tabernacle there were three particular items of great importance: the Aron ha’Kodesh, the Holy Ark; the Shulchan, the Table of the Showbread; and the Mizbach haZahav, the golden altar for incense. Each of these items had a golden rim which the Talmud understands to be a crown symbolizing the different components of the people: Torah, priesthood, and kingship. The gold rim of the Holy Ark which housed the Tablets represents the crown of Torah; the gold rim of the Table represents the crown of kingship; and the gold rim on the golden altar represents the crown of priesthood.
But the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot goes on to say v’keter shem tov oleh al gabeihen the crown of a good name, a shem tov, surpasses them all. What does this mean? What is the crown of a good name?
We are not comprised of disparate parts but form a composite whole
In his commentary on Pirkei Avot the Maharal of Prague explains these crowns. There are actually four crowns because there is the crown of a good name in addition to the three crowns of Torah, priesthood and kingship. But the Maharal says that the keter shem tov, the crown of a good name, is actually inclusive of the others. Thus, a shem tov refers to the totality of what it is to be a human being. We are not just disparate parts; there is a composite whole that comprises who we are.
In many different places in his philosophical writings the Maharal discusses the concept that a human being is made up of three parts: the physical body, the emotions, and the intellect or the soul/spirit. To be a good person is to elevate all three dimensions of what it means to be a human being. The body has to be elevated and sanctified, as do the emotions and the intellect/spirit.
The commandments of the Torah relate to all three dimensions. There are certain commandments which are physical and are given to us to elevate the body, such as taking a lulav, eating matza or putting on tefillin. There are commandments which relate to the emotions, such as prayer. And then there are commandments which relate to the spirit, to the intellect, such as the learning of Torah. Of course, there are many crossovers, and many commandments appeal to more than one dimension or perhaps even to all three.
The Maharal explains that the three crowns represent these three components of a person. The crown of the priesthood represents the sanctity of the body because the priests in the Temple had that extra Kedushat haGuf, the sanctity of the body. There are many laws that apply to the kohanim regarding their physical sanctity, for example who they can and cannot marry – laws that do not apply to other people. The crown of kingship represents the sanctity of the emotions. Just as a king is the leader of the people, the emotions, says the Maharal, are the leading force within a human being. We like to think of ourselves as driven by intellect and that it is the most powerful part of us. But, says the Maharal, this is not true; the emotions are more powerful than the intellect, as they go to the essence of who a person is. Emotions are so powerful and therefore the crown of kingship represents sanctifying, purifying and uplifting the emotions (for example, through prayer or through working on anger and jealousy and all the emotional aspects of a human being). The crown of Torah represents the dimension of the intellect, the sanctifying of the human mind and spirit.
After all is said and done, the human being is not physical, emotional or intellectual/spiritual – he is all of these, together. When we talk about striving for greatness, we are talking about striving for an integrated, holistic greatness. This, says the Maharal, is encapsulated in what the Mishnah says regarding the fourth crown, that the crown of a good name surpasses all the others. The crown of a good name is not counted as a separate crown because it includes the other three and symbolizes the composite whole, the totality of a person. Our goal is to strive for a holistic greatness in all dimensions of our existence. When this is achieved, a person has fulfilled his purpose in life and has earned the crown of a good name.
Achieving a good name through living a good life
There have been many great people who have achieved this holistic greatness of the shem tov. In this week’s portion we read about such a person, Betzalel, who was the project manager, so to speak, in charge of building the Mishkan. He had tremendous brilliance and expertise and took all of the materials and constructed the Mishkan in accordance with G-d’s instructions.
The verse in chapter 35 verse 30 states “behold and see that G-d has called on the name of Betzalel.” The Midrash there asks, what does it mean that G-d has called b’shem Betzalel, the name of Betzalel? Why does it not simply say G-d has called upon Betzalel? What does it mean He has called upon “the name” of Betzalel?
The Midrash says that this refers to the fact that Betzalel had a good name. The Midrash quotes the verse in Kohelet, the Book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 7 verse 1: tov shem mishemen tov veyom hamavet miyom hivaldo, “a good name is better than good oil, and the day of death [is better] than the day of birth.” The Talmud interprets this to mean that a good name is better than good oil and a good name on the day of death is better than the day of birth.
