Thursday, 28 February 2008

A Dwelling Among Mortals

1. A Contradiction in Terms

When dedicating the Beis Hamikdash, King Shlomo exclaimed in wonderment: “Will G-d indeed dwell on this earth? The heavens and the celestial heights cannot contain You, how much less this house!” For the Beis Hamikdash was not merely a centralized location for man’s worship of G-d, it was a place where G-d’s Presence was — and is — manifest. Although “the entire earth is full of His glory,” G-d’s Presence is not tangibly felt. He permeates all existence, but in a hidden way. The Beis Hamikdash, by contrast, was “the place where He chose to cause His name to dwell.” There was no concealment; His Presence was openly manifest.

This seems impossible; there is no apparent way that spirituality can be openly manifest in our material world. For material existence to come into being, G-d condensed and contracted His light and life-energy so that it could become enclothed in material entities. This is absolutely necessary; were G-dly light to be revealed without restraint, it would nullify all matter.

To allow for our world to continue in a stable manner, G-d structured this process of self-containment with laws and principles as binding as those governing nature. He brought into being an entire framework of spiritual worlds whose purpose is to convey Divine energy from level to level until it undergoes the degree of contraction necessary to be enclothed in material form. An open revelation of G-dliness runs contrary to this entire pattern, defying the limits which He Himself established.

Nevertheless, although G-d limited the extent of His revelation when structuring the world, He did not limit Himself. He created a world with set bounds, but He Himself is not bound by them, and can alter them at will. He can invest His Presence in our material realm, and did so in the Sanctuary and in the Beis HaMikdash.

2. In G-d’s Inner Chamber

The Divine Presence was revealed in the Holy of Holies, where an ongoing miracle reflected the nature of the revelation in the Beis HaMikdash. The width of the Holy of Holies was 20 cubits. The Ark of the Covenant, positioned lengthwise in the chamber, was two and one half cubits long, yet there were ten cubits from either edge of the ark to the wall. In other words, the physical ark occupied no space!

In the Beis HaMikdash, precise measurement was a necessity. Even a slight deviation from the required dimensions would render an article or building invalid. The fact that the place of the ark transcended the limits of space thus represents a fusion of finiteness and infinity. This communicates the nature of G-d’s Being. He transcends both finiteness and infinity, and yet manifests Himself in both.

This is the Torah’s intent when speaking of G-d “choos[ing] a place for His name to dwell”: the physical limits of our world will not be negated, yet the spiritual will be revealed. And this fusion of opposites will enable us to become conscious of His essence, which transcends — and encompasses — both the physical and the spiritual.

3. What Man Contributes

G-d did not want this revelation to be dependent on His influence alone. As reflected in the verse: “And you shall make Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell within,” He chose to make the revelation of His Presence dependent on man’s activity. Since any revelation of G-d’s Presence transcends the limits of our existence, the initiative must come from Him. Nevertheless, “G-d did not have His Presence rest upon Israel until they performed labor” — building the Sanctuary where His Presence would dwell.

Why was man’s activity necessary? Because G-d’s intent is that the revelation of His Presence be internalized within the world, becoming part of the fabric of its existence. Were the revelation to come only from above, it would merely nullify worldliness. To cite a parallel: when G-d revealed Himself on Mount Sinai, the world ground to a standstill. “No bird chirped... nor did an ox bellow, nor the sea roar.” Although G-dliness was revealed within the world, material existence did not play a contributory role.

When, by contrast, the dwelling for G-d is built by man — himself part of the material world — the nature of the materials used is elevated. This enables G-d’s Presence to be revealed within these entities while they continue to exist within their own context.

When a revelation of G-dliness comes from above, it is dependent on His influence, and is therefore temporary. For example, when G-d descended on Mount Sinai, the mountain became holy and therefore, “all that ascend the mountain must die.” When, however, G-d’s Presence was withdrawn from the mountain, the Jews were allowed to ascend it, for the fundamental nature of the mountain had not changed; it remained an ordinary mountain.

With regard to the Sanctuary — and to a greater extent the Beis HaMikdash — holiness became a permanent part of their own being. And thus on the verse: “I will lay waste to your Sanctuaries,” our Sages commented: “Even though they have been devastated, their sanctity remains.” And therefore, it is forbidden to ascend to the site of the Beis HaMikdash in the present age.

4. Two Phases

The above concepts are highlighted by the name of the Torah reading. Terumah, meaning “lifting up” or “separation,” puts the focus on man’s attempts to establish a dwelling for G-d. The Torah proceeds to state that this terumah must involve 13 different articles: gold, silver, brass.... This indicates that man’s task is to incorporate the various elements of worldly existence into G-d’s dwelling.

More particularly, the double interpretation of the name Terumah reflects two factors necessary in creating a dwelling for G-d. First, a person must designate his gift, separating it from his other worldly property. And then through its consecration, its nature becomes elevated above the ordinary material plane.

These two phases relate to the two services mentioned in the verse, “turn away from evil and do good.” When a person prepares a dwelling for a king, he must first clean it. Afterwards, he brings in attractive articles. Similarly, to make our world a dwelling for G-d, “separation” is necessary to purge the self-orientation encouraged by worldly existence. Only then is the world “elevated,” becoming a medium to draw down G-d’s light.

