Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The New Normal: How the Mishkan Changed the World

As we complete Sefer Shemos and begin Sefer Vayikra, the enigmatic Mishkan and its host of animal sacrifices strike the modern mind as archaic, ancient and irrelevant. But regardless of how alien it all sounds, the Mishkan actually normalized the presence of God - not only for our ancestors of old, but also for the Jew of today.

Lineage alone does not a Kohen make. Before they could serve in the Mishkan, Aaron and his sons had to be installed into their positions. Moshe was master of ceremonies.

“And you shall dress them; Aaron your brother and his sons with him. You shall anoint them, fill their hands and sanctify them – and they will become Kohanim for Me” (Shemos 28:41).

“And you shall dress them!” The holy garments of the Kohanim had immense spiritual power. By dressing his brother and nephews in these special clothes, Moshe sanctified them and inaugurated them as full-fledged Kohanim. It would be fair to categorize this event as a mystical ritual that defies human comprehension - on par with Chalitza and the Para Aduma - but as we shall see, Rashi does not view it this way.

Rashi is troubled by the mysterious words in the middle of the verse: “You shall… fill their hands.” What does that mean? Moshe should fill their hands with what? Rashi explains that it is just an expression:

“Filling the hands” is always an expression of inauguration; when one enters into something so that it becomes his privilege from this point forward. In French, when a person is appointed to be in charge of something, the ruler puts a leather glove called a “gant” into his hand and in this way [the position] becomes his privilege. The person who hands him [the glove] is called a “revestir.” This is the “filling of the hands.”   

The Ramban is unhappy with Rashi. What possible relevance could the French gant have to the understanding our verse?

That which the rabbi (Rashi) says that in French when you appoint someone to be in charge of something the ruler gives him a leather glove called a “gant” and through this glove he grants him the privilege [of the position] and this is the “filling of the hands” – I don’t know if the rabbi means to say that acts of inauguration are called “filling the hands” because of this glove - in which case he is bringing evidence from the fools.

The Ramban is asking an excellent question. Who cares what the French do? Does Rashi really expect us to believe that the origin of this biblical expression is to be found in the practices of medieval aristocracy?

The answer, obviously, is no. Any similarity between a biblical reference to hands and a French glove is entirely coincidental. Rashi is making an altogether different point.

It is natural for us to view the dressing of Aaron and his sons as a mystical event. Put on these holy clothes and poof, you’re a Kohen. Rashi is telling us that this reading is incorrect; the Torah uses an expression here that classifies this event as perfectly ordinary. Dressing someone in a uniform is a common procedure and there is nothing mystical about it. Gentile societies, France included, use uniforms all the time to install chosen men into military or political positions of power. This, says Rashi, is how we should view Moshe’s dressing of Aaron and his sons.

Not that the priesthood is a political position, God forfend. As the verse makes clear, we are talking about the sanctification of Aaron and his sons. But the Torah wants us to know that it is utilizing existing, natural procedures for the purposes of bringing Kedusha into the world.

I believe this understanding has profound implications for how we view sanctity and God's plans for the world. But first another example, this time from the Mishkan itself.

If we had to assign titles for the different actors in the Mishkan's construction, the closest modern approximations would be Hashem as owner, designer and architect, Moshe as site manager, and Betzalel as master craftsman. A craftsman typically takes orders from the manager, but as we shall see, sometime the craftsman knows best.

“Betzalel, the son of Uri, the son of Chur, of the tribe of Yehuda, did everything that Hashem commanded Moshe” (Shemos 38:22).

Rashi cites a Midrash.

“Betzalel the son of Uri… did everything Hashem commanded Moshe.” The verse does not say here that he did everything that Moshe commanded him, rather [it says that he did] everything that Hashem commanded Moshe. Even things that Moshe did not tell him, [Betzalel’s] own opinion was in line with what Moshe was told on Sinai. For Moshe told Betzalel to build the [Mishkan’s] “furniture” first and then the Mishkan itself. Betzalel responded, “Normal practice (מנהג העולם), would be to build the house first and afterwards put the furniture inside.” Moshe replied, “You were in God’s shadow! (בצל אל) That is exactly what Hashem commanded me to do!” And that is what they did. First [they built] the Mishkan and then they made the furniture.

This is a troubling Midrash. If Hashem told Moshe to build the Mishkan before the furniture, why did he tell Betzalel to do it the other way around? The Maharal writes in Gur Aryeh that Moshe “forgot,” but this is simply untenable. As Rabbi Mordechai Jaffa writes in his Levush Orah, we would not dare say of a minor prophet that he forgot a divine directive, all the more so of the father of prophets, our master Moshe!

In defense of the Maharal, we could argue that there was actually no Halacha here at all. Hashem commanded the Jews to build the Mishkan and its vessels; there were no directives about order. Free to choose, Moshe assumed that due to their greater significance (as described by the Gur Aryeh), the vessels should be made first. Betzalel countered that typically a house would be built before its furniture. Moshe agreed, and noted that, in fact, Hashem did tell him about the Mishkan first. This is what the Marahal meant when he wrote that Moshe “forgot.” Moshe did not forget a Halacha; there was no Halacha here to forget. It was just that before Betzalel’s insight, Moshe didn’t think that Hashem’s presentation had any bearing on the ideal order of construction.

What exactly was Betzalel’s argument? He claimed that the Mishkan should be built in accordance with ",מנהג העולם" the normal way of doing things. The Mishkan’s construction should follow the same plan as a house and houses are built before their furniture. This is what Betzalel said, but it is far from an obvious assumption. The Mishkan is no ordinary house. Utterly unique, it is God’s palace on earth. Why should it be subject to the rules of a typical construction project?  