A fascinating discussion takes place in the Midrash regarding why it is that the day of death is better than the day of birth, which seems counter to conventional wisdom. When a baby is born there is great fanfare and celebration; it’s a simcha and everyone is excited. When a person dies, there is mourning and sadness. These are natural human emotions; when we welcome a new person into the world there is excitement and when we lose someone close and dear to us, there is sadness. But at a philosophical level, at an existential level, it’s actually the other way around.
Rabbi Levi, one of the great Talmudic Sages, gives the following analogy by way of explanation: when a ship goes out to sea there is great fanfare. I am sure that everyone has seen images of the Queen launching a new boat where a bottle of champagne attached to the side of the boat is smashed against the hull and the boat goes out to sea amidst much fanfare, excitement and celebration. When a boat comes back into dock after it’s been on a trip there is no one there to greet it. You don’t find the Queen arriving with a whole entourage to greet a boat as it returns to dock. Why is that?
It’s human nature that when there is something new, there is excitement. But, says Rabbi Levi, it should in fact be the other way around. When the boat goes out to sea, it is not a time to celebrate because ahead of that boat is a long journey fraught with storms and great challenges, and there are many things that have to be achieved before the boat has completed its mission. When it comes back into dock, it has survived the trip, overcome the challenges, the choppy waters and the fierce storms. It has made it to the other side safely, delivered its cargo and has completed the mission for which it set sail in the first place. Thus, from a logical/philosophical point of view, we should rather celebrate a ship coming into dock than one going out.
So too with life. When a human being is born he or she goes out on a journey, sailing off into the waters. There is an unknown path ahead; will this person live a good life and do the right thing? Will they be loyal to G-d and His Commandments? Will they be able to overcome the challenges, the choppy waters and the fierce storms that will inevitably occur during the course of their lifetime? Hence, says Rabbi Levi, at the time of birth there should be no celebration but great anxiety because we do not know what lies in store; at the time of death, however, there should be no sadness but a sense of achievement. If a person has lived a good life, if a person has fulfilled the commandments, completed his mission of doing good in the world, has weathered all of the storms and rough waters that are inevitably part of life and has stayed on course, then there is certainly reason for celebration at the conclusion of such a meaningful, purposeful life.
Of course, we are only talking philosophically, because in practice people will celebrate a birth and will mourn at the time of a funeral. And this is in accordance with what halacha, Jewish law, teaches. We know that a birth is a time of great joy. There is a mitzvah to celebrate and we say the blessings of Shehecheyanu and haTov vehaMeitiv to thank G-d for such joyous occasions. When a person dies there is a mitzvah to mourn; we say Baruch Dayan HaEmet, blessed is The True Judge. So although Rabbi Levi is saying that, philosophically speaking, it should be the other way around, in practice Jewish law acknowledges human nature; we celebrate a birth and mourn at the time of death.
One of the great halachic authorities, the Radvaz, deals with a question regarding someone who had lost a child and was not mourning. The father said he was not mourning because this was the hand of G-d and he accepts it. The Radvaz said that this is the way of cruelty and harshness. Of course philosophically we understand that whatever happens in this world is part of G-d’s plan but Jewish law commands us to mourn at times of mourning and go through the grieving process, just as we feel joy at joyous occasions.
But we do need to view things from the broader philosophical perspective, and that’s what Rabbi Levi is coming to say. A good name is achieved when the boat comes into dock at the end of a long and tough journey, a journey where the boat has stayed on course and has done what was needed to be done. There is a great sense of satisfaction, both for the person nearing the end of his life and looking back on everything he has achieved, as well as those around him who are inspired by a person having lived well and achieved a good name. He has elevated himself in all dimensions of what it means to be a human being, and has achieved that integrated, holistic goodness.
Even a broken vessel retains its holiness
I would like to share with you one final thought on a different matter. In last week’s portion we read about how Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, and upon seeing the people worshipping the Golden Calf he broke the Tablets, shocking the people into repentance. Then G-d commanded Moses to make a new set of Tablets. There was a difference between the two sets of Tablets. The first ones were actually hewed by G-d Himself, while the second set were hewed by Moses, as we read in last week’s portion – G-d commanded him p’sol lecha, “carve for yourself.”
