Friday, February 22, 2008

The Holy Essentials

The flow of the Torah’s thinking in the beginning of this week’s parsha is a bit mysterious. First we are introduced to the chief architect of the Mishkan, the talented Betzalel. The Torah reiterates every component of the Mishkan and instructs Betzalel and his team to put their creative artistry into the creation of each piece. Surprisingly, this is immediately followed by the mitzvah of Shabbat:

But keep My Shabbats. It is a sign between Me and you for all generations, to make you realize that I, God, am making you holy…The Israelites shall thus keep the Shabbat, making it a day of rest for all generations, as an eternal covenant.

Shemot 31:13,16

What does Shabbat have to do with the Mishkan?

This juxtaposition of the Mishkan with Shabbat is not at all coincidental. When the Torah prohibits “work” on Shabbat (31:14,15) it is speaking of exactly the same type of work that was just referred to in the construction of the Mishkan a few verses earlier (Talmud Shabbat 49b). There are two points here. Firstly, the construction of the Mishkan itself must be halted on Shabbat (Rashi to 31:13). Second, the Torah is defining for us the forbidden labors of Shabbat. There were thirty-nine different actions needed to construct the Mishkan and these are the categories of work that we are to rest from on the day of Shabbat (Mishnah Shabbat 7:2).

If we are to understand what Shabbat is about, we need to take a closer look at these thirty-nine labors. They seem to divide neatly into three sets. The first set contains all the actions necessary to produce the natural plant dyes for the Mishkan. It starts from the very beginning: plowing, planting, harvesting, etc. The second set contains all the actions necessary to produce the woven and leather curtains of the Mishkan. This set includes two different processes: the process of creating woolen textiles, and the process of curing hides. In the final set, we have the acts of construction itself: building, transporting materials, hammering, etc. Stated differently, these thirty-nine actions are about the production of food, clothing, and shelter – the essential acts of human survival! This is what we are being told not do on the Shabbat.

What is the significance of the fact that the work that we are to refrain from on the Shabbat is the same as the acts of Mishkan construction? And what is the significance of the fact that these just happen to be the things that people need to do to survive? What is the underlying message here?

The Mishkan is more than just a home for the Divine Presence on Earth; it provides a model for man. If God’s Presence can rest in a building, it must certainly be able to enter the heart of a Jew. As the Malbim (1809-1879) writes, “We should all build a personal sanctuary for the Divine Presence within the halls of our hearts” (commentary to Shemot 25:8). In other words, the Mishkan represents the potential of man. It follows that the construction of the Mishkan symbolizes the spiritual construction of the human self.

Of course, the primary tools a Jew utilizes in the construction of his personal Mishkan are mitzvot. However, we do not build with mitzvot alone. Look at the Mishkan: none of the processes of Mishkan construction are mitzvot – they are just simple acts like plowing and planting. And it is specifically these simple, voluntary acts that cannot be done on Shabbat. In fact, if one of these acts would happen to be a biblical obligation, there would no prohibition to do it on Shabbat! This surprising Halacha is derived from a verse near the end of our parsha:

You may work during the six weekdays, but on the seventh day you must stop. You must stop plowing and reaping.

Shemot 34:21

Why are the examples of plowing and reaping given here? In the Mishnah, Rabbi Yishmael explains our verse with the help of some classical Midrashic-style exegesis:

Rabbi Yishmael said, “Just like plowing is [always] voluntary, so too is the reaping voluntary. This excludes the reaping of the Omer [grain].”

Shevi’it 1:4

Our verse is not just giving examples; it is qualifying the Shabbat prohibition against working. All thirty-nine forbidden labors are only forbidden if they are like plowing – i.e. a perfectly voluntary act. (There is no such thing as an obligation to plow.) If one of the labors should happen to be a mitzvah – like the mitzvah to reap grain for the Omer offering – then it would not be included in the prohibition. (Careful here, this does not give license to drive to Shul or call your mother on Shabbat! It is only an act that the Torah explicitly specifies as an obligation that is permitted – and reaping the Omer is the sole example. Sorry.)

The Torah is underscoring what we already know – it is only “simple,” non-mitzvah acts that are forbidden on Shabbat. But, of course, the thirty-nine labors are not simple at all – they are the acts of Mishkan construction and the work we need to do to survive. The message is clear. Our Mishkan must be built with our non-mitzvah behavior! The Shechina enters man only when all of man’s actions, even the most basic and necessary, are beautiful and holy. If we conduct our “mundane” weekday activities with honesty, decency, and integrity, using the Torah as our guide, we transform ourselves into a sanctuary, a living Mishkan for God.

This is all very nice. However, on Shabbat we do not engage in construction, not the construction of the Mishkan nor the construction of the self. Why not? Because on Shabbat our work is complete and we are complete. Our Mishkan is standing and the Shechina has arrived. Shabbat is not the time to build; Shabbat is the time to celebrate the Shabbat day, appreciate the gift of life and welcome the presence of the Shechina.

But keep My Shabbats. It is a sign between Me and you for all generations, to make you realize that I, God, am making you holy.

Exodus 31:13

Friday, February 8, 2008

A Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures

In this week's parsha, God commands us to build Him a home, a sanctuary called the Mishkan. What a strange mitzvah! Why on earth does God need a home? Are the desert nights getting cold? The whole idea of a house for God is ridiculous. As the Midrash says, “When God said, 'Build a sanctuary for Me,' Moshe countered, 'But the heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain You! (I Kings 8:27)'” (Bamidbar Rabba 12:3).

