Parashat Vayakhel: The Definition of a Misva
Parashat Vayakhel tells of Moshe assembling Beneh Yisrael in order to tell them G-d’s commands regarding the construction of the Mishkan. However, Moshe prefaces these instructions with the command to observe Shabbat. The Rabbis explained that Moshe began with Shabbat observance to underscore the point that the lofty undertaking of building a Mishkan, the place where the Shechina (Divine Presence) would reside, did not override the Shabbat prohibitions. The people might have assumed that given the importance of this project, and the nation’s enthusiasm to bring the Shechina into their midst, they should do everything necessary to hasten the completion of the Mishkan, including working on Shabbat. Moshe therefore prefaced the commands regarding the Mishkan with the command of Shabbat, emphasizing that as important and precious as the Mishkan of course was, its construction had to be halted each week for the observance of Shabbat.
This concept conveys a critical message about our religious observance generally. It teaches us that only the Torah itself dictates for us what a Misva is. We cannon define for ourselves what a Misva is, what is good to do and what is not good to do. It made a great deal of sense to the people that the work on the Mishkan should continue on Shabbat, but this is not what G-d wanted. And so if the people had continued working to build the Mishkan on Shabbat, they would have been guilty of a grievous sin. Even though their work was idealistically motivated, they were sincere in their desire to bring G-d into their midst, and their activity certainly appeared and felt like a holy act, it would have been a sin. The fact something seems like a Misva does not make it a Misva. Only the Torah determines for us what is a Misva and what is not.
There are numerous different applications of this fundamental principle. One is the grave mistake made by the non-Orthodox Jewish movements. Their leaders have taken the liberty to decide for themselves, based on their feelings and perceptions, what a Misva is. And thus, for example, they decided that driving to prayer services on Shabbat is acceptable, because otherwise many people would be unable to attend. It is clear to anyone with even the most basic familiarity with the Halachot of Shabbat that driving constitutes an act of Shabbat desecration, and that avoiding driving on Shabbat is thus far more important that praying with a Minyan. The fact that some people might intuitively decide otherwise does not make their view correct. Only the Torah, and not people’s intuition, determines what is a Misva.
Another example is the observation made by Rav Yisrael Salanter (1809-1883) about students who are so passionate about attending Torah classes that they push and shove to get a front row seat. They might feel they’re doing something "religious" or "holy" by excitedly rushing to be among the first in the room and get a seat close to their Rabbi, but what they are doing, Rav Yisrael Salanter said, is sinful. It is better not to attend a Torah class at all than to push people on the way to a Torah class.
Another example is charity. Of course, charity is a wonderful and vitally important Misva. But there is zero positive value to giving charity with money which was earned dishonestly. A Misva performed by way of a sin is not a Misva. It might feel like a Misva, it might seem holy, and the donor might be sincerely motivated – just like building the Mishkan on Shabbat seemed holy – but in truth, there is nothing holy about it, because the Torah strictly forbids such conduct.
Similarly, there are people who are involved in the otherwise noble effort to build a new institution, such as a synagogue or yeshiva, and in the process take the liberty to insult, embarrass or malign other people. They assume that the lofty ends – building a new institution – justify the means of hurting other people and instigating fights. This assumption is in diametric opposition to the Torah. The Torah teaches us in no uncertain terms that the ends most definitely do not justify the means, and that a Misva performed by way of a sin is not a Misva at all.
Let us remember that the Torah, and only the Torah, teaches us what is right and what is wrong. We need to consult with our Rabbis and receive their guidance, so that we ensure that everything we seek to do that seems like a Misva is, indeed, a Misva.