One of the most important parts of the Mishkan was the Aron ha’Kodesh, the Holy Ark, in which the Tablets were housed. In fact, the Tabernacle is called Mishkan haEdut, the Tabernacle of Testimony, which some commentators say refers to the Luchot haEdut, the Tablets of Testimony upon which the Ten Commandments were engraved. We read in chapter 10 in the Book of Deuteronomy that the command to place the Tablets in the Holy Ark refers to the second set of Tablets as well as the first set which were broken. Thus, the Holy Ark housed the two sets of Tablets, the set that Moses had broken, and the second, unbroken set.
There are a number of messages we can glean from this. One message is from the Talmud in Tractate Menachot, which states that even though the Tablets were broken, they must still be accorded respect because they had once been holy. From here we learn a principle that if a great Torah scholar has lost his learning because of illness we are still obligated to give him respect; he is like a broken Tablet. We must not cast aside a person just because they are physically or mentally broken. The broken Tablets were placed together with the whole Tablets to teach us that if someone was good and had inherent holiness when they were whole, then even after they are broken we don’t discard them. We still show them the requisite respect.
Objects receive their sanctity from G-d and are not intrinsically holy
The Meshech Chochma, one of our great commentators from the early part of the 20th century, gleans another message from this.
One of our greatest challenges in relating to G-d is that we can’t see Him. He is all-powerful and all-knowing, but is beyond our comprehension – physically, emotionally and intellectually. So we look for ways to connect with Him. This is why we have so many commandments that are practical and tangible – G-d gives us practical, tangible ways to connect with Him. The danger is that we might attribute intrinsic holiness to those practical, tangible ways of relating to G-d and think they are holy in their own right.
We have many holy objects and holy places but we must remember that their holiness stems from G-d. A synagogue is holy; a Torah scroll is holy; tefiilin are holy; the Land of Israel is holy; the city of Jerusalem has an even higher level of holiness than the Land of Israel, and the Temple Mount an even higher level of holiness than that. These are all holy but their holiness comes from the fact that G-d has infused these items and places with holiness. They do not have intrinsic holiness; they are given their holiness by G-d.
When the people made the Golden Calf, they were looking for a tangible way to relate to G-d. They thought they had lost Moses and felt they needed some sort of conduit to reach G-d. Moses realised their mistake – investing objects or people with intrinsic holiness when in fact no person or object has intrinsic holiness, only that which is accorded to them by G-d. Thus, he realised that if he comes down with the Tablets they will start worshipping the Tablets as a holy object.
By breaking the Tablets, Moses was telling the people that if they are going to worship idols and go against G-d’s will, then the Tablets are merely stone; there is nothing sacred in them anymore. Their holiness stems from G-d, and if you defy the will of G-d and sever your connection with Him, the holiness of the Tablets is drained out. This is why Moses broke the Tablets when he saw them worshipping the Golden Calf. He realised their mistake which led them to make the Golden Calf, and the only way to rectify this mistake was to smash the Tablets.
This is why, says the Meshech Chochma, the broken Tablets were placed in the Ark together with the second set of Tablets. We would think the Tablets hewed by G-d must surely be holier than the ones hewed by Moses. Yet the Tablets hewed by G-d were broken while the Tablets hewed by Moses were whole, and the two sets stood together in the Holy Ark. The message in this, says the Meshech Chochma, is that the objects are not intrinsically holy; it is the people’s connection to G-d which imbues the objects with holiness. The first set of Tablets were broken because the people defied the will of G-d and therefore there was no holiness. By the second set the people had repented and therefore there was holiness. The two sets of Tablets were placed in the Ark together as an everlasting memorial and testimony to this concept that holiness is inherent in our connection to G-d and the fulfillment of His commandments and His will, not in the object itself.
The holy objects that we have – whatever they may be – are not the most important thing in life. Our devotion to G-d and His commandments, our loyalty to Him – that is the most important thing, and from there stems all holiness.