The Material and the Spiritual

The Material and the Spiritual

By Elishai Ben-Yitzhak*

This week’s parashah begins a unit of five weekly readings revolving primarily around the building of the Tabernacle.[1]  The weekly readings divide into two subunits.  The first deals with the commandment to build the Tabernacle:  “Let them make Me a sanctuary” (Ex. 25:8).[2] In order to carry out this command we have blueprints and architectural instructions that go down to the minutest, all delivered to Moses by the Almighty.  The second subunit deals with the implementation and precise execution of the Divine blueprint.  But when we take a closer look at the detailed instructions and compare them with the actual implementation, we see a certain change of order.  To fully appreciate this change, consider the following table:

Order

Command – Parashat Terumah

Implementation – Parashat Va-Yakhel

1

The Ark and the Cherubs (Ex. 25:10-22)

The Tabernacle (Ex. 36:8-38)

2

The Table (Ex. 25:23-30)

The Ark and the Cherubs (Ex. 37:1-9)

3

The Lampstand (Ex. 25:31-40)

The Table (Ex. 37:10-16)

4

The Tabernacle (Ex. 26)

The Lampstand (Ex. 37:17-24)

 

Looking at the commands given in this week’s reading, we see that the order is as follows:  instructions on how to prepare the Ark, the Table and the Lampstand, followed by details about erecting the structure itself—the Tabernacle.  One would expect the order of implementation to accord with the order of the commands.  But, when it comes to the Tabernacle, a change is made, departing from the order in the Divine command; implementation of the project begins with erecting the structure, the Tabernacle, and only after it has been completed do we move on to preparing the furnishings, according to the order they appear in the Divine command.  

This raises the question, why was the implementation approached in a different order?  The simple answer is that the order of implementation, as described in Parashat Va-Yakhel, is correct.  That is, first one should set up the structure, and only afterwards put the furnishings inside it, as when a person builds a house:  only after the edifice stands is the furniture placed inside.  However, if that is the order, we must ask:  Does the Lord of the Universe not know the ways of the world?  Do we need to teach Him the proper order?  What is more, even when He created the world, G‑d began by creating the foundation—heaven and earth, separating the seas from dry land, and only after that did He begin to bring in the “furniture”:  the heavenly bodies, plants and animals, and lastly, mankind.  If so, why did the commands regarding the Tabernacle begin with the furnishings, and not with constructing the Tabernacle?[3]

Opinions differ as to whether building the Tabernacle was a result of the sin of the golden calf,[4] or whether it was independently commanded, with no connection to that sin.[5]  Either way, Judaism is the first monotheistic faith in the world, requiring human beings to worship an abstract G‑d, to worship a G‑d who is intangible and cannot by grasped by the human senses.  Such a requirement is hard on the person who seeks the tangible, who desires to see his G‑d, to connect with Him, to touch, to draw near and be close.  This requirement had its impact on the commandments, as Maimonides explains, for example:[6]

It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of G‑d, as displayed in the whole Creation, that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used…For this reason G‑d allowed these kinds of service to continue; He transferred to His service that which had formerly served as a worship of created beings, and of things imaginary and unreal, and commanded us to serve Him in the same manner; viz., to build unto Him a temple; comp. “And they shall make unto Me a sanctuary.”

This being the case, we can more easily understand the mistaken perception of the Israelites.  When the Temple existed, they considered that they had fulfilled their duty by maintaining the sacrificial worship there.  Thus, for example, in one of his more harsh and famous indictments of the Israelites, the prophet Jeremiah accuses the people (Jer. 7:2-16):

Stand at the gate of the House of the Lord, and there proclaim this word:…Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the G‑d of Israel:  Mend your ways and your actions, and I will let you dwell in this place.  Don’t put your trust in illusions and say, “The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord are these [buildings].”  No, if you really mend your ways and your actions; if you execute justice between one man and another…then only will I let you dwell in this place, in the land…See, you are relying on illusions that are of no avail…will you…then come and stand before Me in this House which bears My name and say, “We are safe”—[Safe] to do all these abhorrent things!  Do you consider this House, which bears My name, to be a den of thieves?  As for Me, I have been watching—declares the Lord…therefore I will do to the House which bears My name, on which you rely…just what I did to Shiloh.

