Clowning Around – Pekudei


As we celebrate Rosh Chodesh Adar Sheini this Thursday and Friday b”H and with Purim fast approaching, the title of this shiur is very appropriate. In today’s shiur I would like to talk about the various forms of “clowning around” and interestingly enough we learn one of them from this week’s parsha – Pekudei.

Like last week’s parsha, Pekudei is also a summary, a synopsis. Unlike Vayakhel, however, which is a verbatim repetition of the ציווים of HKB”H for building each and every part of the Mishkan, Pekudei is a reckoning, an “accounting” summary of every raw material used in the Mishkan, where it was used, and how much for each component.

The first question Chazal ask is why does Moshe give an accounting summary? Where and when did HKB”H tell him to do that? (hint: He didn’t).

Secondly, and perhaps the most important question regarding this shiur, “Was Moshe overweight?”

No, this is not an edition of Dieters Weekly or the Biblical Nutrition Almanac, it is a reference to a Midrash (Rabba, parshat Pekudei 51, 6; Tanchuma, Pekudei).

According to the Midrash there was a group of people termed ליצני ישראל who mocked Moshe Rabbeinu. There are two different opinions what they said. According to R’ Yochanan they said "אשרי יולדתו" and according to R’ Chama they would look at Moshe’s neck and thighs from behind and comment that they were fat.

The first opinion of R’ Yochanan does not seem like mocking at all – אשרי יולדתו? That sounds like praise! In fact what they were saying was “Happy is the mother who gave birth to Ben Amram” (whenever there is a reference to Moshe as Ben Amram, it is in a derogatory context). “Look how he has given jobs to all of his family – he made his brother the Kohen Gadol, he made Betzalel, the grandson (great-grandson?)  of Miriam, chief builder of the Mishkan, he made Itamar, son of Aharon chief accountant – אשרי יולדתו, his mother can be proud of him, he used his power of office to dish out jobs to all his family.”

According to R’ Chama they said how “fat” Moshe was getting. They said “Moshe is in charge of such a vast fortune – all the gold, silver, precious gems etc. from the Mishkan, it is not possible that some of that is not finding its way to his pocket!”

When Moshe heard these mocking comments behind his back, he responded חייכם, נגמר המשכן אתן לכם חשבון. HKB”H did not tell Moshe to make an accounting, but when Moshe resolved to do so, HKB”H did not object and in fact we have almost an entire parsha dedicated to this – just because of the mocking comments of ליצני ישראל – “clowns of Israel”.

Who were these “clowns”? What was their reason to mock Moshe? What in fact is the essence of this mocking that makes it unacceptable?

To get an idea of what we are dealing with here, we need to skip forward to parshat Korach. Both the Midrash (Rabba Korach 4; Tanchuma Korach 3) and the Gemara (Sanhedrin 109b) say that Korach was typical of this kind of “clown”, they also call him a ליצן.

Korach gathered a group of his followers and put on a “stand-up comedy” kind of show for them.

Korach proceeded to tell the story of a poor widow from his neighborhood, who had two orphan daughters and a single, solitary field. When she wanted to plough the field, Moshe came to her and said “You cannot plough with an ox and a donkey together.” She came to sow and Moshe said “You cannot sow כלאיים in the field.” When it came time to harvest Moshe told her “You have to leave לקט, שכחה ופאה.” After the grain harvest Moshe again came to her and said “You have to give Truma, Ma’aser Rishon and Ma’aser Sheini.” The poor woman could not take it any longer, so she sold the field and bought two sheep to enjoy the wool and the offspring. When the first lambs were born, along comes Aharon and says “The bechorot belong to me” and she gave them to him. When shearing time arrived, Aharon again said “The first wool of the shearing belongs to me.” The poor widow said “I cannot stand up to these two” so she slaughtered the sheep, hoping to at least enjoy the meat, but up pops Aharon again and says “Give me the זרוע, לחיים וקיבה”. The poor widow was in despair “Even after I slaughter the sheep I cannot get away from them.” So in a desperate final attempt she said "הרי עלי חרם", hoping that something at least would remain for her and her two orphan daughters. Aharon replied, “If that is the case then all of it belongs to me as it says כל חרם בישראל לך יהיה. The poor defeated widow and her two orphan daughters were left penniless!

As we all know, Korach had an agenda (see my shiur on Korach), that is not what I want to discuss here. Instead I would like to analyze this form of “clowning” around to understand what makes it passul.

