Vayakhel – Pekudei 5778

The power of scoffing[1]

אלה פקודי המשכן משכן העדת אשר פקד על-פי משה וגו’‏
These are the accountings of the Mishkan, the Mishkan of testimony, which was commanded by Moshe…[2]

The Midrash asks[3]: why was there a need for Moshe to make an accounting of the materials of the Mishkan? Moshe is described by Hashem[4] as “trustworthy in my entire house”. Surely there couldn’t be any suspicion that he had taken anything for himself. Unfortunately, there was. Moshe overheard some scoffers speaking badly about him[5]. One was saying: “look how fat his neck is”[6]. His friend responded: “what else do you expect from the one who was in charge of the Mishkan?” They were suspicious of Moshe’s wealth, and inferred he had stolen from the donations to the Mishkan. When Moshe heard this, he immediately made an accounting of the materials, to show that nothing was missing.

Even though these individuals who were insulting Moshe were surely the lowlifes of the Jewish people, one has to wonder what caused them to suspect Moshe. For sure if their accusations were worthy of recording for posterity, it’s to teach us something. As well, they were part of the generation which left Egypt; the ones who witnessed the Divine Revelation at Sinai. They weren’t just regular ingrates; they had to be coming from somewhere.

It is said[7] that when the Jews left Egypt, they became incredibly wealthy. They took all the riches from Egypt with them[8], to the point that there wasn’t a single Jew who didn’t have ninety donkeys carrying loads of gold and silver. More than that, the plunder they retrieved at the sea was greater than that which they took when they left[9]. However, Moshe didn’t take part in the gathering of the treasures. He was busy dealing with the coffin of Yosef, making sure it didn’t get left behind in Egypt[10]. That would then mean that Moshe was the only Jew who didn’t become wealthy when leaving Egypt[11]. When did he amass his great wealth, which garnered suspicion?

The answer is from last week’s parsha. After Moshe smashed the stone tablets which contained the Ten Commandments, he had to create replacements. Hashem commanded him to make new tablets by saying פסול לך, carve for yourself[12]. When He said, “for yourself”, He meant the leftovers of the stone used to carve the tablets were Moshe’s to keep[13]. It is understood that Moshe carved the tablets out of a quarry of sapphire[14], making him exceedingly affluent. It’s clear that until that point Moshe wasn’t wealthy.

If we follow the timeline of events after Moshe carved the second tablets, it’s clear where their suspicions came from. Immediately after carving the second tablets, Moshe went back up to Mount Sinai for another forty days. He came down on Yom Kippur, and the nation was forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf. He then immediately proceeded to command them about the construction of the Mishkan[15]. The nation began to collect the donations for the Mishkan, and had their first opportunity to notice Moshe’s newfound wealth. The timing seemed too convenient for some to ignore; there was no other explanation they could think of. Of course Moshe was helping himself to the gold and silver that was collected for the Mishkan. This is where the scoffers found their opening to speak badly about Moshe. Once he heard them speaking this way about him, he immediately commanded an accounting of the materials of the Mishkan, showing that nothing was missing. He had to prove his innocence[16], despite the fact that Hashem testified that he was trustworthy in His whole house.

We see from here just how far scoffing can go. It can turn a righteous individual into a thief, turning truth into falsehood. To bring out the point, there is a halacha that someone who witnesses a thief stealing a Temple vessel can take the law into their own hands[17]. Why is this so? We see that the Torah is more stringent with a גנב, a thief (who steals in stealth), than with a גזלן, a robber (who steals by force). A robber knows G-d is watching his theft just as much as the onlookers are, and doesn’t care. This is unlike a thief, who is afraid of getting caught. By doing his crime in stealth, he makes believe that G-d isn’t watching too. This heretical belief makes the thief much worse than a robber. This is intensified in the Temple, where Hashem’s presence is all the more present. Stealing a Temple vessel is a greater injustice and disgrace to Hashem’s honor. It implies that Hashem isn’t even in His own Temple. This is why a person can take the law into their own hands if they see such a crime.

Therefore, accusing Moshe, who spoke face to face with Hashem[18], of becoming wealthy from the Mishkan donations, was ludicrous. Stealing from the Mishkan, a precursor of the Temple, is one of the most heinous crimes. It implies that Hashem isn’t aware of what the person is doing. Someone who spoke to Hashem face to face, something no other prophet could ever accomplish[19], would make such a mistake? Someone Hashem Himself testifies is entirely trustworthy? These scoffers didn’t merely think these suspicions, they shared them with others. This is the power of scoffing. It can take the ludicrous and make it common conversation. This shows how far we must stay away from it. Good Shabbos.

[1] Based on Be’er Yosef to Exodus 38:1

[2] Exodus loc. cit.

[3] Shemos Rabbah 51:6; Tanchumah Pekudei § 7

[4] Numbers 12:7. This verse was stated by Hashem much later, but the Midrash employs it at this point in the Torah

[5] Based on Exodus 33:8,9

[6] Fat necks were a sign of prosperity in those days. This is why a “choker” was a commonly worn piece of jewelry. See the top of Shabbos 57b

[7] Bechoros 5b

[8] Exodus 12:36

[9] Rashi to ibid 15:22, citing Mechilta, based on Song of Songs 1:11

[10] Shemos Rabbah 20:19 and Sotah 13a, based on Exodus 13:19 and Proverbs 10:8

[11] This assumes he didn’t take the riches even from the sea, which isn’t necessary to say based only on the above sources. However, see note 13

[12] Exodus 34:1

[13] Nedarim 38a; Yerushalmi Shekalim 5:2; Shemos Rabbah 46:2. These sources prove that Moshe didn’t take anything from the riches at the sea, as they say that this was how he became wealthy

[14] Rashi to Exodus loc. cit.; Nedarim loc. cit. doesn’t say what the tablets were made of. The Yerushalmi loc. cit. seems to bring two opinions where Moshe’s wealth come from: one says it was from the leftovers of the tablets, the other says Hashem put a quarry of precious stones in Moshe’s tent. Rashi appears to be combining the two opinions into one, and explains the precious stones to be sapphire. Rashi’s source is Vayikra Rabbah 32:2, and Torah Sheleimah ad. loc. § 5 points out that there are many sources which say similarly. This might indicate that the Yerushalmi doesn’t mean that there are two opinions; rather they are saying the same thing

[15] All this is explained in Rashi to Exodus 33:11

[16] He was fulfilling והייתם נקיים מיקוק ומישראל (Numbers 32:22). See Shekalim 3:2 and Teshuvos Chasam Sofer Volume 6 Likkutim § 59

[17] קנאים פוגעים בו (Sanhedrin 9:6), just like הבועל ארמית (ibid)

[18] Numbers 12:8; Deuteronomy 34:10

[19] Deuteronomy loc. cit.

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