The Mystery of Life

The section of the Torah where God commands Israel to construct a Tabernacle commences with the instruction to collect contributions from the people. They are to donate their gold and silver, each according to the generosity of his heart. After the list of required materials comes the famous command, "and they shall make for Me a sanctified place and I shall dwell in their midst." In the next verse, we meet the word "Tabernacle" for the first time.

A careful reading reveals an interesting fact: all of this donated gold and silver is requested before we know the purpose. Only after everything is gathered do we find out that we are constructing a Tabernacle. Why does the Torah not begin with that fact? Let it say, "you shall construct a Tabernacle of gold and silver," and follow that up with the requirement of soliciting contributions from the people. Why have them give first before they know what they are giving to?

Another interesting question involves the order of the sanctified objects to be built for this Tabernacle. The first thing commanded is the Ark of the Covenant. Afterwards, we get the commandments regarding the actual Tabernacle, and other internal elements such as the candelabra and the table for the show bread. And yet, in a later section, we find that Bezalel changed the order and constructed the Tabernacle before the Ark. Was he arguing with Moses? Was this insubordination? How could anyone argue with Moses on a matter of Jewish law?

The answer to these questions touches a core issue in our spiritual and mundane lives. Do we behave as we behave because it is what we believe in our hearts, or because it looks good to others? Does an actor act because he loves the art of theater, or because he enjoys the fame?

Do we worship God because it will bring some reward, or because our spirits drive us to do so?

Rabbi Solomon Sorotzkin points our attention to the word in the verse we quoted, "sanctified place." It does not say Tabernacle, because the Tabernacle is merely the external manifestation of a "sanctified place." In other words, the holiness of the Tabernacle must preexist in our hearts. That verse concludes, "and I will dwell in their midst." It does not say, "and I will dwell in it," which would imply that sanctified place, that Tabernacle. This versus saying something entirely different! It is saying that if we sanctify this world, God will be in our hearts. That will create the drive to build the most beautiful Tabernacle that could possibly exist.

Moses and Bezalel had no disagreement. They were talking about different things. The Ark contains the tablets with the 10 Commandments. It is the spiritual heart of the Tabernacle. Moses was speaking in didactic terms: start with the purpose, start with the core reason. That core reason is Torah, the source of all of our spirituality. That must be the starting point for any construction of holiness. The beautiful externalities must grow from that, not the other way around.

Bezalel, who changed the order, was involved in the practical construction of the Tabernacle, and correctly argued that it is not respectful to the Torah and to the Ark, which symbolizes it, to make it first and have it wait for the Tabernacle that will house it to be completed. First make the house, then make the Ark.

Now, the holy Ark, despite its importance, was never to be seen by human eyes. It was housed in the innermost chamber, the Holy of Holies, a place where only the high priest entered on Yom Kippur. Even then, he could not see the Ark because he was carrying incense, which sent up smoke of the incense that concealed it. And yet, the description of the Ark points to the most beautiful object imaginable! Golden coverings, beautifully crafted Cherubim adorning it. Why such astounding beauty on an object that no one was allowed to look at? Isn't that a waste?

If you have ever walked in the forest alone, you may relate to the feeling I will describe. There is a mystery there, a spiritual presence that cannot be seen but can clearly be felt. Our eyes and our ears take in all of the sights and sounds available, but something in our heart feels a Presence. Native Americans sensed the spirit in all of nature. Humans, if we are open to it, can feel that mystery. That mystery does something important to us.

It is that sense of mystery that gives everything in this world a special glow. That mystery is only accessible to spiritual people. Someone who is addicted to all of the material pleasures the world offers will not perceive this mystery, and will be deprived of the incredible joy it provides. Yes, they may appreciate beautiful nature, but it will have no effect on their soul. The spiritual person is motivated by that sense of mysterious presence to become even more spiritual. The inspiration from time in the forest was sought out by great Hasidic masters, and spurred them to even greater spiritual heights.

So why is the holy Ark, so beautiful in its creation, hidden to us? Because it symbolizes the mystery of God. In truth, we do see the holy Ark, just not with our eyes. We see it with our hearts. We know it is there, we know its beauty defies description, and we feel a yearning for it. That yearning prompts us to great spiritual heights, it prompts us to construct a Tabernacle of great beauty and inspiration.

