Keeping holiness in mind

Parashat Terumah & Shabbat Zachor

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Still at Mt Sinai, Hashem gave Bene Yisrael instructions for building a sanctuary. Let them build Me a sanctuary, so that I can live in their midst, (Shemot 25:8) This directive is already deeply troubling. Does God require a physical place? Does God think that the people believe this, and therefore God must accommodate their beliefs? If this represents a stage in our ancestors’ theological development, how will this advance their thinking? Even more broadly, every culture and religious tradition recognizes sacred space, and many build monuments or temples to mark those locations. This directive challenges us to ask the question: what is the purpose of a Temple, a Mikdash, a sanctuary? God says, So that I might dwell amongst them. How might we understand those words today, in our lives, in the world we currently inhabit?

 Rashi emphasizes that God means, “Build a sanctuary, a place of holiness, that you will dedicate to My name,” lest anyone erroneously believe that the Creator of the universe needed people to build a house within which God would literally dwell. Sforno, Rabbi Ovadiah ben Yaakov of 15th century Italy, explained that the purpose of the Mishkan was to provide a focus for the prayers of the nation. He wrote, “I will dwell among them permanently in order to receive their prayers and their sacrificial offerings in a manner similar to the way I displayed My presence at the mountain.” King Solomon had already made similar pronouncements when he dedicated the Mikdash in Jerusalem. At the dedication ceremony of the Temple, Solomon rested on his knees, extended his arms towards heaven, and declared: 

But will God really dwell on earth? Even the heavens to their uttermost reaches cannot contain You, how much less this House that I have built! Yet turn, O LORD my God, to the prayer and supplication of Your servant, and hear the cry and prayer which Your servant offers before You this day. May Your eyes be open day and night toward this House, toward the place of which You have said, ‘My name shall abide there’; may You heed the prayers which Your servant will offer toward this place. And when You hear the supplications which Your servant and Your people Israel offer toward this place, give heed in Your heavenly abode—give heed and pardon. (I Kings 8:27-30)

King Solomon already explained that the sanctuary in Jerusalem was to serve a tantric purpose. That means he recognized that the Mikdash would be a place towards which people could project the web of their feelings, thoughts, and motivations. By doing so, one could integrate these disparate energies of one’s inner life and direct a holistic sense of self towards living in relationship with God. Sforno added something additional to King Solomon’s pronouncement. Sforno added that the Mishkan served as a vicarious way to remain standing at Sinai regardless of where the nation would be geographically. He wrote, “I will dwell among them permanently in order to receive their prayers and their sacrificial offerings in a manner similar to the way I displayed My presence at the mountain.” Henceforth My presence will be manifest between the two cherubs on the lid of the Holy Ark as part of the overall structure called the Tabernacle.” (Shemot 25:8) The Mishkan, according to this explanation, was a way of creating a portable Mt. Sinai, transforming revelation from a vertical to a horizontal plane, and transforming every settled location into the base of the mountain surrounded by the people. The Ramban himself said as much: 

The spiritual meaning of the Mishkan is that the divine presence that became explicit and manifest on Mt. Sinai will continue to reside implicitly, hidden, in the Mishkan. For as the Torah states regarding the mountain, “God’s presence (kavod) was on Mt. Sinai (Shemot 24:16), the same expression is applied to the Mishkan…God’s presence, (kavod), filled the Mishkan (Shemot 40:34-35)….Indeed, the same divine presence that appeared to the people at Mt. Sinai will then continue to be present in the sanctuary….And just as God’s voice was heard aloud at Mt. Sinai,…God will continue speaking from over the kaporet between the keruvim in the Mishkan. (Ramban, Introduction to Parashat Terumah)

Rabbi Moshe Alshech,16th century Ottoman empire and Sefad, developed the idea of a transportable holy mountain further, and associated the Mishkan with the location of the Garden of Eden, the altar of Noach, Mt.Moriah of the Akedah, and the location of the Mikdash in Jerusalem. Building on earlier midrashic teachings, R. Alshech folded all of these events into a single location. Each, therefore, contributed an additional layer of  thickened sanctity to the place because of what occurred there. Each moment contained a significant engagement between humanity and the divine. R. Alshech wrote:

