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Parashat Terumah 5781

by Meir Sendor

The Gemara Bekhorot (8b) records the battle of wits between the brilliant Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah and the sages of Athens. Among the tests of wisdom is the following exchange:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת בכורות דף ח עמוד ב

מציעתיה דעלמא היכא? זקפה לאצבעתיה אמר להו: הכא, א”ל: ומי יימר? אייתו אשלי ומשחו!


[The sages asked him]: the center of the world – where is it? [Rabbi Yehoshua] lifted his finger and said to them “Here!” They said to him “who says so?” He said: “so bring a rope and measure it!”

Rabbi Yehoshua’s answer, to point his finger to an arbitrary point and challenge them to disprove him, is not just artful, it’s profound. And it offers us insight into the Mishkan project that begins in this week’s parashah.

According to the Midrash Rabbah, when HaShem first proposed the project to build the Mishkan, a place of dwelling, Moshe Rabbenu was skeptical:

שמות רבה (וילנא) פרשת תרומה פרשה לד סימן א

בשעה שאמר הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה עשה לי משכן התחיל מתמיה ואומר כבודו של הקדוש ברוך הוא מלא עליונים ותחתונים והוא אומר עשה לי משכן, ועוד היה מסתכל וראה ששלמה עומד ובונה בית המקדש שהוא גדול מן המשכן ואמר לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא (מלכים א ח) כי האמנם ישב אלהים על הארץ אמר משה, ומה בהמ”ק שהוא יותר ויותר מן המשכן שלמה אומר כן, משכן עאכ”ו,.. אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא לא כשם שאתה סבור כך אני סבור אלא כ’ קרש בצפון וכ’ בדרום וח’ במערב ולא עוד אלא שארד ואצמצם שכינתי בתוך אמה על אמה.


When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe “make Me a Mishkan,” Moshe was surprised and said “the Glory of the Holy One, blessed be He, fills the upper and lower worlds, yet He says “make Me a Mishkan?!” And further, [Moshe] gazed and saw Shlomo building the Holy Temple, which would be bigger than the Mishkan, yet he says before the Holy One, blessed be He “will God, indeed, dwell upon earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You, how much less this house that I have built (1 Kings 8)?” Moshe said “whereas the Holy Temple, which is much greater than the Mishkan, yet Shlomo said that, the Mishkan all the more so!”… The Holy One, blessed be He said: “the way you think is not the same as the way I think. Rather, twenty boards in the north and twenty boards in the south and eight boards in the west… and not only that, but I will descend and contract My Presence into a cubit by a cubit.”

Moshe Rabbenu, who had direct experience of God’s reality, knew it cannot hope to be adequately presented and represented in a finite structure. As Maimonides notes in Guide of the Perplexed, a particular building to serve as a sacred space for HaShem was something of a concession to popular expectations of the time (3:32). But the Mishkan accomplishes this in an ingenious manner, that the late Jewish philosopher Jacques Derrida might have called “sacred space under erasure.” Rather than a temple fixed in a spot, the Mishkan was mobile, a relatively modest structure styled like a bedouin tent, demonstrating that holiness is not rooted in one spot. And instead of an idol that pagan temples would place at their center-point, the focus of the Mishkan was an empty space, a cubit-by-cubit space above the Holy Ark, from which emptiness HaShem reveals His Will.

Rav Soloveitchik explains that this is the essential theological insight of Torah:

Infinity contracts itself; eternity concentrates itself in the fleeting and transient, the Divine Presence in dimensions and the Glory of God in measurements. It is Judaism that has given the world the secret of tzimtzum, of “contraction,” contraction of the infinite within the finite, the transcendent within the concrete, the supernal within the empirical, and the divine within the realm of reality (Halakhic Man, 48).

The contraction of which Rav Soloveitchik speaks is not the later innovative idea of Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, a contraction by emptying, but rather the earlier conception of contraction through infinite concentration. It’s based on the principle that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah was literally pointing out in response to the sages of Athens: HaShem, Who is absolute Infinite and absolute One, grants holiness and glory, קדושה וכבוד , to all of reality at every point. Yeshayahu hears the angels sing  “Holy, holy, holy, HaShem of Hosts, filling all the earth is His Glory (Is. 6:3).” The Aramaic Targum Onkelos translates: “holy in the heavenly heights above, the home of His Presence; holy on the earth, the work of His Power; holy forever and ever and ever…” Yechezkel hears behind him the angels sing “blessed be the Glory of HaShem from His place (Ez. 3:12).” The holiness and glory that God confers mean that every point of this reality that God is creating is the infinite here, every moment of this reality that God is creating is the eternal now. Reality pops with the Presence of HaShem.

But what we call reality is not a thing, it’s an experience. This means that our own awareness conditions the experience. HaShem makes this point when Shlomo engages in building the holy Temple:

מלכים א פרק ו

(יא) וַֽיְהִי֙ דְּבַר־יְקֹוָ֔ק אֶל־שְׁלֹמֹ֖ה לֵאמֹֽר:

(יב) הַבַּ֨יִת הַזֶּ֜ה אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּ֣ה בֹנֶ֗ה אִם־תֵּלֵ֤ךְ בְּחֻקֹּתַי֙ וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַ֣י תַּֽעֲשֶׂ֔ה וְשָׁמַרְתָּ֥ אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֹתַ֖י לָלֶ֣כֶת בָּהֶ֑ם וַהֲקִמֹתִ֤י אֶת־דְּבָרִי֙ אִתָּ֔ךְ אֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבַּ֖רְתִּי אֶל־דָּוִ֥ד אָבִֽיךָ:

(יג) וְשָׁ֣כַנְתִּ֔י בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְלֹ֥א אֶעֱזֹ֖ב אֶת־עַמִּ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל: ס


And then came the Word of HaShem to Shlomo saying: This house that you are building – if you walk in My statutes and do My judgments and keep My mitzvot, to walk in them, then I will uphold My Word with you that I spoke to David your father. And I will dwell in the midst of the Children of Israel and I will not abandon My nation Israel.

The true sense of holiness, of HaShem’s actual Presence in our lives, is not based on a place but on our ethical consciousness. When we act in tune with HaShem’s Will in Torah and mitzvot, we sense the sacred everywhere – HaShem’s Presence is with us. And when we sense HaShem’s real Presence in reality, we appreciate our responsibility to act with holiness, goodness and honesty in this world.

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