When we start with the sanctified place in our hearts, we become aware of the mystery of the Eternal One. This makes it impossible for us not to desire to construct the most beautiful Tabernacle in this most beautiful, and mysterious, world.

The Punishment Fits the Crime?

The major event in the Torah portion is the sin of the Golden calf. In that case, it is a bit easier to understand why a death sentence was brought upon the worshipers. After all, people have just received the 10 Commandments, and their entire identity was predicated upon true monotheism. To then, 40 days later, start running around worshiping a golden calf and proclaiming, "These are the gods who brought you out of Egypt," is certainly a terrible terrible sin. What caused the people to do it?

I believe it is hinted at in the way the people phrased their request to Aaron to make a God for them. They needed it, they explained, because, "We do not know what has happened to this man, Moses." The key word in that sentence is "Man".

Moses was certainly a man, so why emphasize his humanity? The answer is because they knew that, although Moses was as human as anyone else, he was not just a man. He was a man of God. They had seen him ascend Mount Sinai when God spoke, they saw him in Egypt being God's agent. This was no ordinary man. He had in him an abundance of an element that is crucial to human fulfillment and purpose: Holiness.

By erasing Moses's holiness, the people demonstrated a rejection of the Torah's holiness, and perhaps even of God's. They sought to bring religion down into the physical world, rather than elevate the physical world towards heaven. Moses was a man, a great one, but a man in this world. If he can't be with us, we want something else physical, in this world. Why did the people not turn to Aaron to lead them if Moses was now missing? Because Aaron oozed holiness, and the people were not interested. They wanted something physical that they could control, a golden god would do just fine.

Holiness is the key ingredient in our lives, or it should be. I remember, as a child, asking a theoretical question. Can a person steal religion? What if a person observes the Sabbath perfectly, but claims they do so not because of God, but because they like it. Do they get credit for this Mitzvah? A friend suggested that one can, indeed, be guilty of theft in so doing. The Talmud tells us that a person should fulfill the Commandments for the sake of heaven. If given the choice between fulfilling the Mitzvah not for the sake of heaven, or not doing it at all, one should do the Mitzvah, because it will help them eventually grow to fulfilling Commandments for the sake of heaven.

In other words, the only value of keeping the religion without God in it is the hope that by continually doing so, God will become part of the picture. On its own, it has no value. I believe this is hinted at in one of the rules of the daily prayer service. The central prayer, the Silent Devotion, contains a series of 19 blessings. The first three are considered a group, and can not be separated. For example, if one omitted a crucial phrase in the third blessing and remembered it later in the prayer, they cannot just go back to that third blessing. They must go back to the beginning of the prayer, since the first three cannot be separated. What are those first three?

The first blessing is about the heritage of the Jewish people, describing our relationship with God, and his relationship with the patriarchs. The second blessing deals with our faith in God, how He sustains all life, heals the sick, revives the dead, brings us rain and sustenance. The third blessing describes God's Holiness. It would seem that the first two are sufficient, since they outline our belief in the Jewish people being chosen, and our faith in God running the world.

And, yet, it is not enough. Even if you believe perfectly, and practice perfectly, but do not have a sense of Holiness, your life is deeply lacking. So much so, that it may not even be worth living. If religion is just a higher form of mundane, and does not touch the mysteries of heaven, our life is simply a biological fact. With no deeper spiritual meaning, we are as dead people, having no lasting influence.

This is why the Priests must wash their hands and feet before entering the sanctuary. It is because of Holiness, it is because they will be in the presence of the Lord. A person's hands represent the deeds they do in their life. Their feet represent the places they travel through during their existence. Both of these must be sanctified before coming into the Tabernacle. By doing so, the Priests recognize the Holiness of the presence of God in His house.

To not wash hands and feet implies erasing the sense of Holiness from the Tabernacle. It becomes another job, to make sure that the religious services are properly delivered, and nothing more than that. It is going beyond "Moses, the man," is saying "this building, the Tabernacle." A life without Holiness is a life bereft of meaning. The Talmud says that there are two sins that ignorant people die from: 1. They call the Ark (where the Torah is kept) a "chest." 2. They call a synagogue a "community center." In other words, by erasing Holiness from religion, life loses its meaning.

