May 27, 2024
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Parshat Terumah: Wuddup Dawggg

The Midrash Tanchuma on this week’s parsha records an interesting and intriguing conversation between Turnus Rufus and Rebbe Akiva. Turnus Rufus asked Rebbe Akiva: “What did you dream about last night, and what did you see?” “I dreamed about two dogs last night, one was named Rufus, and the other Rufina.” [Funny thought: Rufus sounds like “roof!”—the sound dogs make.] Turnus Rufus became infuriated and said to him: “How dare you call the dogs by my name and by the name of my wife? You are guilty of treason against the government.” Rebbe Akiva responded: “Is there actually a difference between you and them? You eat and drink, and they do likewise; you are fruitful and multiply, and so do they; you die and they die; yet because I called them by your names, you have become angry.

I think we need some clarity on this high-heated debate between Turnus Rufus and Rebbe Akiva. Let’s examine both sides of the argument: Turnus Rufus seemed to feel that he should not be compared to a dog. Seemingly he has a point, for after all, he is a human being and a dog is an animal! So then what does Rebbe Akiva mean when he in fact claims that to the contrary, Turnus Rufus is like an animal? On the flip side, Rebbe Akiva has a strong point: Yes, you may be of the species that stands on two instead of four, but practically speaking what is the difference between you who stand firmly on two versus those who are perched up elegantly on four? Yet, we don’t see in this Midrash Turnus Rufus responding: “Indeed, Rebbe Akiva, you have a very good point, and, yes, I agree with what you are saying.” That would be a critical point in this story and a must for us to know! Sounds like maybe Turnus wouldn’t agree. So, if it’s safe to assume that Turnus Rufus holds strong to his tails, what then was his philosophy of the dominance of a human being over an animal?

Turnus Rufus may have been bothered by that with which every human being constantly grapples. Every one of us understands deep down our nobility as a human being, the exalted caliber we possess and our ability to make a tremendous impact on ourselves and the world at large. Yet, what causes internal rift is when we feel that we are not quite accomplishing that which we are supposed to do: namely, living on a spiritual plane. As a result, a person may try to fill the vacuum with all kind of physical or intellectual achievements in an effort to connect to that greatness inside. And so, perhaps, when Rebbe Akiva compared him to an animal, that integral part of him, his dignity, immediately objected. I am a human being, a person with naturally given great stature, not an animal! Look at my accomplishments, all my tremendous feats! Yes, this is a good argument and likely that Rebbe Akiva knew this also, so then what did he mean when he gave Turnus Rufus a reality check to the contrary? Perhaps Rebbe Akiva was saying: “Turnus, you have the wrong definition of a human being. Just because you are more capable, intelligent and have advanced sophisticated works, practically speaking you’re just like one of them. You eat, they eat; you work, they work; you sleep they sleep; you procreate, they procreate. What separates you from the animal species!?” The crucial divide between man and animal is man’s ability to be in touch with Hashem, to live on a Godly plane, a realm that animals do not surpass nor can ever attain, and this, Turnus Rufus, you just. ain’t doing.

Rebbe Akiva’s reality check applies to each and every one of us. We need to often step back from our busy schedules and ask ourselves from where our pursuits stem and to where they are headed. How much are we listening to that voice inside that craves a relationship with Hashem, and how do we react to it? Are we just striving for more comfort, for more riches, for more accomplishments to help fill that void? Or are we truly letting our internal greatness shine, by being invested in really connecting to Hashem by searching for more opportunities to grow in ruchniyot and in our character? Many moments throughout the day we are presented with tests that challenge us to decide whether we will make the decision that will keep us on a animalistic plane, or whether we will reach higher and make the decision that will raise us to a Godly plane, that which will refine us as a human being and ultimately enhance our relationship with Hashem. Rebbe Akiva’s message motivates us to look at ourselves in a greater light, to understand that we have the potential, opportunity and charge to elevate ourselves beyond this physical sphere we occupy, and to recognize that while our two feet may be planted firmly on the ground, our heart’s desires should always be aimed upwards.

By Binyamin Benji


Binyamin Benji currently learns in Rav Herschel Schachter’s kollel at RIETS, and is a semicha candidate there as well. He holds an MSW from Wurzweiler School of Social Work and is the author of the weekly Torah portion in the Sephardic Congregation of Paramus’ newsletter. He can be reached at [email protected].

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