The Jew and the General

A Jew ends up sleeping in the same train cabin as a Russian General of the Czar's army. He tells the conductor to wake him up at 4:00 a.m. so he can get off at his stop. He is awakened at the proper time, yet due to the darkness he mistakenly puts on the clothing of the general instead of his own.

When he arrives home, his wife asks him if everything is all right with him. When he takes a look in the mirror and sees that he is wearing the general's uniform, he tells his wife, "It seems like the conductor woke up the general instead of me."

Three Arks

The holiest article in the Tabernacle that the Jewish people constructed in the desert was the Ark, which housed the Tablets of the Ten Commandments. In this past week's portion (Terumah), the Torah commands the Ark to be made of acacia wood and to be covered within and without with gold[1].

To fulfill this stipulation the Jews made three boxes, tucked into each other. The larger visible box was made of pure gold. Inside it, they placed a box of acacia wood. Then a second golden box was made and it was put inside the wooden one. Thus, the middle wooden box was covered with gold inside and out[2].

But why did they need to build three arks in order to fulfill this condition? Why could they not build one ark of wood and plate it inside and out with gold?

Three Layers of the Soul

Gold is an inanimate metal, while wood belongs to the botanic world of growth and development. Yet wood has nothing of the brilliant glitter and splendor of gold. And while wood may be developed into a magnificent structure, it can also -- unlike gold -- deteriorate and rot.

The spiritual masters teach[3] that the psychological structure of every human being consists of three strata, one "beneath" the other: The deepest, often invisible, stratum is the quintessential soul that may be unknown even to a person himself or herself (even if its impact is present in some form). Then there is the conscious personality -- including all of our instinctive thoughts, feelings, moods, instincts, and desires. Finally, there is the layer of behavior -- the active thoughts, words, and deeds we express and carry out during our daily lives and interactions.

The three arks that the Jewish people constructed three millennia ago in the Sinai desert represented these three dimensions of the human structure. The most inner ark, made of pure gold and tucked inside the other two arks, reflected the most inner dimension of the soul, which can be defined as "pure gold." This is the Divine, spiritual essence of our identity, displaying a brilliant luster of sacredness, integrity, and love. At the core, you are a "derivative" of infinite oneness, a manifestation of G-d's light in this world.

Just as gold coming from the inorganic world is not subject to real change, so too the golden essence of the human soul cannot be altered, tarnished, tainted, or compromised. No matter how much we were abused or we abused ourselves -- the core of our consciousness remains a piece of gold. Just as G-d is indestructible, so are you. In that Divine space, you remain fully intact, full of confidence, fortitude, joy, possibility, love, compassion, and courage.

The middle ark made of wood reflected the more visible conscious personality of the human soul. Just like wood, our feelings and attitudes go through many changes during our lives. We may develop and refine our "wooden" character so that it becomes exquisite and beautiful, or our personality may experience decomposition.

Our "wooden" self may vacillate between extremes. At times we may feel idealistic, virtuous, and spiritual, but at other times we find ourselves consumed by bleak emotions, negative cravings, and dark ambitions. We feel rotten and decayed inside.

Finally, the third and outer ark, conspicuous for all to see, was made of pure gold. This reflected the Torah's blueprint for the most external stratum of the human structure -- a person's behavior.

Though we may feel our personalities to be torn inside, and at times even saturated with gloom and pain, we need not grant them permission to dictate our behavior. We need to remember always that even while our conscious moods may gravitate toward decadence, our essence remains pure gold.

This is Judaism's fundamental code of human behavior. Even while you feel selfish, unholy, and obnoxious inside, your behavior -- what you do, how you talk, and how you consciously think -- can reflect the beauty and splendor of your innate G-dliness and infinite holiness. You can feel your "wood" in all of its nuanced manifestations and then choose the golden path.

The Gift of the Tanya

This was one of the primary contributions of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, known as the Alter Rebbe (1745-1812), in his classical Chassidic work, the Tanya (published 1796 in Russia). Generally speaking, the writings of ethical Judaism before the Tanya differentiated between the Tzaddik (the righteous person) whose heart and deeds were perfectly pure and holy vs. the Rasha (the sinful individual) whose heart and deeds were blemished and wicked. Many people, of course, were situated somewhere in the middle of the two extremes, always feeling unfulfilled because they fell short of reaching the state of the ideal human being -- the spiritually perfected Tzaddik.

In the Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman placed as his ideal human being a new spiritual model whom he called "the Benoni," or "the possible man." The Benoni is a person whose inner character often resembles that of the Rasha, consisting of the good/evil dichotomy that is the original natural state of every human. But the Benoni's behavior can be as mindful as the Tzaddik's.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman taught that there is no need, nor is it even a possibility for most people, to have all of their three "arks" turned into pure gold. It is not tragic if our middle "ark" remains dichotomized. Having bad feelings, insane feelings does not make me a bad person. It just makes me a nuanced person, who has a lot "going on" inside. My innermost ark is forever gold, and my behavior, my active thoughts, words, and deeds, can reflect my innate and primal Divine love and goodness. G-d did not desire holy people doing holy things; He desired unholy people doing holy things[5].

In beautiful prose, the Alter Rebbe teaches us that in our service of G-d there is no need to "amputate" any part of our emotional selves, to repress any part of our internal experience, in order to be a good Jew. We can embrace every part of our identity, realizing that each one of our "arks" plays an indispensable role in our emotional and spiritual growth, and that even our most challenging and painful emotions and wounds are there to help us grow, attain self-awareness, and reach our spiritual destiny. The light of G-d can be found everywhere, even in our dark moments and gloomy experiences.

(The Tanya [4] makes an important distinction between instinctive thoughts vs. conscious thoughts. While instinctive thoughts are beyond the control of a person, they are a mirror of my unconscious fears or primal needs, conscious thoughts remain under my "jurisdiction." While our instinctive thoughts may be painful, addictive, immoral, reflecting the good\evil dichotomy inherent in human nature, our conscious thoughts may always be fashioned of gold. It is the gift of freedom we each have to help our neural pathways construct new "highways.")

Do not make the error of the Jew sleeping on the train. Do not confuse who you are with what you are wearing. It is a sad error to allow yourself to be defined by your external rotten mood in lieu of your inner golden self. Nothing and nobody can ever damage your gold.

Reposted with permission from


[1] Exodus 25:11.

[2] Talmud Shekalim 16b; Yuma 72b, quoted in Rashi to Exodus ibid.

[3] See Tanya (by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, 1745-1812) chapters 1-25.

[4] See Tanya chapters 1, 12-14; 26-27; 35.Ch. 12.

[5] Ch. 12.