The famous (or possibly infamous) topic of the Nesi’im begins with the “VaYehi BeYom Kalot Moshe LeHakim Et HaMishkan,” “And it was on the day that Moshe completed building the Mishkan”(BeMidbar 7:1). This Pasuk seems straightforward, but upon a closer examination of the wording, a very strange difficulty arises. Chazal teach that whenever the word “VaYehi” describes an event in Tanach, it always refers to a Tzarah, a period of sorrow and grief (Megilah 10b). Chazal say this in context of Megilat Esther, which begins with “VaYehi BiYmei Achashveirosh,” “And it was in the days of Achashveirosh” (Esteir 1:1). This obviously leads into a very tragic story. Chazal also present a proof from what we read on Shavu’ot, Megilat Rut, which begins, “VaYehi BiYmei Shefot HaShofetim,” “And it was in the time of the judging of the judges” (Rut 1:1). This also leads into a very tragic story. If we read the beginning of Chanukat HaMizbei’ach carefully, we see that it too begins with the word “VaYehi.” Is the Torah trying to tell us that this was a tragic time? Probably not, but there is still a valuable life lesson in store.
As they often do to help us understand hidden meanings and lessons, Chazal present a Mashal to explain this incident. There was once a king who had a quarrelsome wife who constantly argued with him. The king thought of a plan to solve this problem, and instructed his wife to make new and beautiful clothes for herself. The wife quickly occupied herself with the planning and fashioning and sewing of the clothes, completely engrossed in the process. Meanwhile, the king enjoyed a peaceful respite from the frequent quarrels. At last, the royal clothes were completed, and the queen presented them before the king. Although the king was gladdened by the beauty of the clothes, he began to cry. Now that the queen’s job was over, she would once again revert to her old ways.
When Bnei Yisrael were occupied with the building of the Mishkan, they had very little time to complain, but once Moshe had completed the process, he had also restored the nation’s leisure time. He believed that now Bnei Yisrael would revert to their quarrelsome ways, so the day had a trace of sadness.
This phenomenon holds true throughout Jewish history. Had it not been for constant persecution, the Jewish people would have quickly assimilated. When we were in perpetual fear of another pogrom, or another forced conversion, or another burning of the Talmud, or another expulsion, we were too occupied with anxiety to abandon our religion. It was during these times that we had no leisure time and no time to think about leaving Judaism. There are many inspiring stories about major sacrifices made to observe Halachah in the concentration camps, and other stories about indifferent or even self-hating Jews that, when push came to shove, still clung to their eternal faith. Human nature works in funny ways, crying out in need in times of tragedy and growing complacent and arrogant in times of prosperity. When the opportunity came to drop their faith after the enlightenment (Haskalah), the Jewish people nearly went extinct after being ravaged by the perception of emancipation and the Reform and Conservative movements. More so, when the opportunity came to live in a land free of persecution, religiosity disintegrated. Many new immigrants may have kept their Talit and Tefillin and refused to work on Saturdays, but the rate of assimilation that countered this minority threatened Orthodoxy to the point of what many believed would be extinction by the 1950s. Was this their respect to their ancestors who made Sidurim in the ghettos? To their ancestors who lit Chanukah candles in the barracks? Statistics would probably show that more Jews were and are continuously lost to emancipation than oppression.
An aphorism states that more Jews were lost to the Statue of Liberty than to Hitler. This is because Jews tend to become complacent and throw off their burdens when left alone. The subtle hint of the word “VaYehi” teaches us this important lesson, that we, as Jews, must always be occupied in something to bring out the best in each of us. The lesson of the Mishkan demonstrates that the only hope for a thriving Jewish nation is through building sanctuaries as a safe haven so that we are not ensnared into the trap of complacency.