Attune your ears to this most bizarre statement! How could the divine light of the Creator possibly reside on earth within a construction of human hands? When he saw the Temple, King Solomon, of blessed memory, also wondered this aloud. He exclaimed, “Can God really reside on the earth?” Our sages have similarly noted that this sanctuary was located at Mt. Moriah, which also seems peculiar. The answer is that the location of the Mishkan is also the “gateway to Heaven.” The blessings (shefa) from heaven descend from that place, to awaken the earth (להעיר) and all who dwell in it. [This is a fascinating play on words. Instead of writing, To illuminate the earth, להאיר הארץ, as if found in the daily morning liturgy as an expression of God’s love for creation, R. Alshech wrote, “to awaken.” He is developing a notion of Mishkan as an environment which enables human engagement with the divine leading towards spiritual awakening. Hence, I used the word, “tantric” above.] God’s presence has resided in that place since the world was created. There the first human, and Noach, offered their sacrifices to God. There, Avraham offered his son, Yitzchak, for this place aligns with the Heavenly Mikdash, as the verse in Psalms says, “the place of Your residing,” מכון לשבתך. This means that humanity was born in the place [i.e. Gan Eden] where atonement was possible. The earthly altar is the place of physical offerings, corresponding to a Heavenly altar in which humanity offers their neshamot, their souls, to God. Therefore, when one entered the Mishkan it is as if one entered Heaven…and it is as if the earthly and heavenly sanctuaries stand as one. Therefore, one can make sense of this verse, for [although we experience heaven and earth as separate] God is present in both, uniting both as one.

This is a powerful idea. In a world of mundane routines, daily responsibilities, schedules and simple physical, emotional and intellectual needs, one is easily distracted away from an awareness of God’s presence in the world. One can live mindlessly, unaware of the divine energy that infuses all of creation. The absence of an awareness of God’s presence creates a spiritual vacuum, filled by something else. A lack of awareness of the divine dimension of life creates a godless vacuum, which by extension becomes a dangerous place to inhabit. In his work, Divrei Emet by Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak HaLevi Horowitz, the “Seer of Lublin,” 18th century Poland, he quoted R. Ashlech’s comments, and then added, God was telling Bene Yisrael, “Human nature does not make it possible for Me to live in all of My holiness in your midst literally. Instead, humble yourselves in your own eyes. Then, my presence will become manifest amongst you. This is based on the teaching from the Talmud, “I come close to the broken of spirit.” The Seer of Lublin associated humility with the possibility of living in God’s presence. It is as if he were saying, “Humanity needs to make room for God by making themselves more humble.” The Talmudic context is why God chose Mt. Sinai as the site of revelation with humanity:

…The meaning of the verse is…I, Hashem, am with the contrite person, as the Holy One, Blessed be He, disregarded all of the mountains and hills, and rested God’s Divine Presence on the lowly Mount Sinai. God did not choose to raise Mount Sinai up toward God’s self. Instead, the Holy One chose to give the Torah on Mount Sinai, as it was a symbol of humility due to its lack of height, and God lowered the Divine Presence, as it were, to the mountain. (Talmud Bavli. Sotah, 5a)

The Mishkan, according to this interpretation, was the external manifestation of an internal sensibility. Building a sanctuary on earth provided a mantra for an awareness of God’s presence at all times. Its construction heralded the complexity and discipline required to make room for that awareness through the nullification of one’s ego, to transform selfishness into selflessness, and the therefore feel the divine energy that permeates all of creation. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, the 18th century Polish hasidic master, wrote this explicitly in his work, the Kedushat Levi. He also references Rabbi Moshe Alshech’s comments on Shemot 25:8 and wrote:

The purpose of the Mishkan is to signal that the principal Presence of God was to be ‎on earth, i.e. amongst the Jewish people, as is clear from the ‎words: ‎ושכנתי בתוכם‎, “I shall take up residence amongst them.” ‎The operative word in that line is the word ‎בתוכם‎, which ought to ‎be translated as “within them,” within the hearts and minds of ‎the Israelites, as opposed to God’s presence being confined to a ‎Temple.‎

