Parasha Pekudai — Struggling With Our Evil Inclination

President Ronald Reagan famously exclaimed, “Trust, but verify”. The phrase is actually a saying from the Russian language.  Historians tell us that President Reagan used it often in his arms control negotiations with Michael Gorbachev in the 1980s.  “Trust, but verify could be the title of this week’s parasha. As you recall, Moses has been instructed to build a Mishkan, a place of G-d’s presence. The Israelites would take the Mishkan with them as they travel through the desert to the Land of Canaan, the land the G-d has promised them. There had been an outpouring of donations from the Israelites to construct the Mishkan – gold and silver, fabrics of all kinds, acacia wood and precious stones, animal skins and oils and spices. The Midrash tells us that some of the Israelites doubted that Moses had used all of the donations that he had gathered for the purpose for which they were intended. Therefore, our parasha begins by telling us that Moses gave an account of all of the donations that he received and how he used them, lest he be suspected of using some of those donations for his own, personal use.

You may think that it was a terrible thing to suspect Moshe Rabeinu – the great Moses our Teacher, who, the Torah tells us, spoke to G0d himself ‘face – to – face” – of embezzlement of funds. But there is in all human beings a Yetzer-Ha-rah – an inclination to behave badly.  In some ways ,we  might say that can’t blame those Israelites who wondered whether Moses was putting something aside for himself. It turned out Moses could account for every penny, so to speak.  There is a different story about a rabbi, closer to our times , who had to struggle against his yetzer ha-rah to do the right thing.

In Russia at the end of the 19thcentury there existed one of the great schools of Jewish learning of all time – the Volozhin Yeshiva. Young men would come from all over Europe, even from the United States, for the chance to study with some of the best rabbis and most dedicated students in the world.

Like most Jewish institutions to this day, this Yeshiva had financial challenges. They were always short of money. In an effort to deal once again with another financial crisis, the head of the Yeshiva, Rabbi Chaim Solovietchik, set off for the city of Minsk to raise the money that would prevent the Yeshiva from closing. There were two rabbis in that big city that raised money for the yeshiva on a regular basis. These were Rabbi Duber Pines and Rabbi Baruch Zlotolwitz. Rabbi Soloveitchik went to the home of Rabbi Zlotowitz and asked him if he could raise the money to save the Yeshiva. “I will see what I can do,” said Rabbi Zlotowitz. Rabbi Soloveithcik stayed at Rabbi Zlotowitz’s home anxiously waiting for Rabbi Zlotowitz to raise the money.

After two weeks, Rabbi Soloveitchik asked Rabbi Zlotowitz how he was doing. “I have raised almost half the money you need,” said Rabbi Zlotowitz. After a full month had passed, Rabbi Soloveitchik asked him again. “I am happy to say I have raised the entire sum,” said Rabbi Zlotowitz. Rabbi Soloveitchik returned to Volozhin with the money and paid off the bills that the Yeshiva owed.

A few days later two men appeared before the rabbinical court in Volozhin. The two men were none other than Rabbi Zlotowitz and Rabbi Pines, the two rabbis who lived in Minsk and raised money for the Yeshiva. Rabbi Pines had brought a complaint. “Rabbi Zlotowitz and I have always been equal partners in raising money for the Yeshiva. But when Rabbi Soloveitchik asked Rabbi Zlototwitz to raise money this time, he didn’t do it. Rabbi Zlotowitz gave the entire amount out of his own pocket! I insist that I be able give him half of the amount that he contributed to the yeshiva, and in return I will gain an equal share in this worthy enterprise.

When Rabbi Soloveitchik heard about this, he took Rabbi Zlotowitz aside. “If you gave me the money out of your own pocket,” he asked, “why did you make me wait at your home for a month until you gave it to me? Why didn’t you give it to me right away, and let me go?”

Rabbi Zlotowitz replied, “Do you think it’s easy to give such a large amount of money? I had to struggle long and hard with the greed in my heart just to give you half of the money. Then I had to wage another all-out battle in my heart to wrench out the other half from my pocket. I’m sorry, but it took me an entire month to convince myself to give you the entire amount!”

So it can be with us. Often we have to struggle with our own yetzer ha-rahs in order to do the right thing. Our yetzer ha-rahs say to us “I’ll do it later” or “I’ll wait to see what others give” or “They’ll never know the difference,” or “I’d rather sleep than study” or — just fill in the blank! The sages understood our yetzer ha-rah to be a part of the human condition, for each morning upon awakening we pray, “Dear G-d, do not allow my yetzer ha-rah to rule over me.” May our yetzer- ha-tov, our good inclination always overcome our yetzer ha-rah and may we do Good all the days of our lives.

Shabbat Shalom