Not So Just Reward
“They brought the Mishkan to Moshe…” [39:33]
Commenting on the above verse, the Midrash cites a famous passage in
Mishlei, from the chapter Eishes Chayil/A woman of valor (31:25):
“Strength and majesty are her garment; she joyfully awaits the last
When R’ Avihu was about to depart this world, Hashem showed him the great
reward prepared for him in the World to Come… There were 13 balsamic
rivers. R’ Avihu wondered aloud, “All this for Avihu?! Indeed, about me it
is written the following (Yeshayahu 49:4): ‘But I said, ‘I have toiled
in vain, and used up my strength for emptiness and naught. Yet my judgment
is with you, Hashem, and [the reward for] my deed is with G-d.’’”
Clearly, R’ Avihu was not being facetious. If he thought all his toil was
in vain, he meant it quite literally. But how could this be? R’ Avihu was
no doubt exceedingly humble, yet he could not have denied that he – one of
the great teachers of the Amoraim – dedicated his life to Torah study. Did
R’ Avihu not accept the simple fact that, “Your Employer is trustworthy to
pay you for your deeds?” (Avos 2)
Also, how does this story relate to the verse in this week’s parsha, in
which the Mishkan is brought to Moshe to erect?
We find in the Torah, the Maggid of Dubna notes, seemingly contradictory
statements regarding the ease and/or difficulty of studying and adhering
to the Torah. One the one hand, we are taught, ”The Torah only resides
with those who kill themselves over it [i.e. study with extreme intensity
and self-sacrifice]” (Berachos 63). But then the Torah itself says,
“For this commandment that I command you today, it is not hidden from
you, nor is it distant… The matter is very close to you, in your mouth and
in your heart,” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 30).
Torah observance, on a very basic level, is made up of positive and
negative commandments. Of the two, refraining from the forbidden, and
cleansing ourselves of sin where we have strayed, is far more difficult.
Besides the simple fact that it’s more enjoyable to do something good than
to stay away from bad, there is another reason.
By performing positive mitzvos we, hopefully, attain some degree of
holiness. Even so, the tohar ha-lev/pureness of heart is not a direct
byproduct of our efforts.“One who comes to purify himself, he receives
[Heavenly] help (Yuma 38).” We perform the mitzvos, and, to the extent we
merit it, receive some level of kedusha from Above.
On the other hand, staying away from temptation, especially if we’ve
already fallen victim to its seduction, can be bitterly difficult and
Ostensibly, at least half of our mitzvos should be a cinch. As King David
says (Tehillim/Psalms 19), “They are more desirable than gold, than
even much fine gold; sweeter than honey, and drippings from combs.”
The reason we don’t always feel inspired the moment we sit down to study
Torah or perform some other mitzvah is because we have failed to first
cleanse our hearts from the bad.
He explains this with a parable. A pauper was invited to a massive and
most lavish feast being held in honour of a king. In anticipation, he
fasted the entire day so he would come to the meal and be able to fully
enjoy luxuries which at most times he could only imagine. As evening fell,
however, he was so famished that he just couldn’t wait. He ordered his
wife to serve him some food in the meantime, before he fainted of hunger.
They were of simple means, and the only food she had ready were some
radishes and onions, which, in his hunger, he swallowed in rapid
By the time he arrived at the feast, his stomach was churning and his
mouth was raging with the unpleasant aftertaste of indigestion. The richly
adorned waiters served him course after exquisite course of luxurious food
served on the best bone china, yet it was all he could do to force himself
to swallow small spoonfuls. At the feast’s conclusion, he couldn’t
understand why everyone was raving about the sumptuous meal. In his
opinion, each course was more bitter than the previous one.
The Torah and its mitzvos are naturally sweet, the Maggid explains --
sweeter than the sweetest honey, more precious than the shiniest gold. But
when we foolishly ruin our spiritual taste buds with the bitterness of
sin, we destroy our ability to ‘taste’ its sweetness. In our sorry state,
we sometimes imagine the Torah’s sweet delicacies are bitter.
Our lifelong task is to cleanse ourselves of the bitter taste of iniquity,
and allow Torah’s natural sweetness to do its thing, unimpeded.
It is no simple task; overcoming our weaknesses can take a lifetime.
Temptation grows deep roots, which implant themselves deeply into our
A landowner neglectfully let his lot deteriorate by dumping garbage
indiscriminately. One day, some generous soul came along and told
him, “Listen, that’s a great lot you have. It’s a shame to let it fall
apart like you have. If you clean it up, I promise I will build you a
beautiful house – on the very spot you once used for a garbage dump.” Not
foolish enough to look a gift horse in the mouth, the landowner did his
best to dig up all the years of garbage and waste. Good to his word, the
wealthy man then built him a house.
Proudly, he would show people his home. “I built it,” he would tell
them, “together with so and so.”
One day, the wealthy man who built the house overheard him. “That’s not
exactly correct,” he said. “I built the house.”
“True,” the landowner said, “but I cleared the land. You couldn’t have
built the house on top of a garbage dump!”
“Well, you’re right about that,” the wealthy man said. “But think about
who dumped the garbage there in the first place.”
R’ Avihu knew he spent a life full of Torah and mitzvos. But in his mind,
though, he couldn’t see how he deserved any reward. For the positive
mitzvos? They are sweeter than honey and more precious than gold! What
greater reward could he ask for than the sublime pleasure of their
experience. As for the negative mitzvos – refraining from bad and toiling
to cleanse that which was already sullied – it’s true he toiled to purify
himself, but surely there could be no reward for that. After all, who
turned the valuable plot into a garbage dump in the first place?
The Midrash teaches us that despite all this, Hashem, in His infinite
kindness, does reward us for adhering to the Torah, even though much of
our toil is spent fixing what we’ve broken and cleaning up the mess we
When they brought Moshe the Mishkan, he was unable to erect it. Hashem
told him, “You go through the motions; make it seem like you’re lifting
it, and I’ll put it up for you.” Still, the Mishkan is credited to Moshe.
Perhaps this is why the Midrash connects the story of R’ Avihu to
Moshe’s ‘erecting’ the Mishkan. While ultimately we can make no just claim
to whatever we achieve, Hashem rewards us in full – even if we’ve done no
more than go through the motions. Have a good Shabbos.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Torah.org