THERE'S A PLACE FOR US
Rabbi David Walk
Okay, here we are again at that point in the book of Exodus where we feel like we've crashed headlong into a stone wall. All those fabulous stories, all those majestic laws are over, and we face the daunting task of learning about the instructions for building the portable temple, crafting its furnishings, and fabricating the priestly garments. For someone who was miserable in middle school woodworking class and finds sewing on a button an occasion for pierced digits like myself, this is not pleasant stuff. So, again we try to find contemporary and personal significance in this quagmire of ancient arts and crafts. Now for the artistic amongst us, there is inspiration in the knowledge that beautiful creativity is also an act of Divine worship, and I bless them and their efforts to beautify the spiritual. However, for those of us with a plethora of thumbs, it's time to cry for help.
Major help comes from the Ramban (Reb Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270). In his commentary to Exodus he suggests that the secret of the portable temple was that the glory of God which appeared so manifestly at Mount Sinai would continue to dwell amongst the Jews just in a more covert or circumspect way within the sanctuary. In other words the tabernacle and later the Holy Temple in Jerusalem were continuations of the Presence of God (Shechinah) within the Jewish people. This is inspiring stuff, which fits in well with the flow of the text, and should make us pine for the day when the Temple will be rebuilt and we will again sense Godliness in our midst. But it's not the only point of view.
The great commentator Rashi (Reb Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1035-1104) opts to follow an alternative approach based upon a number of Midrashim. He suggests that this entire section with all of its directions for building the Tabernacle were not delivered at this time. Instead first the Jews sinned with the Golden Calf, and only then were they commanded to erect this sacred structure. We do have a principle that the Torah is not necessarily in chronological order, but we only invoke that rule when there's an awfully good reason for applying it. Although many spiritual and psychological reasons could be used to explain this phenomenon, the Midrash (Tanchuma Teruma 8) states clearly that the Tabernacle was an atonement (kapara) for the sin. This fits in well with the story of King David who was denied permission to build the Holy Temple. However, the prophet Gad does instruct him to build an altar on the Temple's future site, because of his sin of conducting a census for no good reason. So, we see that building this representation of God's presence in our midst is therapeutic. The Midrash describing this phenomenon actually quotes the verse: But I will restore you to health and heal your wounds,' declares the Lord (Jeremiah 30:17). There's no wound greater than sin.
There is much more than a technical problem of exegesis going on here. There is a fundamental philosophic argument raging. What precipitates a profound rendezvous with God? Is it the ecstasy of the discernment of the Divine presence, or is it the catharsis resulting from either spiritual failure and sin or deep felt need. There is another famous disagreement between Nachmonides and Maimonides about the obligation to pray. Maimonides lists daily prayer as one of the 613 mitzvoth in the Torah. However, Nachmonides claims that the Biblical obligation to pray is only when that prayer is necessitated by a time of trouble, However Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik reconciles the two positions by claiming that these two Torah giants don't really disagree. Biblically ordained prayer is really only in time of trouble, but Maimonides would explain that the existential human condition is one of crisis, and therefore, we are perpetually in time of trouble
This brings us back to our essential debate. Nachmonides believes that the Temple provided that majestic presence which would eternally recreate those moments of Divine revelation like at Mount Sinai and the Divine law giving of Moshe. The other team, led by Rashi, counters that the great spiritual growth doesn't come from the big show, instead it develops and grows from steady attention to detail and rote. Slow and steady wins the race.
What is the basic religious experience? Nachmonides would have you believe that it is epiphany and prophecy. But this can't be true, because we no longer have either. The fundamental position of the spiritual personality is not the experience of ecstatic separation of the soul from the body rather it is broken state of the actual human in normal circumstances. The Rav quoted the verse: True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit; God, you will not despise a contrite and crushed heart (Psalms 51:19). Years ago when I was heavily involved in youth groups. I relatively often saw young people make major commitments to religious observances as a result of an emotional or spiritual experience at a Shabbaton or seminar. These rarely lasted long. However, participants who made a commitment to study more, go to a Jewish school or learn regularly with an advisor, quite often resulted in a long lasting connection to our traditions.
At the beginning of our people God had to demonstrate to our ancestors that encounter with the Infinite was possible. God did this through epiphany and prophecy, but once the point had been made the obligation fell upon us to initiate and sustain this connectivity. This is what we do in our synagogues, which replace the holy Temple in our lives. According to the Rav, and I believe Rashi, this attempt to reach out and encounter God wells up from the depths of our human needs and longings. When we have felt and expressed this deep urge, we anticipate a reciprocal reaction from God. The intersection of those lines is where we meet God. The buildings just encourage the effort, but the real task is accomplished by discovering our human frailty and believing God cares.
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