Also the prophet Isaiah reproves the people of Israel (Isa. 1:11-17):

“What need have I of all your sacrifices?” says the Lord.  “I am sated with burnt offerings of rams, and suet of fatlings, and blood of bulls; and I have no delight in lambs and he-goats.  That you come to appear before Me—Who asked that of you?  Trample My courts no more; bringing oblations is futile, incense is offensive to Me.  New moon and Sabbath, proclaiming of solemnities, assemblies with iniquity, I cannot abide.  Your new moons and fixed seasons fill Me with loathing; they are become a burden to Me, I cannot endure them.  And when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you; though you pray at length, I will not listen.  Your hands are stained with crime.

Where the Israelites went wrong on the eve of the destruction of the First Temple was in assuming that “all is OK”—the Temple still stands.  “True, we commit sins, but we also bring sacrifices as the Torah commands, so everything is fine.”  They went wrong primarily in not achieving the correct balance between the spiritual and the material.  Rabbi Issachar Baer Eilenburg (16th century) explains the verse, “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them,” as follows:[7]

I did not say, “that I may dwell in it, rather among them,” to indicate that the Divine Presence does not dwell in the Sanctuary because of the Sanctuary, but because of Israel, for it is written, “The Temple of the Lord are these [people]” (Jer. 7:4).

Indeed, the Temple—the bricks and stones, do not have any intrinsic sanctity.  Their sanctity is derived from the deeds of the children of Israel, from the ability of the Israelites to sanctify the material, and conversely, from their ability, heaven forfend, to bring about the destruction of the material.  Later, Hida (18th century) exposited on this principle at greater length:[8]

The sanctuary would exist if they would be holy, and then verily, “I will dwell among them,” like one who intends that sanctity be in his very bowels.  But if, heaven forfend, they not be holy, they would cause the letter kof, which indicates Kedushah (= sanctity) to leave the sanctuary (MiKDaSH), so that only SHMaD (= destruction) would remain, heaven forbid…Therefore, the Almighty commanded us, “Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them,”…that a person strive to relate to himself as if he himself were a sanctuary, constantly preparing himself to be worthy of the Divine Presence dwelling in him.

According to Hida, the existence of the Temple depends only on the Jewish people, on their level of spirituality and sanctity.  Take the sanct out of sanctuary, and you are left with [n]ary.  This idea, that the existence of the Tabernacle depends on the actions of human beings, is also found in the teachings of Rabbi Jacob Hayyim Soffer (19th century), who explains:[9]

It says, “Let them make me a sanctuary, that I might dwell among them,” and not that I might dwell in it, to intimate that making the sanctuary is not the primary thing, and that thereby the Divine Presence would dwell there, rather, that they improve their ways, following the straight path, and that their hearts be whole before the Lord, and thereby the Divine Presence would dwell in each and every Jew according to his actions.  This is the meaning of “Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I might dwell among them.”  The text seeks to say that even though I command you, saying “Let them make me a sanctuary,” the main point is that they should make themselves holy and I will dwell among them, that is, in each and every one of them.

According to Rabbi Jacob Soffer, the Divine Presence depends on people choosing to live a proper life, keeping the ways of the Lord and His commandments.  All the rest—material things, the Tabernacle, the Temple, and perhaps even the synagogue—are devoid of importance and devoid of any independent right to exist.  The ability to sanctify the material depends on what we make of it, on how we imbue the mundane with spiritual content.

Now from the general to the specific.  It appears that the message the Holy One, blessed be He, seeks to convey—in the command to build a tabernacle, as well—is the ability to distinguish between primary and secondary; to know that the edifice, which can be the loftiest of the lofty, the acme of sanctity, so that the Holy One, blessed be He, desires its erection, can also be the place most abhorred and shunned, so that the Lord is prepared to pour out His wrath on it, to burn and destroy it. 

