March 25, 2017
27 Adar 5777
Look around this space in which we come together to study, pray, and be together. What physical properties make it meaningful to you? You might value the people surrounding you in splendid profusion, each engaged in their own individual thoughts and prayers, but also in close proximity to one another. You might draw comfort and strength from the doors of the ark and the neir tamid, if you cherish the connection they provide to the congregation's former building on this site and the long communal history they represent. You might find inspiration in the framed sections of parchment that unscroll on the walls around us, visual reminders of how Torah embraces and surrounds us. For me, I find that my gaze often fixes on the windows and the green and urban world they reveal, not to be like the proverbial distracted student staring out the window, but because the connection they provide to the constantly changing world of light and weather and movement embodies for me my constantly changing responses to the weekly repetition of Shabbat's liturgy and ritual. Perhaps it's a chicken and egg question, whether I have come to associate aspects of this space with spirituality and community because I daven here, or whether the physical characteristics of this space make it possible for me to feel as I do. The feelings and associations are there, in any case, bound up in this place where I dedicate myself to offering up the prayers of my heart that I hope ascend, at least sometimes, the way the smoke from the sacrifices they are supposed to substitute for ascended.
There was a meme making the social media rounds recently with a quote often misattributed to C. S. Lewis: "You don't have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body." My reaction—and I like to think it was a Jewish reaction—was to say to myself, "Actually, I am a body and a soul." The body is not merely a disposable container; it is the only way that we have to experience and enact holiness. Conversely, the soul, with its constituent aspects of neshama (breath) and ruach (spirit), animates the body with that spark that comes from and will ultimately go back to God, but also with individual consciousness. Body and soul together record who and where you have been, and make possible who and what you are and might be. If we rise up on our toes three times while saying the Kedusha, we come back down to stand full-footed on the ground three times as well. I don't see this as a descent, but rather as a recognition of our nature as human beings rather than angels, of the earthly realm we inhabit and through which we necessarily connect with the divine. We aspire toward the numinous at times, and might even achieve glimpses of it, but it's workaday holiness—the mitzvot, the middot—that makes up the bulk of our lives.
All of this was rattling around in my head when I read Vayakhel, with its repetition of what goes into the making of the mishkan, and I thought to myself, "Why make a place at all, when we have all of God's creation to move through as a space for connection with the Holy One?" Why couldn't the Israelites find divinity in the vastness of the desert, beneath the immense blue sky, like proto‑New Age "wanderers who are not lost"? Why make the mishkan, that elaborate yet portable (and therefore temporary) thing, decorated with other things that artfully recall the natural, such as the menorah with its "cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with calyx and petals" (37:20)?
Arnold Eisen argues that the mishkan allows the Israelites to "dwell" with their essentially imageless, unphysical God:
YHWH their God, they now knew for sure from close encounter, could not be imaged, could not be seen or touched, is forever ethereal and beyond definition… And yet, having built the Tabernacle, they are promised that God would dwell “in them” or “among them.”
In other words, the mishkan provides a place, a locus, where the Israelites can encounter God. We can say God is everywhere, or God is wherever we let God in, but it seems important to have a place dedicated to focusing one's energies on that possibility of encounter. Furthermore, this needs to be a made place: a sacred mountain on which to see God's back or a rock on which to rest one's head and dream of angels may work for prophets and patriarchs, but not for this stiff-necked people. The Israelites, at this point in their journey and our story, seem to need this elaborate, furnished structure, with all of its carefully delineated appurtenances.
We can better understand why they need this place if we look to its makers. Everyone whose spirit (ruach) moved them—men and women alike, the Torah specifies to an unusual degree—brought the gold, silver, copper, yarn, goats' hair, ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood necessary for the building project, so much so that the artisans asked Moses to tell them to stop (35:20-24, 36:5-7). The people's offerings make this place possible, and their gifts are important. But the artisans who use these gifts to make this place and its contents are more than unthinking laborers following detailed instructions to the cubit. They are described as "chacham lev," which Etz Hayim translates as "skilled," but says in the commentary can literally be translated as "wise‑hearted" (p. 556). If we look more closely at the implications of this term, we will better understand what it means to do this work, and why it is important, both for the community and for God.
The Chasidic master Aaron of Karlin commented, "Wisdom of the mind alone, without wisdom of the heart, is worthless," and sentiments like this are often invoked to gloss the term "chacham lev" (see, for instance, Etz Hayim, p. 556, n. 36:2). We should remember, though, that the cultures of the place and time that gave birth to the Torah thought that the heart, not the head, was the seat of intelligence and consciousness. For example, when preparing a body for mummification, the ancient Egyptians would carefully preserve the heart, liver, spleen, and other organs deemed vital for the afterlife, but discarded the brain after removing it from the skull in pieces, using a long, buttonhook-like tool inserted through the nostrils. To preserve almost every major organ except the brain sounds funny to us, who believe that we are what is in our heads, but consider what it could mean for the self's center of gravity to shift from the head to the chest, to lead ourselves through life from the more centrally located torso, rather than from the very top, with the rest of the body following after. Rather than distinguishing between the head and the heart, rationality and emotion, thought and experience, theory and practice, we might view intelligence and understanding as a more unified aspect of ourselves, one that inheres in particulars rather than abstractions.
This unity of thought and experience makes possible the relationship between mind and making, for both God and human beings. Speaking about the chief craftsman Bezalel, the rabbis comment in Midrash Sh'mot Rabbah:
The world was created with three elements as it is written: "In wisdom God founded the earth, with understanding God established the heavens, with knowledge God broke up the depths" (Prov. 3:19‑20). And the tabernacle was made with these three elements as it is written: "and God has filled him [Bezalel] with God's spirit, in wisdom [chochmah], in understanding [t'vunah], and in knowledge [da'at]" (Exod. 35:31). (48:6)
In other words, God has imbued the chief maker of the mishkan—he who not only does the work but can direct others similarly skilled in this work as well—with those aspects of God's self with which God created the three realms of our visible existence (35:34). In his commentary on Exodus 35:31, Rashi interprets these three terms so that chochmah refers to "what a person learns from others," t'vunah to "the result of one's own insight and experience," and da'at as "divine inspiration, ideas that suddenly come to a person from an unknown source" (Etz Hayim, p. 355, n. 35:31). If we combine Rashi's insight with that of the Midrash, we could say that these three terms encompass the realms of human understanding: knowing through community, self, and God. Just as the earth, heavens, and depths represent what we can explore in terms of physical creation, community, self, and God represent what we can explore in terms of human experience. The master craftsman of the mishkan, that place where aspiration and experience are supposed to take their highest forms, excels in all three of these forms of knowing. Just as God is master of all realms of divine creation, Bezalel is master of all realms of human knowledge and experience.
Looking at our master makers, both human and divine, we can see why it matters to make a place like the mishkan. The earth is God's and all that fills it, including the work of our hands when this can be described as "chochmat lev." When our making connects human efforts with the modes of divine creation, we are working b'tzel'el, in God's shadow, making it possible for ourselves and others to rise and to remain rooted, to feel and to know, body and soul.