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How Can There Be a Voluntary Commandment?

Judaism is not known as a wishy-washy religion. The Torah lays down laws that, while always open to refinement and deeper understanding, are nonetheless ultimately unyielding: all of these laws are classified as an “aseh” or a “low-taaseh” – “do this” or “don’t do that.” Wits have pointed out that at Mount Sinai, G-d did not give us the Ten Suggestions.

So whenever something in the Torah is expressly “optional” we need to sit up and take notice. And here we have it, when Hashem commands us to build the Mishkan (the Tabernacle), Hashem says to Moshe, Exodus XXV:2 Speak to the people of Israel, that they bring me an offering; from every man that gives it willingly with his heart you shall take my offering.

The obvious question: with so many absolute commandments, why is this one voluntary? And even more peculiar: the commandment to build G-d a house is not actually flexible – we are obligated to do so. So why is our level of contribution entirely up to us?

I think the answer to this question is best understood by remembering that when the Mishkan was completed, the words of the Torah tell us that Hashem came to live “in them” instead of “in it.” This is famously understood as Hashem coming to live in the hearts of every Jewish person – the Mishkan, or Beis Hamikdash function to unlock our hearts, allowing each of us to have a personal relationship with Him.

And when we start talking about fuzzy things like relationships, the normal language of “do this” and “don’t do that” continue to govern most elements – but not all. We have plenty of rules within marriage just as we have rules in our marriage with Hashem. But there is a key part of this relationship that is most definitely incompatible with strict legalities: the ability to open our heart to the other person.

And so Judaism tells us how to be married to our spouse, just as it tells us how to relate to Hashem in the Beis Hamikdash. But it draws the line when it comes to telling us how much we have to emotionally commit to the relationship – how much we open our heart. We don’t criticize people who hold back their inner emotions in a marriage – that is what works for them. And Torah Jews don’t criticize people who go the other way, who dote on their spouse completely – that, too, is voluntary.

So when the Torah tells us that the level of our contribution to building a home for Hashem in our hearts is up to us, we should learn that this is true when we build a house with our husband or wife as well. We are commanded to have a relationship. But the emotional depth of that relationship is entirely up to us – if we don’t freely engage, it does not count. When we build a home for G-d or ourselves, the relationship comes from whatever we freely give from our hearts.

Comments are welcome!