It is forbidden to touch the Torah scroll with one's bare hands. The Talmud states that whoever "holds the Torah while naked (meaning that their hands are not covered), will be buried naked." The Talmud asks how this can be? The answer given is that the person, while not physically naked, will be buried without reward for this deed of touching the Torah -- presumably to honor the Torah by tightening or supporting it. They will be "naked from that Mitzvah." What does this mean?

It means that the person who does so, who grabs the Torah with their bare hands, fails to show respect to the Holiness of the Torah scroll. Now it would've been sufficient for the Talmud to say that they will not get reward for having honored the Torah by touching it and fixing it. Why go to the funeral and state, "they will be buried without this Mitzvah?" Because a life without Holiness is akin to death. Even when a person observes a technically perfect religion, if they do not honor the Holiness and strive for it, the religion is simply a mundane mode of living. It is only physical, and the physical perishes in the end.

A Jew washes their hands in the morning, first thing after awakening. Why so? One explanation is because a person might have scratched themselves during the night and got in their hands dirty. Cleanliness is next to godliness, and they say. Another explanation is because the person was one sixtieth dead during the night. Sleep is considered 1/60 of death, and death is impurity. Thus, we purify our hands in the morning when we return to life and have our full soul reinstated in our bodies.

To me, this goes beyond just cleanliness. By washing our hands in the morning, we are embracing Holiness for the entire day. We are dedicating the day to the pursuit of heaven, just as the Priests prepare themselves to enter the Tabernacle by washing. The Talmud says that a person who fails to wash their hands in the morning will be fearful the entire day long. Fearful of what? Well, as King David says, "though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for Thou art with me." When we are dedicated to Holiness, our souls sense God's presence and protection. Without it, we are afraid of what the physical world might bring.

To truly live, a person must seek out and strive for the mystery of Holiness in everything they do. In the words of a song I once wrote, "I would take a piece of heaven, and with my piece of heaven, I would transform the world."

Judaism in a Minute

At the beginning of the section of "Pekudei" in Exodus, there is a precise accounting of the materials donated for the Tabernacle. Such an amount of gold was used for this, and so much silver was used for that, etc... Moses made this accounting so he shouldn't be a headline in the newspaper. He did not want the slightest doubt to his honesty, and made sure that the accounting was very public and very accurate.

Which is what the people demanded. And yet, by contrast, they demanded no such accounting for all the gold and silver that they had given for the Golden Calf!!! On the surface, this is an indictment! It seems they were more generous for that tragic sin than for the Holy Sanctuary! How can this be?

The answer lies in two Hebrew terms used for the creative work in the sanctuary: avodah and melacha. The former means "labor". The latter means "artistic labor". What is the difference?

My teacher, Rav Ahron Soloveichik, explains it as follows. Avodah-Labor is fulfilling the technical requirements of a job, in a manner where the work is mechanical and extraneous to the personality of the doer. Melacha-Artistic Labor is where the doer invests their personality, their soul into the work.

In practical business terms, it is a tale of two salesmen. Both have a sheet of leads to call. The avodah laborer will call the numbers, read the sales script, and probably not sell too much. It is extraneous to him, his soul is not in it. The melacha-laborer will also call the leads, but will have an enthusiasm about him that will close many sales.

With this explanation, we now see how, indeed, the demand for accounting from Moses when the people donated to the Sanctuary, and the lack of such a demand when they donated for the Calf is a great merit. Rav Sorotzkin, in his work Oznaim Latorah, explains the difference:

The people did not really connect to the Calf with their souls. It was an extraneous act that they temporarily fell into. Thus, they really didn't care where the money went. Subconsciously, they would have been happy if the Calf never happened. But the Sanctuary was dear to them, was part of their very being. Therefore, they wanted to be absolutely certain that every penny was used for its intended purpose.

Perhaps this is why the term for idolatry is "Avodah zara," a foreign Labor, as opposed to "melacha zara."

So how about the minute? When a person prays, or performs any commandment, do they do it "to fulfill the obligation?" Are they meeting the technical requirements without thyat soul connection? The test is in the minute before. If the person pauses, gathers their concentration, recites a prayer that the commandment they are about to fulfill should find favor in God's eyes, then odds are that they connect personally to this good deed.

But if they rush in, hurry to get it over with and their mind is elsewhere, they have missed a chance to grow tremendously as a spiritual person. All it takes is a minute, and a minute, and a minute.