Rabbi Chaim Volozhner (1749-1821) explains what it’s all about:

God is saying the following: "Let no one make the mistake of thinking that My intent in the construction of the sanctuary is about the physical building itself. Not at all. Rather, you should know that the sole objective of the Mishkan and its furniture is to indicate to you to learn from it and model yourselves after it. Your own behavior should be as wonderful as the Mishkan and its furniture, completely holy and worthy of the Divine Presence." This is the meaning of the verse, "They shall make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them..." (Shemot 25:8).

Nefesh HaChaim 1:4

The Mishkan is merely a model. When a Jew experienced the power of the Shechina’s presence in the Mishkan, he said to himself, “If God can enter this building, He must certainly be able to enter me.” God is prepared to rest His divine presence within us, but we must first develop ourselves into living sanctuaries. If we build it, He will come.

It would serve us well to take a closer look at how the Mishkan was constructed. If we are to model our own inner sanctuaries after the Mishkan, we obviously need to study the blueprints. Unfortunately, there are none. The Torah provides no diagrams, no illustrations, not even a sketch. The entire Mishkan is described only in words. Many words.

The parsha describes the Mishkan and its furniture in mind-numbing detail. From materials and dimensions to artistic flourishes and color, virtually every aspect of the design is mandated. Intricate tapestries woven with yarn blended from three kinds of wool and one kind of linen; decorative cups, spheres and flowers; cherubs with their wings just so; plated beams and crossbars; silver sockets; golden hooks, the list goes on and on. The parsha is ninety-six verses long (not bad, as parshiot go), but without question, one picture would have saved our people many tons of ink and parchment through the years. As the old adage says, a picture is worth a thousand words. Today, architects and designers use drawings to communicate their ideas. Why does the Torah insist on using words when a simple sketch would do?

You can’t be serious, you say. God speaks; He doesn’t use PowerPoint! However, the truth is, God did use images to communicate the Mishkan’s design. The Torah says as much quite explicitly:

You shall set up the Mishkan in the proper manner, as you were shown on the mountain [of Sinai]…

Shemot 26:30; cf. 25:9,40; 27:8

Now, if God showed Moshe a model of the Mishkan up on Sinai, why wasn’t that image incorporated into the Torah? If that question doesn’t trouble you, this one will: Why bother with all the words at all? After all, when it came down to it, it was the images in Moshe’s head that guided construction, not the Torah’s words.

“It was on the day that Moshe finished erecting the Mishkan…” – Betzalel and Oheliav and all the artisans made the Mishkan (cf. Shemot 36:1), and the Torah credits Moshe?! It is because he devoted himself to observe the forms of every item the way he was shown on Mt. [Sinai], in order to instruct those who constructed it. He didn’t make a mistake on any form.

Rashi to Bamidbar 7:1; Tanchuma 13

If the final arbiter of the Mishkan’s design was not the verses of the Torah, but the image that God showed Moshe on Sinai, why does the Torah even attempt to spell it all out? We have the perfect precedent in the mitzvah of Tefillin. When it comes to Tefillin, the Torah gives us just a few vague words. “Bind it as a sign on your hand and let them be totafot between your eyes” (Devarim 6:8; cf. Shemot 13:9). “Totafot”? What is it made of? What should it look like? The Torah does not say; it relies on the image God showed Moshe on Mt. Sinai, and to this very day, there is no debate about what Tefillin are. Why didn’t the Torah treat the Mishkan the same way? God could have simply said “Build Me a sanctuary” and relied on Moshe to relay the details. Why all the words? Before we can answer this question, we need to take a brief detour.

Everybody knows there are 613 mitzvot in the Torah. Sounds like a lot, but the Gaon of Vilna (R. Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797) argues that this popular Talmudic tradition is actually an understatement. Are we to believe that from Bereishit all the way to parshat Bo there are no more than three mitzvot? Some parshiot have none at all. Have they nothing to say?

The Vilna Gaon teaches that every single word of the Torah is actually its own mitzvah. 613 may be the number of primary mitzvot, but each one branches out into many, many more, covering every aspect of life. On some level, all of human behavior can potentially become “mitzvah.” The formula is simple: Whatever you do, if you do it right, you fulfill God’s will. A sensitive reading of the Torah teaches us how.

When the Mishkan’s parts were complete and it was time to put it all together, the Torah stresses how each component was put in place “as God commanded Moshe.” In fact, the Torah repeats that description every step of the way:

“It was in the first month of the second year on the first of the month that the Mishkan was erected. Moshe erected the Mishkan… as G-d had commanded Moshe.
“He brought the Ark into the Mishkan… as God had commanded Moshe.
“He put the Table in the Tent of Meeting… as God had commanded Moshe.
“He placed the Menorah in the Tent of Meeting… as God had commanded Moshe.
“He placed the Gold Altar in the Tent of Meeting… as God had commanded Moshe…”

Shemot 40:17-32

And so on. The Torah is not just being verbose; it is making a critical point. Every single act in the construction of the Mishkan was its own mitzvah. God didn’t just hand them a diagram and say, “Build this.” That would be only one mitzvah. Instead, God spelled out every stage of construction as an independent command, making each act an independent fulfillment of God’s will. Only with a constant stream of mitzvot can God’s sanctuary be built.

People are no different. If we want God’s presence to rest within us, we need to create a space where God can be comfortable. This is the mission of the Jew: to sanctify the mundane, to elevate all of life into mitzvah, and ultimately become a living, breathing Mishkan.

Yes, God does desire a house on earth - a house of flesh and blood.