On the surface, it seems that all the facts are true. Everything that Moshe and Aharon supposedly said, according to Korach, is true – they are all mitzvot דאורייתא! So what is the problem?

The problem is that this story never took place, it was a total fabrication. In the Midbar there were no fields. The mitzvot of לקט, שכחה ופאה and Trumot and Ma’asrot only applied after Am Yisrael entered Eretz Yisrael. Korach took truths from the Torah and around them he fabricated this make believe story in such a way that it twisted the true purpose of these mitzvot when in reality such a case could theoretically never take place. Korach engineered the story, applying dramatic effect exactly in the right places to get the required response from the audience and made a mockery of Moshe and Aharon.

Our Midrash in Pekudei is exactly the same. “Moshe is dipping his hands into the gold and the silver we donated for the Mishkan! Moshe is getting fat!” It was all lies. Even if Moshe was theoretically ”skimming off the barrel”, which he wasn’t, what could he possibly do with it in the Midbar? What could a billionaire with tons of gold and precious stones do with them in the Midbar? Buy a fancy car? A yacht? Build a palace? And if you say that he was keeping it for when they would enter Eretz Yisrael …. Chazal tell us that when Am Yisrael entered Eretz Yisrael they came to a fully built and equipped land. The homes, buildings, bridges, roads, parks, etc. were all there for them. When they went into the already built homes HKB”H revealed to them all the riches hidden under the floorboards, in the walls. All the riches they took out of Egypt and added to on Yam Suf, were nothing in comparison to these riches they found. HKB”H intended that all the riches from Egypt be used to build the Mishkan, not to take into Eretz Yisrael, where they would get even more vast riches.

So it was all a fabrication, lies – but taking truths, using them out of context, twisting them and by their very presence, camouflaging the lies and making them believable

Those who heard Korach’s performance could not help be drawn into it and believe it was true and even if, upon closer inspection, it was obvious that it could not be true, it cast into doubt the sincerity and authority of these two figures, Moshe and Aharon. “OK, so perhaps they didn’t steal the field (there was no field), but do they have the right to steal all a poor widow’s possessions in theory? Do Moshe and Aharon have the right for such monopolization?”

Similarly, anyone who heard the mocking of these ליצני ישראל could not escape the “seed” of doubt it planted in their minds – even if it was obviously not true.

This is the power of ליצנות – mockery, it, like lashon harah, plants a seed and casts aspersion on even the greatest, most impeccable people.

The response to such destructive innuendo must be silenced decisively, which Moshe did by giving a full accounting in Pekudei. HKB”H regarded this mockery as so destructive that He completely altered the structure of the Torah, to include this extra parsha of the accounting, just to silence the mockers.

To see the true destructive power of mockery we must again examine parshat Korach. Even after a supernatural miracle directly from HKB”H that swallowed up this group, the seeds they had planted did not immediately vanish, it took a further plague and another miracle – the staffs, to finally put this bugbear to rest.

This is why the issue of מראית עין is so critical. It is not enough that someone is actually righteous, he/she must also appear to be righteous in everyone’s eyes, beyond all shadow of a doubt.

We have a perfect example of this with Beit Garmu, the family of Levi’im who baked the Lechem Hapanim in the time of the 2nd Mikdash. When the Chachamim asked them to reveal their secret they refused. The whole episode in the Gemara (Yoma 38a) is a little surreal. Beit Garmu refused to tell their secret, so the Chachamim fired them and took Egyptian bakers to replace them and when the Alexandrian bakers failed, they reinstated Beit Garmu and doubled their salary, Then the Gemara goes on to say how pious Beit Garmu actually were, that they never used solet to make their own bread, so that people would not suspect them of using solet from the Mikdash for their personal use.

Why double their salary? Why add that anecdote about the solet and their personal bread? It was all to silence the possible ליצנים.

Beit Garmu earned an extravagant salary to begin with by all considerations. With their weekly salary they could have purchased 9600 liters of wine (see this article). This salary was paid for from public funds – the תרומת הלשכה, the treasury of the מחצית השקל. Beit Garmu earned this salary בזכות, it was befitting their stature and work in the Mikdash. To get them to return to work after firing them, the Chachamim agreed to double this salary!

All these goings on with public funds and supposed “hanky panky” could easily start those in Am Yisrael wagging their tongues in mockery. To prevent this, the Gemara decisively nips it in the bud by confirming how righteous Beit Garmu really were and how makpid they were with מראית עין.

