G-d commanded Moses: “Make an ark of acacia wood, 2 1/2 cubits long, 1 1/2 cubits wide and 1 1/2 cubits high. Cover it with a layer of pure gold on the inside and outside, and make a gold rim all around its top” (Exod. 25:10).
The Talmud explains that the practical way of doing this is to make 3 boxes: a largest one of gold, a smaller one of wood, and a smallest one of gold. The three are then placed one inside the other, so that the Biblical commandment is fulfilled.
The Talmud (Yoma 72) derives from this, that any Talmid Chacham whose inside does not match his outside is not really a Talmid Chacham, since it is written “Cover it with gold on the inside and on the outside.” The level of spirituality that we display on the outside should match our true level of spirituality, that which is found on the inside.
That is well and good, and something we probably all realize, but we can now ask another question: if the Ark is supposed to represent a Talmid Chacham, why is it not made of solid gold? What is the acacia wood doing there altogether? Should not the Torah scholar be pure, rather than veneered with spiritual beauty?
I remember 35 years back, while studying in Yeshiva in Jerusalem, I was sitting at a table with some friends during a Shabbos Kiddush. I mentioned that I was planning a trip to Bnei Brak. A friend suggested that it would be worth my while to visit the famous Ponevezh Yeshiva there. There, he continued, I could catch a rare glimpse of a malach (angel). He was referring to Rabbi Yechezkiel Levenstein of blessed memory, who was world reknowned for his unusual piety.
Our Rosh Yeshiva, who was sitting close by, overheard this and exclaimed: “You are mistaken: the greatness of R’ Yechezkiel is that he is not a malach at all — he is flesh and blood like the rest of us!” This is the symbolism of the acacia wood. We must understand that as holy as we can become on the outside and on the inside, we nevertheless remain, and should remain, human beings! Our core is not gold, but wood, which represents our humanness. If we become so holy as to become totally spiritual, then we no longer have a place in this world, only in the world to come.
Once I found myself sitting next to someone on a flight, and we started talking about Jewishness. He claimed to have tried out Yiddishkeit at one point of his life, but not to have felt comfortable with it. “I must feel comfortable with it,” he said, “otherwise it is not for me!”
He went on to explain that even today when he is called upon to contribute to the UJA, he refuses, because he does not feel really good about giving away his money. I told him that in my opinion there is only one kind of person that feels really good about giving away his money: a meshugene!
If we were angels we would feel really good about giving our money away, but we are not! We may be gold inside and outside, but in between there is that layer of acacia which is our humanness. It’s not that we do not want to give, but there is a part of our humanness which creates a challenge.
It is exactly under these circumstances that we are required to do mitzvos. If we waited until we felt really good about doing mitzvos, we would have to wait until we had left this world. You can be sure that everyone, even a Rosh Yeshiva, will find it a nuisance to get up early in winter to make morning minyan. But this is what is required of us, even though we would all rather be sleeping late.
We are all human, even Tzadikim! According to the Chafetz Chaim, the definition of the mitzva of chesed (kindness) is when one performs a good deed against one’s natural feelings.
If you prepare a sandwich, the major component is what is between the bread. No matter how good the bread, you would not place a piece of it between two slices of the same bread, and call that a bread sandwich! The humanness within us is to be treasured.
Sanctify that humanness and cover it with gold.