Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Monday, February 11, 2013

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Back in chapter fifteen of Exodus, a couple of verses into the Song of the Sea is a phrase which is very hard to translate.  This shouldn't be surprising, because we're trying to translate poetry.  However, in this case the problem is compounded by the fact that we don't know what one of the words mean.  In the second verse the Jews proclaim:  This is my God and I will something.  The something in Hebrew is anveihu, which is mostly translated as either 'glorify Him' or 'house Him.'  This second translation becomes important in this week's Torah reading, because we have the mitzvah to build the Temple.  In this command God requires us to make a holy place and then God will dwell amongst us.  This is an awesome undertaking.  We construct a building and God moves into the neighborhood.  Cool!  And all of this is conforms to our reaction at the splitting of the Sea.  We want an ongoing connection to the God who was so manifest in the miracles of the exodus.  But there's got to be more to it, and, so, let's try to figure out what this demand really requires of us.

            First of all, this edifice must conform to very exacting specifications.  There is a lot more than building codes going on.  Most of the commentaries are concerned with the myriad details, because the feeling is very strong that every element of the plan teaches us important ideas.  Many authorities view each item in the blueprint as representing ideas which better help us to understand the relationship between God and the universe.  Even though we will never fathom every facet of the directions, we try our best to learn from the point by point assembly instructions. Famously, it's been explained that the furnishings of the outer hall of the Heichal, sanctuary building, represent the spiritual reality of this world.  The menorah or candelabrum stands for the light provided by the Torah.  The golden altar for incense symbolizes our Divine service to God, while the golden table for the shew bread epitomizes God's kindness in providing sustenance for all the inhabitants of this realm.  In other words we have a physical embodiment of the three conceptual pillars upon which this world stands, Torah, Divine worship and acts of loving kindness (Pirkei Avot 1:1).  The inner chamber or Holy of Holies, entered only on Yom Kippur by the High Priest, with just one item, the holy ark, containing the Tablets of the Law, corresponds to the next world or heaven.  Therefore God's entire Creation is characterized by this structure.  It's not so much that God will actually inhabit this location, it is more that this edifice teaches us about the nature and relationship of the various parts of our cosmos. 

            But there's a problem with this scenario.  If all God wants is to dwell amongst us in this magical mystical mansion, then we have a conflict, because the prophet Isaiah tells us:  Of what use are your many sacrifices to Me? says the Lord. I am fed up with the burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle; and the blood of bulls and sheep and hegoats I do not want. When you come to appear before Me, who requested this of you, to trample My holy courts (Isaiah 1:11-12)?  It isn't enough to build the building and bring the offerings. God won't come together with us, if other conditions are not met.  There's another way of looking at this demand that we make a dwelling place for God.   According to the Midrash when God created heaven and earth, there was a desire for God to have a place in which to dwell down here among us.  However, when you invite someone to your home there are certain niceties to be observed.  If you invite a coulrophobic (one who fears clowns) don't exhibit clown themed d├ęcor.  If you invite a Yankee fan don't fill the space with Red Sox paraphernalia (I've done it. It's fun, but wrong.).  And, finally, don't expect God to drop by if your society is immoral, if you don't take care of the widow, orphan and stranger, or if you've become the reincarnation of the denizens of Sodom and Gomorrah (Ibid. verse 10).  Making the invitation, putting out the welcome mat, and preparing the accommodations are only the preliminary steps to enjoying God's company.  We must develop a welcoming environment which is holy, pure and righteous.

            Now we can understand the order of the material in the later parts of Exodus.  The purpose of the exodus from Egypt is to develop a close connection with God.  Then God appears to the nation at Mount Sinai.  After that, though, there are all these prosaic (also Mosaic) laws about slaves, damages and ethical business practice.  This sort of boring material seems so out of place with all the thunder, lightening and hoopla of the previous stories.  But now we can begin to understand the importance of these rules and regulations, because when we get ready to invite God to hobnob with us in the holy Temple we must prepare the proper moral atmosphere for this spiritual rendezvous.  We can't invite God into our neighborhood without the proper preparations.

            In The Emergence of Ethical Man, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik uses some surprising terms to describe the Jews' connection to God after the exodus and events in the desert.  He discusses the covenantal relationship between us and God as co-participants, fellows and comrades. And ends this section describing getting ready to build the portable Temple, by informing us:  The history of the covenant is the story of God-man friendship (160).  An interesting observation by the Rav, I never would have thought to use such intimates expressions to describe our covenant with God.

            So, as we read the intricate, complicated rules for building the holy precinct, remember only invite our covenantal partner, God, into a corruption free zone.  We don't want any Divine allergic reactions during the visit.                

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