PHENOMENAL COSMIC POWERS! ITTY BITTY LIVING SPACE!
Rabbi David Walk
How big a deal is plagiarism? It is, after all a felony. Theft of intellectual property or literary material is prohibited by Torah law, too. See that cool title up there. I stole it from Robin Williams. He apparently adlibbed it while voicing the part of the Genie in the 1992 animated film Aladdin, which was recently declared the greatest voice acting performance of all time by Mojo.com. I hope that my more observant readers will have figured out that he was talking about the amount of room in the lamp, but I want to discuss squeezing God into the little building we call the Holy Temple. To do this I'm going to 'borrow' ideas from a respected rabbi. And I'm also cribbing from myself, because two weeks I delivered a shiur on this idea here in Stamford. I hope those couple of dozen people will forgive me. But I'm ultimately in the clear, because I will not pass off any ideas as original to me. I will give full credit for this novel idea to its originator. Therefore I hope that this will fall into the category of 'imitation is the highest form of flattery' (In the spirit of full disclosure, I'd like to inform you that this phrase originates with the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, but was used in its present form for the first time by Charles Caleb Colton, 1820) rather than fraud.
Three weeks ago (Let's Get Small, parshat Teruma) I discussed this same problem and quoted from the prayer delivered by King Solomon at the dedication of the first Temple: But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You; much less this temple that I have erected (I Kings 8:27). However, in that article I discussed how the Infinite One could fit into that finite space, and discussed the mystical concept of tzimtzum or 'contraction'. This week, instead, I'd like to cogitate on the purpose of having God squeeze into a modest abode amongst us. Before I explore a new idea, indulge me to review the two main historical approaches to this problem.
There are many commentaries (Rashi among them) who believe that the command to build the Mishkan was given after the sin of the Golden Calf and that this structure was a tikun or makeup for that heinous deed. However, there is an equally distinguished group of scholars (Ramban in the lead) who believe that there had always been a Divine intention to hobnob with humanity in this structure. The reasons vary from this being a portable version of Mount Sinai to a constant reminder of the potential for kedusha (sanctity) here on earth.
But I saw a fascinating article on the outstanding web site of Yeshivat Har Etziyon (VBM). Rav Shimon Klein wrote a piece called The Ark, Its Covering, and the Keruvim. In it he discusses the purpose of the Mishkan and concludes that it is the place where God will come to meet with mankind, but the question remains does this structure symbolize the domain of God or the domain of humanity? To introduce his answer he quotes the Talmudic passage which explains that the Divine Presence never descended lower than a height of ten tefachim (handbreadths, about a meter), nor did man ever ascend higher than ten tefachim (Sukka 5a). In other words it's not about whose domain it is rather it's about the rendezvous which it facilitates. There are many verses which make it clear that this meeting takes place between the Keruvim. It's from there that Moshe hears the voice of God. But Rav Klein suggests that this encounter with the divine becomes an evolving historical process.
Rav Klein points out that the building process moved from inside to outside. He was only talking about the Ark, but I believe that this idea can be extended to the entire Mishkan; first comes the Ark, then the furnishings and only then the building and outer courtyard. This progression can be seen, I believe, in the evolution of this sanctuary, originally with the Mishkan later to the first Temple in Jerusalem and eventually to the second Temple. I think that this symbolizes the developing relationship with God. In another article (The Dedication of the Mishkan and Altar), Rav Klein notices that God's presence seems to move outward as well. He explains that God comes down in fire with each dedication (Mishkan, First Temple, Second Temple). This is true until the dedication at the time of the Chanukah miracle when God's presence was made manifest in the menorah, through the miracle of the cruse of oil.
I hope that Rav Klein, the inspiration for this article, will forgive me for making a point he never intended. I think that with each dedication the shechinah (Divine Presence) moved further outside that innermost point. The Presence was clearly originally in the kodesh kadashim (Holy of Holies), where Moshe spoke to God. Later, the presence was seen in the column of smoke rising majestically from the incense altar. Eventually, the Divine Presence was manifest in the burning of the offerings, whose smoke rose to embody our reaching up to heaven in the skies above Jerusalem where we envision the portal to divine districts. Then with, the rededication of the Temple at the time of Chanuka, God's presence becomes manifest in the menorah. The miracle of the oil brings the light of God's presence abroad into the world at large, and we spread and publicize that reality through our chanikiot.
The Mishkan taught us that God's presence can be found in our world. Armed with that knowledge we have found ever more accessible means to benefit from God's availability. It started with the unique power of Moshe, proceeded through the Prophets, was maintained by the Temple offerings, and then moved into our world by the light of Torah represented by the menorah. Initially,God's Presence really squeezed into the space between the Cherubs, and has been expanding ever since to fill more and more of our realm.