The Jew and the General
A Jew ends up sleeping in the same cabin as a Russian General of the Czar's army. He tells the conductor to wake him up at 4:00 a.m. so he can get off at his stop. He is awakened at the proper time, yet due to the darkness he mistakenly puts on the cloth of the general instead of his own.
When he arrives home, his wife asks him if everything is all right with him. When he takes a look in the mirror and sees that he is wearing the general's uniform, he tells his wife, "It seems like the conductor woke up the general instead of me."
The holiest article in the Tabernacle that the Jewish people constructed in the desert was the Ark, which housed the Tablets of the Ten Commandments. In this week's portion (Terumah), the Torah commands the Ark to be made of acacia wood and to be covered within and without with gold (1).
To fulfill this stipulation the Jews made three boxes, tucked into each other. The larger visible box was made of pure gold. Inside it, they placed a box of acacia wood. Then a second golden box was made and it was put inside the wooden one. Thus, the middle wooden box was covered with gold inside and out (2).
But why did they need to build three arks in order to fulfill this condition? Why could they not build one ark of wood and plate it inside and out with gold?
Three Layers of the Soul
Gold is an inanimate metal, while wood belongs to the botanic world of growth and development. On the other hand, wood has nothing of the brilliant glitter and splendor of gold. And while wood may be developed into a magnificent structure, it can also -- unlike gold -- deteriorate and rot.
Kabbalah and Chassidism teache (3) that the psychological structure of every human being consists of three strata, one beneath the other: The deepest, often invisible, stratum is the quintessential level of the soul that may be unknown even to man himself. Then there is the conscious personality -- including all of our feelings, moods, instincts and desires. Finally, there is the layer of behavior -- the active thoughts, words and deeds we express and carry out during our daily encounters and interactions.
The three arks that the Jewish people constructed three millenia ago in the Sinai desert represented these three dimensions of the human structure. The most inner ark, made of pure gold and tucked inside the other two arks, reflected the most inner dimension of the soul, which can be defined as "pure gold." This is the Divine, spiritual essence of our identity, displaying a brilliant luster of sacredness, integrity and love.
Just as gold coming from the inorganic world is not subject to real change, so too the golden essence of the human soul cannot be altered. No matter how much we were abused or we abused ourselves, the core of our consciousness remains a piece of gold.
The middle ark made of wood reflected the more visible conscious personality of the human soul. Just like wood, our feelings and attitudes go through many changes during our lives. We may develop and refine our "wooden" character so that it becomes exquisite and beautiful, or our personality may grow rotten and putrid.
Our "wooden" self usually vacillates between extremes. At times we may feel idealistic, virtuous and spiritual, but at other times we find ourselves consumed by bleak emotions, negative cravings and dark ambitions. We just feel rotten and decayed inside.
Finally, the third and outer ark, conspicuous for all to see, was made of pure gold. This reflected the Torah's blueprint for the most external stratum of the human structure -- man's behavior.
Though we may feel our personalities to be torn inside and harboring within them dark and gloomy demons, we ought never allow ourselves to succumb to these forces and grant them permission to dictate our behavior. We need to remember always that even while our conscious moods may gravitate toward decadence, our essence remains pure gold.
This is Judaism's fundamental code of human behavior. Even while you feel selfish, unholy and obnoxious inside, your behavior -- what you do, how you talk and how you think (4) -- ought to reflect the beauty and splendor of your innate G-dliness and holiness.
The Gift of the Tanya
This was one of the primary contributions of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in his classical Chassidic work, the Tanya (published 1796 in Russia). Generally speaking, the writings of ethical Judaism before the Tanya differentiated between the Tzaddik (the righteous man) whose heart and deeds were perfectly pure and holy vs. the Rasha (the sinful man) whose heart and deeds were blemished and wicked. Many people, of course, were situated somewhere in the middle of the two extremes, always feeling unfulfilled because they fell short of reaching the state of the ideal human being -- the spiritually perfected Tzaddik.
In the Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman placed as his ideal human being a new spiritual model whom he called "the Benoni," or "the possible man." The Benoni is a man whose inner character often resembles that of the Rasha, consisting of the good/evil dichotomy that is the original natural state of every human. But the Benoni's behavior is as flawless as the Tzaddik's.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman taught that there is no need, nor is it even a possibility for most people, to have all of their three "arks" turned into pure gold. It is not tragic if our middle "ark" forever remains torn and dichotomized. Yet, notwithstanding this eternal dichotomy, our behavior, our active thoughts, words and deeds, ought always to reflect our innate G-dliness and spirituality. G-d did not desire holy people doing holy things; He desired unhely people doing holy things (5).
Do not make the error of the Jew sleeping on the train. Do not confuse who you are with what you are wearing. It is a sad error to allow yourself to be defined by your external rotten mood in lieu of your inner golden self (6).
1) Exodus 25:11.
2) Talmud Shekalim 16b; Yuma 72b, quoted in Rashi to Exodus ibid.
3) See Tanya (By Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, 1745-1812) chapters 1-25.
4) The Tanya (chapter 12) makes an important distinction between instinctive thoughts vs. conscious thoughts. While instinctive thoughts are beyond the control of man, conscious thoughts remain under his "jurisdiction." Thus, while our instinctive thoughts may be rotten or even evil, reflecting the good\evil dichotomy inherent in human nature, our conscious thoughts may always be made of gold.
5) See Tanya chapters 1, 12-14; 26-27; 35.
6) My thanks to Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Zarchi (Director, Chabad of Harvard University) for sharing this insight with me, in the name of his father, who heard it from elder Chabad Chassidim.
My gratitude to Shmuel Levin, a writer and editor in Pittsburgh, for his editorial assistance.