Wherever and whenever public funds and positions are involved, an opening exists for potential ליצנות - back in the time of Moshe Rabbeinu and all the way to the present day.

A distinction must be drawn between the legitimacy of maintaining checks and balances and ליצנות that is fueled by an agenda. Both in the past and the present we see how easily those who sit in the seats of wealth and power may be corrupted. There are numerous examples in the lineage of Beit David and the corrupt kings, the צדוקים, Kohanim who became corrupt, etc. Checks and balances are essential to maintain טוהר המידות. In biblical times, this was the task of the נביא. Today it is the job of the State Comptroller and supposedly the media.

In theory, the media has a vital role to play in exposing corruption in high places and when they fulfill this role out of pure motivation, it is essential for maintaining balance in a regime. Unfortunately, as power corrupts in the seats of political power, power also corrupts in the seats of media power. The media today harnesses a power never know in history. Within milliseconds reports can be distributed all over the globe accompanied by pictures, video footage, broadcast into every home and cellphone on the planet, instantaneously. Right now there is a war waging in the Ukraine and every human on the planet is an eye witness to it, every second by second. This phenomenon is unprecedented in history.

The power the media has today is monstrous. They have the power to topple governments, elect leaders, start wars, end wars. It is an immense power that should be subject to checks and balances, just like any other form of power, but for the most part these checks and balances do not exist. The power the media wields today is unbridled and easily hijacked and recruited to further agendas.

In the past to topple a leader undemocratically, you would have to assassinate him/her (re: JFK, Rabin etc.) To “assassinate” a leader today does not require such crude methods. It is much more effective to “assassinate” them with the media - to allege some malfeasance, even if such allegation is a total fabrication. Once it is out there, on the airwaves, the damage is already done, true or not.

This is the destructive power of ליצנות and this is the modern form of ליצנות.  In the time of Moshe Rabbeinu, HKB”H Himself intervened and gave a decisive display of Supernatural adjudication by swallowing up Korach and his followers. However, even that Divine display was not enough to fully repair the destructive power of this ליצנות. על אחת כמה וכמה today that we have neither a נביא nor overt Supernatural intervention, how difficult it is to escape the destructive power of contemporary ליצנות. Media out of control is the contemporary form of true evil. It is safe to say that true journalism (if it ever existed) is dead. Every media today has an agenda.

Is there any kind of “clowning around” that is not evil? The answer is yes!

The Gemara (Ta’anit 22a) tells of Rebi Broka who asked Eliyahu Hanavi if there was anyone in the marketplace who was a Ben Olam Habah.  Eliyahu showed him two buffoons, who seemed to be clowning around. To Rebi Broka they appeared to be fools, so he asked them what they did for a living. They replied that they went around looking for anyone who needed cheering up and they put a smile on their dial, or people who were fighting with one another, they made them smile and made peace between them.

So there is clowning around and there is clowning around. What differentiates the first type of clowning in the shiur from the second?

The answer is that the first tears people down and the second lifts people up. The first is evil, the second is one of the highest levels of צדיקות that one can achieve, that they merit Olam Habah without דין and without ייסורים.

How do we prevent the first, evil type of clowning around? The media is such a powerful thing, what can I, Joe Shmoe do to stop it? The answer is you can stop consuming it. The media, like any other commodity is dependent on consumption. It cannot be brought down by force or political power, only by consumers not consuming the product. Their power is dependent on you being “plugged in”. By unplugging yourself from it, you remove their power. One individual doing that achieves nothing, but millions and billions of individuals all following suit will bring them down or at least make them reconsider their modus operandi.

In our day and age, being “plugged in” is more and more approaching a kind of avodah zarah. Many say “I know all the media is biased, so I watch both sides, take them both with a grain of salt and assume the reality is somewhere in the middle.” Theoretically that sounds logical, but being exposed to lies taints you, by the very fact that you listen to it taints you. One lie does not cancel another lie.

Slowly and gradually becoming “unplugged” is only a good thing. Leave your cellphones at home when you go to shul. Switch them off during mealtimes with the family, or on your walks around the neighborhood. Let your eyes tell you the truth, not a video on a screen. Reconnect with the reality that HKB”H created and not a virtual reality that is man made and very often destructive.

As we enter the month of Purim, where it is a mitzvah to up the volume on simcha and smiling, let’s all endeavor to indulge in the type of clowning around and humor that builds and lifts people up, and does not tear people down.

Chodesh Tov!

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