This week’s Torah reading summarizes the contributions and the labor that went into building the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and providing the necessary items for its various functions. Towards the bottom of the list, it says that the nesi’im, the leaders of the twelve individual tribes of Israel, were the ones who donated the avnei shoham, the special jewels needed for the uniform of the Kohen Gadol (high priest).
Rashi quotes the Medrash which asks, “Why is it that when it came time to inaugurate the Mizbe’ach (Altar) we find that the nesi’im were the first to volunteer, while regarding the actual construction of the Mishkan, they postponed their contributions (as alluded to by the fact that they are mentioned at the end)?”
The Medrash answers, “They nesi’im said, ‘Let everyone donate what they can afford, and once they are done, we will fill in whatever is still missing.’ In the end, the rest of the nation had donated everything on their own, except for the avnei shoham which were in the possession of the nesi’im. Therefore, when it came to the Mizbeach, they made sure to be first.” The Medrash concludes, “Since they acted lazily in regard to contributing to the Mishkan, therefore their name (nesi’im) is [spelled in this verse] missing a letter (the letter Yud, with which it ordinarily would be spelled).”
The obvious question is, the beginning of the Medrash seems to state that the nesi’im had plausible reasoning for postponing their donations. They made a calculated decision as to how they can best contribute to the cause. Why then does the Medrash afterwards accuse them of acting out of laziness?
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz (in Sichos Mussar, in the end of ma’amar 50) explains, that surely, on a conscious level, the nesi’im had good intensions in postponing their participation in the Mishkan project. However, deep down in the inner recesses of their minds, their reasoning was influenced by a hint of laziness. The nesi’im themselves may have not been aware of it, but the Torah reveals to us the true underlying motive of their actions. This is a struggle that faces all humanity. While we may think we have solid rationale backing our decisions in life and that we calculate our moves using objective thought processes, we fail to recognize the true motives behind the choices we make.
This concept is especially prevalent when it comes to laziness. The Mesilas Yesharim (chapter 6) says, “If you will ask a lazy one [why is acting the way he is], he will quote you many teachings from the rabbis, and many verses and logical explanations, which will all support, according to his crooked mind, his leniencies, and allow him to remain in the comfort of his laziness. He doesn’t realize that his claims and reasons are not a product of his true judgement of the matter, but rather they stem from his laziness which overpowers him and tilts his thought and logic towards these claims.”
Rabbi Aharon Kotler once returned home, exhausted from a grueling trip. He told his wife he was drained and must rest. A short while later, she walked into the room, and to her surprise, her husband was sitting on the bed engrossed in Torah study. “What happened?” she asked, “I thought you were tired out and needed to rest immediately.” “It is true that I felt that way,” answered Rabbi Kotler, “But on second thought, I started to doubt myself and I suspected that I wasn’t as exhausted as I imagined, rather it was an expression of laziness.”
This is perhaps one of the biggest challenges we face in life. Often, when we are asked for our help and we turn down the request, we will give a reason which sounds logical as to why we really can’t help out. With a little prodding, we will frequently find that it really boils down to laziness. The same holds true with excusing ourselves for not being as careful as we should with observing other Torah laws. We tell ourselves, “It’s not realistic,” or we rationalize as to why it’s not necessary to be more stringent with ourselves. In reality, more often than not, it’s just laziness in disguise.
In some instances, it may be extremely difficult to discern our true motives. To this, the Mesilas Yesharim (ibid) advises us, “Any leniency requires examination.” Any time we lean towards a choice which is more comfortable, this notion should raise a red flag. Before we decide to act in a way which is easier for us, we should make a point to consider the fact that ulterior motives might be playing a role, and analyze our decision with utmost honesty. With this approach, we will be surprised to find how much our “objective” thinking is tainted by laziness and the urge for comfort.
By Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber, firstname.lastname@example.org