“Contortion” Parashat Shemini 5777

The last five Parshiot of the Book of Shemot pertain to the design, the construction and the final assembly of the Mishkan. The Torah takes a short hiatus from the Mishkan in order to discuss sacrifices[1] and in Parashat Shemini we return to the “Opening Day” festivities at the Mishkan. Aharon and his sons have just finished an eight-day learning period and the fireworks are about to begin. Moshe tells Am Yisrael [Vayikra 9:6] “This is the thing that Hashem has commanded; do [it] and the Glory of Hashem will appear to you”. Moshe and Aharon offer more sacrifices, they bless the people, and then it happens [Vayikra 9:23-24]: “The Glory of Hashem appeared before the entire nation. Fire went forth from before Hashem… all the people saw, they sang praises, and they fell upon their faces.”

Excuse me? “The Glory of Hashem will appear to you”? Am Yisrael had already seen the Glory of Hashem! At the end of Parashat Pekudei, after the Mishkan has been assembled, we are told that [Shemot 40:33-34] “Moshe completed the work. The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the Glory of Hashem filled the Mishkan.” It seems pretty clear that the “Glory of Hashem” manifested itself as a foggy cloud and that this had already transpired three Parshiot ago. What was left to see? The answer is obvious: while Am Yisrael had already seen the cloud, they had not seen the fire. Indeed, the Seforno translates the verse as “… the Glory of Hashem has already appeared to you [as a cloud, but today you will witness even more miracles!]” Actually, the Seforno’s comment doesn’t answer the question, it only pushes it a bit further down the road. Am Yisrael had already witnessed the Glory of Hashem. Why should heavenly fire make any more impact than heavenly fog?

Last week I discussed this question at length with my older son. Disclosure: The explanation in this shiur runs counter to my son’s arguments. A father has a right to disagree with his son, even though his son is far more learned. Take a close look at what transpires immediately before Moshe informs Am Yisrael that the “Glory of Hashem will appear to them”: The Torah says that [Vayikra 9:5] “the entire community approached and stood before Hashem.” This is understood by many commentators that every single person in the camp stood in the courtyard of the Mishkan. This must have required a superhuman amount of contortion. The size of the courtyard of the Mishkan was 50 x 100 cubits. The Mishkan itself was 10 x 30 cubits and so the courtyard contained (50 x 100) – (10 x 30) = 4700 square cubits, or roughly 1200 square metres. About 10 people[2] can fit into one square metre, meaning that about 12,000 people could squish into the courtyard. Given that the courtyard walls were 10 cubits (5 metres) tall, we’ll allow for two layers of people[3], for a total of 24,000 people. Compare this capacity to the results of the census taken in Parashat Pekudei of more than 600,000 men between the ages of twenty and sixty and it becomes obvious that there was no physical way for the entire nation to squeeze into the Mishkan courtyard. And yet “the entire community” was present. The Midrash comments that this is an example of “the small holding the large”. Well, I’ll certainly say so.

I propose that contortion is the key to witnessing the Glory of Hashem. Let’s rewind to Parashat Pekudei, to where the Glory of Hashem first appears [Shemot 40:34-36]: “The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the Glory of Hashem filled the Mishkan. Moshe could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud rested upon it and the Glory of Hashem filled the Mishkan.”. Who was it that saw the Glory of Hashem fill the Mishkan? Only the people who were in courtyard of the Mishkan – Moshe, Aharon, and his four sons – could actually see what was going on. All that Am Yisrael could see from above the five metre courtyard wall was a cloud that hung over the Mishkan. It is not until they squeeze themselves into the courtyard that “the Glory of Hashem appeared before the entire nation”.

When Moshe tells Am Yisrael “This is what you must do in order to see the Glory of Hashem”, he is not referring to the instructions given in the following verses – he is referring to the people’s actions taken in the previous verse: bucking the forces of nature in order to approach as near as possible to Hashem. The message is clear: If you want to experience G-dliness, you will have to contort yourself. You’re going to have to do all you can, cognizant that it will never be enough, and then to pray to G-d that He fills in the blanks.

Of course there is still the elephant in the room: the heavenly fire that devoured the sacrifices on the altar. A similar heavenly fire does pretty much the same thing when King Solomon consecrates the first Beit HaMikdash[4]. If, according to our hypothesis, the Glory of Hashem always appears in a cloud, what was the purpose of the fire? Before continuing, we should note that a “heavenly fire” appears in two other locations in the Torah:

  1. Later in Parashat Shemini, Aharon’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer a “strange fire” before Hashem. A heavenly fire swoops out from the sky and kills them.
  2. In Parashat Korach, two hundred and fifty men offer incense as part of Korach’s unsuccessful coup d’état. A heavenly fire rains down and kills them all.

Recall that the first time the heavenly fire appears the nation “sang praises”. This is how my trusty Chabad.org “Complete Jewish Bible” translates the Hebrew word “va’ya’ronu”. However, it is equally plausible to translate the word “le’ranen” as “they scoffed”[5]. Watch out! Bolts of lightning! Somebody could get hurt by one of those things! It can be argued that this was precisely the purpose of the fire: it was a Divine “shot across the bow”, a warning to those who might try to get too near. In Kabbalistic thought, there are two primary ways by which a person can relate to Hashem: Love (ahava) and fear (yir’a). On the axis of metaphysical distance, love brings a person closer while fear pushes a person away. Both love and fear are necessary: without love, Hashem is relegated to the role of a policeman. Without fear, Hashem becomes a “good buddy”, and sometimes people can unintentionally treat their buddies with disrespect. The Divine Cloud was benign. It was friendly. There was a justified fear that people would get too close, that they would “trample Hashem’s courtyard”[6]. The fire was necessary to enforce boundaries. A potential proof for this hypothesis is that the aliya ends with the words “The Glory of Hashem appeared before the entire nation.” The next words “Fire went forth from before Hashem” begin the next aliya, meaning that these words are contextually different from the preceding words.

It happens all the time in Moreshet. Teenagers become enamoured with Hassidism. They grow their payos (side-locks), they wear a gartel (belt made of black cloth worn during prayer), they refer to Hashem as “Abba (Daddy)”, and they quote Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. But they still act like teenagers: they push and shove, they are often rude, and they generally call attention to themselves. Judging from the small number of adults with payos and gartels in Moreshet, we eventually outgrow this kind of behaviour. We eventually learn that while Hashem is a loving father, he is also a stern father who does not take lightly to His children bringing home a bad report-card. We eventually learn that to approach Him, it is not enough to push open the door and to barge in. If we want to truly experience G-dliness, sometimes we are required to perform superhuman acts of contortion.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka and Yechiel ben Shprintza.

[1] Why Parashat Shemini is not written immediately after Parashat Pekudei, in which the Mishkan is assembled, is a topic for another shiur.

[2] See this link: http://www.macleans.ca/general/how-many-journalists-can-you-fit-into-one-square-metre/

[3] Nobody said this was comfortable.

[4] See Chronicles II [7:1]. This fire is not mentioned in the original story as it appears in Kings I [Chap. 7].

[5] See, for instance, the Talmud in Tractate Bava Metzia [87a] “On the day that Avraham weaned his son Yitzchak, he made a great banquet and all the peoples of the world scoffed (ran’nu) at him…” Halachic literature uses this word frequently to describe “whispers” regarding a suspected illicit relationship.

[6] See Isaiah [1:12].

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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