The blueprint for the Mishkan described the potential structure of the soul of the Jewish people. The Mishkan, according to this interpretation, was an internal structure, more than an external, physical one. The voluntarism of communal donations, as well as the sanctuary’s  structure, both point to the entire nation’s awareness that they are to serve the one Creator as the source of all reality, and that a life of service requires an attitude of humility. Rabbi Shlomo Hakohen Rabinowicz of 19th century Poland in Radonsk emphasized the importance of the collective, voluntary source of the donations to construct the Mishkan, as central to its spiritual meaning. In his work, the Tiferet Shlomo, he wrote:

“And make for Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell amongst them.” The commentators have already read closely and asked why the verse does not read, as one would have expected, “…so that I may dwell within it.” The grammar, however, emphasizes the meaning of how God’s presence can become manifest on earth, i.e., through the interiority implicit in the voluntary giving of the heart of each and every individual, actualized through their verbal articulation of their intent to give for the purpose of building the sanctuary. Once this happened, God’s presence could dwell through the interiority of each person’s heart, then expressed through a speech act of sanctification. That is why the text reads, “…dwell amongst them,” i.e., God dwells in the world through the interiority of the heart through voluntary donations [towards a sacred purpose.]

 The interiority of God’s presence is a universal idea necessary for the spiritual health of all people. Until the twentieth century, the overwhelming majority of classical midrashim, hermeneutic commentaries and other literary forms of biblical explication read the Torah as the sacred history of the Jewish people with exclusivity. In today’s world, I believe it is important to generalize the spiritual insights that have described the character of the Jewish people up until now, and project them onto the potential growth and development for all humanity. All cultural traditions describe their own sacred history as reflective of their own character, potential, and nature. However, understanding the concrete details and obligations of our own tradition as a pathway to a universalistic vision of human life does not diminish the authenticity of our own identity and place in the world. I am suggesting that we have entered an era that requires us to abandon binary readings of Jewish wisdom. Instead, I suggest reading the Torah as the sacred history of the Jewish people which contributes one voice in a collective conversation of human spirituality. What is required, therefore, is merely continual acts of translation, so that each culture wears the garments of spirituality that are authentic to them, while recognizing a shared humanity. Rabbi Elijah Benamozegh, a 19th century Italian kabbalist living in Livorno, wrote a work called, Israel and Humanity. Along these lines, he wrote:

The designation of Israel as the firstborn among peoples is the crowning confirmation in the belief in the fatherhood/parenthood of God, for the notion of a firstborn assumes the existence of other peoples who are also children of God. The idea that is evoked is precisely that of a family….The [notion of a first born] is a necessary religious expression of the concept of mankind as a great human family…..All peoples are brothers. If this idea has triumphed in Judaism, it has been in spite of a thousand hostile influences, which amply attests to the doctrine’s power. (Israel & Humanity, Eliyahu Benamozegh, pg. 212)

Benamozegh is saying that the metaphor of God’s “first born” describing Israel’s relationship with God does not imply exclusivity. Instead, it implies family and a complex matrix of relationships that have to be worked out through lived experiences, but which are best nourished by an implicit feeling of love and loyalty to each other. The implication of viewing humanity through a lens of “the family of humanity” deconstructs the binary of “us and them.” Untold years of persecution, catastrophe, pain, and horrific suffering have contributed to strong expressions of hatred and anger throughout works of Jewish law, philosophy and liturgy. However, as Rabbi Elijah Benamozegh wrote about seeing humanity as one large, interrelated family, “If this idea has triumphed in Judaism, it has been in spite of a thousand hostile influences, which amply attests to the doctrine’s power.” The Jewish people would do well to relegate the depth and influence of those currents of hatred, animosity, mistrust and contempt to tributaries rather than the main stream, and allow ourselves to feel those memories during contained moments of mourning and anger. Why would we want to nourish ourselves on a diet of hatred and contempt? Instead, the interiority of sanctuary points to a way of viewing mitzvot as spiritual goals for a life nourished by compassion, mercy, justice, freedom and dignity for all human beings, just just ourselves. 