Betzalel was making a profound statement. The Mishkan is not Heaven's embassy. Hashem does not want His sanctuary to be a sealed spiritual fortress divorced from the life of man. Quite the opposite. Hashem wants the Mishkan to be a beacon of light, radiating Kedusha out into man’s world. The function of the Mishkan is to facilitate the interaction between man and God – more of a consulate than an embassy – and for that to happen the Mishkan must be a part of our world from its very inception. Its construction should follow מנהג העולם, the way that people typically operate.

In a word, the Mishkan must be normal.

This is very much in line with Rashi’s understanding of the Kohanim’s inauguration. That too was done in the normal fashion, by way of dressing them in their uniforms. All this normalcy is central to Hashem’s plan. Through the model of the Mishkan, Hashem touches and elevates every aspect of Jewish society and life: from divine service and sacrifice down to the use of gold and silver, bureaucracy, politics and even home renovations.

The Talmud famously tells us that our three daily prayers were established to match to the daily order of sacrificial offerings (Berachos 26b). This is not to say that prayer is merely a stand-in for offerings; there is a clear and independent biblical obligation to pray. However, the original Mitzvah is unregimented – no legislated number of prayers, no liturgy, and no set time (Rambam, Laws of Prayer 1:1). The Mishkan introduced routine to divine service. The Mishkan taught the radical concept that approaching God should not be a special event; it should be ordinary, familiar, regular. When interaction with God becomes commonplace, then all of life is elevated; this was the goal of the Mishkan. The sages took the cue and reformed Jewish prayer, legislating regular encounters with God into the daily schedule of every Jew.

The Mishkan was equipped with a washbasin known as the כיור, or laver. Prior to performing any service, the Kohanim must do קידוש ידים ורגלים, “sanctifying” their hands and feet by washing at the laver (Shemos 30:18-19). In the Mishkan, purity is critical and there is nothing surprising about washing. What is surprising is the laver’s origin.

“He made the copper laver and its copper base with the mirrors of legions” (Shemos 38:8).

What are the mirrors of legions? Rashi quotes a Midrash:

The Jewish women had mirrors they used for the application of makeup – even these [mirrors] they did not withhold from bringing for the Mishkan collection. Moshe was disgusted by these [mirrors], made as they were for [inciting] the Yetzer HaRa. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “These mirrors are more precious to me than everything else, for it was through these [mirrors] that the women raised many legions [of Jews] in Egypt. When their husbands were exhausted [after a day] of back-breaking slave labor, [their wives] went and brought them food and drink, and they fed them. They took their mirrors and each [woman] looked in the mirror with her husband and teased him, saying, ‘I am more beautiful than you!’ In this way, they aroused their husbands and were intimate with them. They became pregnant and gave birth there, as the verse states, ‘Under the apple tree you were awakened…’ (Shir HaShirim 8:5).” This is the meaning of the mirrors of legions.

The very mirrors that Moshe rejected on grounds of impurity, Hashem declares to be His favorite things and dedicates for the purpose of purifying the Kohanim! Clearly, there is a novelty here in Hashem’s thinking that eludes even the greatest of prophets.

Moshe felt that women’s vanity mirrors have no place in God’s sanctuary. That would certainly be the normative approach, however, Hashem has a different perspective, a positive take. Bucking conventional “religious” instinct, Hashem proudly introduces a new way of thinking about the Yezter HaRa and reveals the latent Kedusha of marital intimacy. This is another example of the Mishkan’s unrestricted impact on מנהג העולם: the elevation of human sexuality through God’s unique, counter-intuitive perspective.

When all its myriad parts were complete and it came time to erect the Mishkan, Moshe had a problem. The beams were too heavy.

Moshe asked the Holy One, blessed be He, “How can a human being set this up?”
Hashem replied, “Do it with your hands and make it appear as if you are lifting it. It will then stand up by itself.” (Rashi to 39:33)

If the Mishkan miraculously assembles itself, what is the value of having Moshe go through the motions and act as if he is doing it? And if Hashem really wanted the Mishkan to be assembled by Moshe, why didn’t He design the beams to be thinner and lighter so Moshe could easily lift them himself?

As we have learned, Hashem wants His supernatural providence to coexist with the natural world. This is why the miraculous assembly of the Mishkan – a symbol of creation itself – hides under the façade of Moshe's hands. But at the same time, we must be aware that our human abilities are always inadequate without Hashem’s active assistance. This is why the Mishkan was designed to be impossible for man to assemble alone.

The Mishkan's greatest innovation was the normalization of Kedusha. Experiencing the Shechina should not be foreign or exotic, or even an "experience" at all. If Hashem wanted to isolate Himself, He could have remained in heaven. The Mishkan demonstrates that Kedusha can, nay, must be routine, familiar and, to all appearances, perfectly ordinary. When we understand and integrate its lessons, the portable Mishkan becomes the vehicle that achieves Hashem's vision for creation, bringing the Shechina out of the sanctuary and into the daily life of every single Jew.

Happy Belated Purim!

Here is a link to a shiur delivered at Gerber & Co. before Purim. It's about priests and kings and their clothes - and how Purim takes God's monarchy to a whole new level. (Please excuse my raspy voice; I had a cold.)

My only addendum is a better example for the final point in the shiur. The Gemora (Megillah 12b-13a) reports something unsurprising: the Jews of Shushan were critical of Mordechai's refusal to bow to Haman. This incited Haman's hated and led to the decree to annihilate the Jews. It is understandable that the people blamed Mordechai, but in retrospect, Mordechai's failure to bow led not to the destruction of the Jews but to the hanging of Haman. So much for human judgement.

This is why we drink until we can't tell the different between right and wrong. On Purim we realize that we never can.