On The Weekly Torah Portion Tetsaveh

Menorah_0307This week’s weekly Torah portion, tetsaveh (Exodus 27:20 – 20:10), continues the theme of the construction of the mishkan (משכן), the Tabernacle, God’s “dwelling place”.

In last week’s parashah (weekly Torah portion), terumah, we learnt that the Tabernacle may not be a physical structure at all, but a structure in consciousness. The text says:

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם:
And they shall make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell within them. (Exodus 25:8)

This idea is echoed in this week’s parashah. At the end of very long and detailed instructions regarding the clothing of the high priest, the ornaments of the menorah, specific of offerings and other matters, the text states:

וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהָיִיתִי לָהֶם לֵאלֹהִים:
I will dwell within the Israelites and I will be their God. (Exodus 29:45)

That is to say, the relationship with God is defined by this act of “dwelling within them”. This is elaborated in the next verse:

וְיָדְעוּ כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לְשָׁכְנִי בְתוֹכָם אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיהֶם:
And they shall know that I, YHVH, am their God who brought them out from the land of Egypt that I might dwell within them, I YHVH their God. (Exodus 29:46)

Readers of this blog will remember, that the Exodus from Egypt has been explained as a metaphor for the liberation of the soul from boundaries in duality to freedom in unity (see commentary on the weekly Torah portion of shemot). Now the text combines this metaphor with another—the one about building a mishkan. Again, it is not a physical structure. It is a sacred space that one “erects” within oneself so that God can dwell within.

This verse tells us, that the only reason the people of Israel were liberated from Egypt is so that they can build a mishkan and God can dwell within them. In other words, liberation is not a “free lunch;” it has to be reciprocated by service, by one’s commitment to be empty enough so that a mishkan is erected within oneself and the shekhinah can dwell within one. With that reciprocity established, people shall “know that I, YHVH, am their God.”

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This Torah portion starts with another form of reciprocity. In the first verse of the parashah Moses is commanded to light a lamp (candle) of perpetual light in the tabernacle:

וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית לַמָּאוֹר לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִיד:
You shall instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps of perpetual light. (Exodus 27:20).

One may ask: what need does God have for our light? Many commentators throughout the ages wondered about that, referring to a quote from the Psalms:

בְּאוֹרְךָ נִרְאֶה אוֹר:
By your light do we see light. (Psalm 36:10)

Does the source of all light need us to light candles for him?

The commentators seem to agree that it is all about reciprocity. Maimonides, who takes the light to be symbolic of our mental faculties, explains how the “light by which we see light”, that divine spark of intelligence that allows us to see God, is also the light through which God sees us. (Guide to the Perplexed, Part 3, Chapter 52).

Said differently, the degree to which the light of God shines on humans depends on the degree to which humans recognize God.

A similar idea about the reciprocity of the relationship with the divine was brought up by the Hadith Qudsi:

Allah has declared: I am close to the thought that My servant has to Me, and I am with him whenever He recollects Me. If he remember Me in himself, I remember him in Myself, and if he remembers Me in a gathering, I remember him better than those in the gathering do, and if he approaches Me by as much as one hand’s length, I approach him by a cubit, and if he approaches my by a cubit, then I draw nigh to him by two hands’ length. If he takes a step towards me, I run towards him. (Musnad-e Ahmad Hanbal)

At the end of the 18th century, Rabbi Yisrael Hofstein, known as the Koznitzer Maggid, wondered about it. In his ‘Avodath Yisrael he gives up any attempt to understand it, and just expresses his wonder:

We cannot penetrate Your secret, why it is that You should desire to hear Torah or prayer out of our mouths. The same is true of the candles. “In Your light we see light,” yet You command us to kindle lights. “Thought cannot grasp You at all” (Tikkuney Zohar 17a); no one can understand the secret of this matter. All we have is “the revealed things for us and our children” (Deut. 29: 28) to do. Amen.

The Koznitzer Maggid recognizes, with great awe, the incomprehensible, ungraspable fact that there is indeed a reciprocal relationship here, and is awed by that fact.

And this is how Arthur Green, who quotes the Koznitzer Maggid in his Speaking Torah, writes about this passage:

The confession of undiminished astonishment is rare in a literature that is so used to providing answers and explanations. In the end, we are being told here, they are all worth nothing. All we can do is stand before the mystery—and go on living and following God’s word in this strange world.

Copyright © 2014 Igal Harmelin-Moria
(Copyright does not pertain to illustrations)