The articles in this column are transcriptions and adaptations of shiurim by Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l. The Rav’s unique perspective on Chumash permeated many of the shiurim and lectures he presented at various venues over a 40 plus year period. His words add an important perspective that makes the Chumash in particular, and our tradition in general, vibrant and relevant to our generation.
The Torah tells us that two distinct types of people contributed to the building of the Mishkan. They are referred to as nesa’o libo and nadvah rucho (Shemos 35:21). What distinguishes these personalities? The nesa’o libo reacted and contributed to the building of the Mishkan based on an intellectual, rational approach. When asked to contribute, many in bnei Yisrael analyzed their ability to donate relative to the needs of the Mishkan and arrived at a figure to donate. Their intellectual approach toward building the Mishkan was perfectly acceptable and legitimate. (Note: see Rashi’s comment (Shemos 35:27) regarding the attitude of the nesi’im, the tribal leaders, who adopted a wait and see approach to supplement any potential deficiencies that would remain after the people concluded to donate.)
On the other hand, the nesa’o libo reacted on a more instinctive level. Such an individual was guided by his heart and consumed with the desire to build the Mishkan as an expression of an emotional attachment to Hashem. Such people went above and beyond what was required of them, lifnim meshuras hadin.
The difference between the intellectual and emotional approach to performing a mitzvah is most noticeable when analyzing the different approaches to giving charity. A person can readily comprehend and accept the intellectual rationale behind giving charity to the poor. It is perfectly rational, for one who has the means, to support and provide for those in need. The amount that such an individual will donate will be based on his assessment of the need relative to his available resources. When one acts in such a proper, rational way he is performing an act of tzedakah.
One can also perform charity from an emotional perspective. When one is so affected by a situation to the point that it becomes etched in his mind and he takes the situation so to heart that he is constantly disturbed by it, wherever he goes and whatever he does, he will act out of an emotional impulse. Such emotional impulses cannot be suppressed by rationalization, nor can they be diminished by additional analysis and introspection. When one acts on such an impulse, it is characterized as an act of chesed.
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 104b) says that a neighbor of Rabban Gamliel would cry inconsolably every night for her son who was murdered by the Romans during the period of the destruction of the second Temple. Instinctively, Rabban Gamliel felt her pain and would cry along with her each night. It is perfectly logical for one to sympathize with a widow mourning the loss of her only son for a night, perhaps a week, maybe even a month. But Rabban Gamliel experienced the same level of empathy and emotional pain every night, just as he did the very first night he heard her-heart rending cries. The nadvah rucho, the intellectual rationalist, would have eventually grown accustomed and inured to her cries. But Rabban Gamliel, like gedolei Yisrael throughout the ages, was a nesa’o libo, his was an emotional response that he felt wherever he turned, and he continued to grieve with her as if it was his own tragedy.
The distinction between the intellectual and emotional approaches to fulfilling a mitzvah can also be seen in the mitzvah of sippur yetzias Mitzrayim, our obligation to retell the story of the exodus from Egypt on the night of Pesach.
We are commanded to reenact the events that took place at the time of the exodus, to make them come alive for us. We must not view them from a detached perspective, as events that took place thousands of years ago. We involve the children in the telling of the story because we need to capture the emotions and feelings of a child in order to make the story tangible and bring it alive for us. An adult will tell a story from an intellectual, analytical perspective that will not inspire an emotional response. When a child tells a story, he feels the events that he is retelling; each time he tells the story he relives the emotional experiences that he is recalling.
On the night of Pesach we want to experience the feeling of walking out of Egypt at that very moment. To do that, we must relive the story from the experiential perspective of a wide-eyed child who epitomizes nesa’o libo, and not as an adult who is an intellectual nadvah rucho.