It is the duty of human beings to seek to impart sanctity to the material, and not to rely on sanctity to make everything pure:  “The hallowed does not turn its back to the mundane, rather it is directed towards it.  It does not wish to hover over the mundane, but to absorb the mundane into its midst.”[10]  The question is what content we, human beings, will impart to it.  Will we sanctity the material, the edifice and its bricks, or will we elevate spirit and sanctity, so that the place of itself will become hallowed and elevated?[11]  Holy and mundane are what comprise the framework of Jewish halakhah.[12]

This brings us to our day, to our own edifice—private, communal, and national.  If we do not have the wisdom to hallow the material, there will be no point in all that we do and all our labors will be for naught.  “The work of our hands will prosper” only if we take the material, and with our deeds give it sanctity and imbue it with spirituality.  It is within our power, through our actions, to bring holiness or, heaven forfend, to distance it.  In the absence of sanctity, human beings have a tendency to ruin and destroy.  The Jewish people had two Temples, and both were destroyed not because of unsound physical foundations, but because of weak spiritual foundations and because of the mistaken belief that if there is a Temple, then both it and we are protected.  We must take extra care to examine and consider well to what we give precedence—the mundane or the holy.  Do we make the hallowed mundane, or do we imbue the mundane with sanctity?  Which is of greater importance—the material or the spiritual?

Translated by Rachel Rowen

 

 

* Elishai ben-Yitzhak, L.L.M. from Hebrew University, and adjunct lecturer at Sha`arei Mishpat College. Originally published in Hebrew in 2017. This translation has not been reviewed by the author.

[1] On the importance of building the Tabernacle, see Midrash Tanhuma, Parashat Naso.

[2] For a discussion of why the verse begins by speaking of a “sanctuary” and then goes on to refer to the “Tabernacle,” see Or Ha-Hayyim on Exodus 25:8.

[3] A similar question was raised by Abarbanel in his commentary on this week’s reading, Question 9.  His answer is that the commands begin with the Ark in order to teach us what is most important about the Tabernacle.

[4] Cf., for example:  Midrash Tanhuma (Warsaw), Parashat Terumah:  “The Holy One, blessed be He, said:  Let the gold in the Tabernacle serve to atone for the gold that was used to make the calf”; Rashi on Ex. 31:1:  “The making of the golden calf preceded the command to make the Tabernacle.”  Maharal, Gur Aryeh, in his commentary on Ex. 31:18:  “Surely the command to build the Tabernacle came after the sin of the golden calf.”

[5] For example, see Midrash Rabbah on Exodus, chapter 33.4:  “You will find that everything G‑d has created in heaven He has also created on earth”; Midrash Tanhuma (Buber), Parashat Be-Hukotai:  “Just as He has an abode in heaven, the Holy One, blessed be He, desired to have an abode on earth; for thus he said to Adam:  if you merit it, then just as I am King over the heavenly host, so I shall make you king over the earthly creatures”; Nahmanides on Ex. 25:1:  “When the Almighty spoke with Israel face to face in the Ten Commandments, and commanded them…a few commandments that are like the prototypes for the commandments on the Torah,…they were worthy that there be a sanctuary in their midst…therefore first He commanded regarding the Tabernacle.”

[6] Guide for the Perplexed, Part III, chapter 32, trans. M. Friedlander

 (http://www.teachittome.com/seforim2/seforim/the_guide_for_the_perplexed.pdf).

[7] Issachar Baer Eilenburg, Tzeidah la-Derekh, Exodus 25:8.

[8] Hidah, Nahal Kedumim, Exodus 25:8.

[9] Rabbi Jacob Hayyim Soffer, Yismah Yisrael, sermon on Parashat Terumah.

[10] Mordechai Buber, Bein `Am le-Artzo (1945), p. 155.

[11] Elevating the mundane to a level of holiness is a common motif in the writings of Rav Kook.  For example, see Shemonah Kevatzim, 1.132; and `Ein Ayah, Berakhot 9b:  “We are obliged to worship the Lord with all the natural powers given us by His grace.  If we worship Him only with the lofty powers and not with the base powers, we will not attain perfection.”

[12] Rabbi Joseph Dov ha-Levi Soloweitchik, Kodesh ve-Hol, Ha-Adam ve-Olamo (1998), p. 141.

Last modified: 31/01/2018