The universality of spiritual ideals only makes sense if the Mishkan is not merely a Jewish sanctuary, but God’s sanctuary for all humanity. Every culture has the task of constructing such a sacred space; the Mishkan is our version of a space that can never literally contain God’s presence. (Kabbalistic traditions would have the world exist inside of God, not the other way around. How could anything exist outside of the sacred?) Indeed, we find a tradition that sees the Mishkan as a microcosmic universe. God created the natural world, and with the construction of the Mishkan God commanded humanity to construct social and political worlds infused with the primordial values that characterize God’s acts of creation. The Mishkan was constructed through a series of separations like the natural world, enabling the diversity of the world to emerge with distinct identities. Inside of the Mishkan were all the elements of creation: Hashem’s word hovering over the keruvim of the aron kodesh, the light of the Menorah, the earth symbolized by the shulchan and the lechem hapanim,  the “bread of the earth” baked fresh weekly, air symbolized by the incense altar, animal life and vegetation brought in the offerings on the altar, emphasizing the essence of life force in the blood, water in the laver. The Sefer haBahir, 12th century kabbalistic text, already connected the construction of the Mishkan to the creation of the world and specifically, to the creation of humanity. Humanity was created from a rib, and the anthropomorphic language of the Mishkan narrative uses the word, “rib” to describe features of the aron kodesh and of other parts of the Mishkan itself. (Bahir, section #172). In fact, anthropomorphic language runs throughout the MIshkan narrative. In addition to the table’s legs, the ark had ribs. The loops and clasps have to be fastened, “one to her sister.” The cherubim had faces, as did the bread. Rabbi Menachem ben Meir Tzioni, of Speyer (c.1340- c.1410) a German kabbalist, in Sefer haTzioni expanded the comparison between the creation of the world and melekhet hamishkan, the construction of the holy sanctuary. He compared the features of the Mishkan to each day of creation. He wrote:

Every aspect of this created world is reflected in the Mishkan. The Torah says that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and in the Mishkan, goats skins and tapestries to create the tent. On the second day of creation: the firmament divided between the upper and lower waters, and in the Mishkan the parokhet created divisions of space. On the third day of creation the waters collected together in one place, and in the Mishkan was the great laver. ON the fourth day of creation God created the sources of light in the heavens, and the Mishkan was golden. On the fifth day of creation, God created birds and animals, and in the Mishkan, the keruvim spread their wings over the ark. Humanity was created on the sixth day, and in the Mishkan God commanded Aharon and his sons to come close. The word, “God completed the acts of creation” distinguishes the seventh day, and the same word, “vayekhal,” describes the completion of the Mishkan. (Sefer Tzioni, parashat Terumah)

Finally, this Shabbat is Shabbat Zachor. A word, therefore, is in order about the connection between the construction of the Mishkan, Creation, Shabbat Zakhor and the legacy of Amalek, the archenemy of the Jewish people. Devarim 25:17-19 describe Amalek’s attack against the weak, infirm, and elderly of our ancestors as we journeyed in the wilderness after the redemption from Egypt. This is the only Torah reading which is unambiguously a Torah-prescribed mitzvah. The Torah itself commands us to remember this event by reading these verses. The language of the mitzvah is both perplexing and clear. The Torah commands us to blot out the memory of Amalek, do not forget! The mitzvah is not to blot out Amalek, but to remember to remove all zecher, all memory, of Amalek’s actions. “Remembering” in the Torah always implies action. For example, when we “remember Shabbat” during kiddush on Friday night, we bear witness to creation. The Torah here is commands the Jewish people to work towards building a world in which no nation will ever behave as Amalek behaved, towards a world in which every nation in the world will remember never to perpetuate cruelty against the vulnerable. The mitzvah is a commandment for figuring out how to elevate humanity’s heightened awareness for a perfected world. We are commanded to read and re-read these words annually, until such time that there is no memory of a period when people violated each other’s dignity or denigrated each other’s humanity. May the day arrive swiftly, when the Mishkan is rebuilt in each person’s heart, nourishing humanity’s love for each other and the world that God created for us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dov

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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