Monday, February 14, 2005

Parashat Terumah - II

The midrash says that when Moshe came down the mountain for the first time, he carried the Luchot - the stone tablets on which the Torah had been written byt the finger of G-d -- facing away from himself. We could see the words, but, the Midrash says, Moshe had not even read them.

So what exactly had he done on the mountaintop for forty days and nights?

The Torah tells us that Moshe, unique in human history, spoke to G-d "face to face, as a man speaks with his friend." Even so, we are not certain what that means. In another two weeks, Moshe will ask that G-d reveal G-d's self to Moshe, and G-d will say "no one can see my face and live." Still, there is an intimacy in the relationship between G-d and Moshe unparalleled in human experience.

After Moshe's face-to-back experience with G-d in parashat Ki Tissa (watch this space!) we are told that Moshe has to wear a veil when he goes out in public, because of the beams of light streaming from his face. Perhaps it is the same between G-d and Moshe: G-d sits with Moshe "face to face", but G-d's face is veiled.

Why doesn't Moshe read the Torah?

The answer is simple: he doesn't have to. In fact, not only does he not have to: if he did, he would lose so much! He has just spent forty days and forty nights in intimate conversation with G-d -- he neither ate, nor drank, nor slept the entire time, but absorbed G-d's wisdom in a way no one else has ever experienced it. And now he brings us two stone tablets with writing on them. Is this not a poor substitute?

In kaballaa, there is a concept of The Exile of Language -- the acknowledgement that to put thoughts into words instantaneously robs them of most of their meaning. The mere scraps of significance that remain must be teasted and tested and struggled with over and over until hints of the original meaning are revealed. This is true of all thought, of all language. Wittgenstein did not invent this concept -- it was thousands of years old by the time the Zohar was written.

The two parshiyot -- Terumah and Tetzaveh -- that describe the plans for the Mishkan, the garments of the Cohanim, and the furnishings and vessels of the Mishkan and the holy service -- these sections are theoretical. After the incident of the calf, the tablets are shattered and Moshe trudges back up the mountain to spend another forty days and nights with G-d. This time, the Torah tells us, it is Moshe himself who writes, taking dictation from G-d. And when he returns, he has combined all aspects of the Torah -- the inner wisdom granted to him by G-d in his first stay on the mountain, but also the human application, gained by writing down the words himself.

The design and the actual creation of the Mishkan parallel this process -- first we absorb the theory, then we are commanded to put it into practice, and the resulting structure is the culmination of the Book of Exodus -- Sefer Shemot.

The problem with Moshe's infinite wisdom is that it remains within, is all but untransmittable. The problem with the written word is that it is necessarily devoid of the profound wisdom that underlies it.

Which Mishkan is better? The theoretical Mishkan that each of us carries in our soul? The actual Mishkan that is fashioned with our hands?

At the beginning of Parashat Terumah, G-d gives a shopping list: gold, silver, copper; turqoise, purple and scarlet wool,; linen and goat's hair; red-dyed ram skins; skins of tachash [animal of uncertain definition]; acacia wood; oil for illuminating, spices for anointing oil and for incense; shoham stones [definition unclear] and stones for the Cohen's Ephod and Breastplate. In other words, while we are commanded to bring these offerings, we are given an array to choose from. When the Torah says "every person whose heart makes them feel generous", it is giving us a profound message: there is a halachah, expressed in the gemara in Avodah Zarah -- it is a positive commandment, not merely to study Torah, but to DELIGHT in studying Torah. Not merely to be generous by bringing something that you won't miss, but search among the items on the list until you find something you can be passionate about. Then learn how to inculcate that passion to bring it to all your duties -- to building the Mishkan, to learning Torah. To your entire life, and all your interactions.

Make no mistake: this passion for the meaning of it all is a profound part of what it means to be Jewish.

At the heart of the Parashah -- chapter 25, verses 17-22 -- we see what lies at the heart of the Mishkan. Read the text for yourself; envision the top of the Ark, the two gold Keruvim ("Cherubim" - not baby boys with tiny angel wings, but gold statues with human faces and wings curved out to form an arc, reaching towards one another). Verse 22: "And I will make meetings for you thereand I will tell you from above the Ark-covering, from between the two Keruvim that are on top of the Ark of the Testimony, all that I shall command you regarding Bnei Israel."

G-d speaks from nothingness. From an empty space. To be sure, the space is framed by the Keruvim, and the Keruvim are framed by the Mishkan, and the Mishak is framed by the tribes of Bnei Israel encamped about it in array. And we, Bnei Israel, are framed by Torah. And if not, around us, and running away forever in all directions, lies the vast and undifferentiated desert.

The giving and the making of the Mishkan are a parallel story to the giving and the re-giving of Torah. We do not live on the spiritual plane. Torah recognizes this. As Jews, we acknowledge that we live in the world. And we live for the world, and it is our eternal task to make the world a better place. To carry in our hearts the blueprint for the Mishkan. But also to turn our hands every day to the task of fashioning it.

"May the pleasantness of G-d our L-rd be upon us. And the work of our hands, establish it for us. And the work of our hands, establish it." (Psalm 90)

yours for a better world

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