5. Not an Island

The Beis Hamikdash was not intended to be an isolated corner of holiness. Instead, its windows were designed to spread light outward. For the holiness of the Beis Hamikdash was intended to illuminate the world.

The most complete expression of this concept will come in the Era of the Redemption. From “the mountain of G-d’s house” will spread forth light and holiness, motivating all people to learn G-d’s ways and “walk in His paths.”

These revelations are dependent on our efforts to encourage the manifestation of the Divine Presence. Making our homes and our surroundings “sanctuaries in microcosm” will cause G-d to reveal His Presence in the world.

(Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. III, p. 902; Vol. XVI, p. 286ff; Vol. XXI, p. 146ff)

Towards A Purpose Beyond Our Conception

For Man to Become More than Man

To answer this question, we must expand our conceptual framework, for the state to which G-d desires to bring mankind is above ordinary human conception. This is indicated by the very expression: “When you lift up the heads”; “the heads,” human intellect, must be elevated.

The essence of our souls is “an actual part of G-d from above,”4 and G-d desires that man transcend himself and experience this Divine potential. Moreover, the intent is not merely that we rise above our human intellect, but that we “lift up the heads” themselves, reshape our minds. Tasting a superrational connection to G-d is not sufficient; our very thoughts, the way we understand the world, must encompass a Truth which transcends intellect.

A Journey Charted by G-d

Intellect is a crossroads. On one hand, it is the faculty which enables humanity to grow and expand its horizons. On the other hand, a mortal’s intellect is by definition limited. Moreover, all intellect is rooted in self; the more one understands, the stronger one’s sense of selfhood becomes.

Following one’s own understanding can lead to seeing material existence or at least certain aspects of it as being apart from G-d. Our minds can understand how certain entities and experiences might serve as conduits for the expression of G-dliness. Other material entities and practices, however, appear to be foreign to that purpose, and we reject the possibility that they might also serve this function.

Taking this approach to the extreme, some modes of Divine service endeavor to avoid confronting material existence altogether, staying instead within the realm of the spiritual. Although there are certain virtues to this approach, it contains an inherent shortcoming: It encourages the notion that material reality exists apart from holiness.5

The ultimate truth the “heights” to which Jewish heads should be lifted is that every aspect of existence can express the truth of His Being.6 This is reflected in the Torah’s description of Avraham’s efforts to spread the awareness of G-d’s existence:7 “And he proclaimed there the name of G-d, eternal L-rd.” The verse does not state א-ל העולם “G-d of the world,”8 which would imply that G-d is an entity unto Himself and the world is a separate entity unto itself. Instead, it states א-ל עולם, implying that G-dliness and the world are one.

Even after this thrust is accepted, however, there exist certain aspects of being that appear separate from Him. Is there G-dliness in evil, for example? And if so, how can man cause this G-dliness to be revealed?

Although mortals cannot conceive of a meeting point between evil and sanctity, G-d can. Indeed, He charts paths leading each individual, and the world at large, to such an intersection. With Divine Providence, He creates situations into which no righteous man would enter voluntarily, forcing the righteous to become involved with (and thus elevate) the most base material concerns.

This is the intent of the command to “lift up the heads of the children of Israel”; that even within the realm characterized by separation, evil and self, there may flourish an awareness of G-d’s unbounded spiritual truth.

G-d’s Awesome Intrigue

In this vein, Chassidic thought describes sin as,9 “an awesome intrigue devised against man.” Jews by nature are above any connection with sin.10 If a person’s yetzer hora overcomes him and makes him sin, this is because the yetzer hora was prompted from Above to bring him to this act. This is purposeful, “an awesome intrigue” devised by G-d to bring about a higher and more complete unity between G-d, that individual, and the world at large.

In his explanation of our Sages’ statement11 that “In the place of baalei teshuvah, even the completely righteous cannot stand,” the Rambam states12 that baalei teshuvah are on a higher level because “they conquer their [evil] inclination more.” The righteous do not have to struggle so hard against their evil inclination; to the extent that they are righteous, their evil inclination is nullified.13 A baal teshuvah, by contrast, possesses a powerful evil inclination as evidenced by his sin and yet still desires to cling to G-d.

Moreover, our Sages teach14 that teshuvah transforms even sins which a person commits intentionally into merits. This elevates the lowest aspects of existence which derive sustenance from the realm of kelipah and brings them into a bond with G-d.

Why does a baal teshuvah have the potential to elevate aspects of existence which are by nature distant from G-dliness? Because in order to strive for teshuvah, a person must tap his deepest spiritual resources, that soul which is “an actual part of G-d.” When he reaches this point, he is able to appreciate that nothing is apart from Him. And in his life, he is able to show how every element of existence expresses His Truth.

This process is an example of the pattern, “a descent for the purpose of an ascent.”15 Our climb to those peaks which our intellect cannot reach on its own involves a descent to levels which our intellect would normally reject.

Three Phases

Based on the above, we can appreciate the sequence of parshas Ki Sissa. The purpose the ascent of the Jewish people is stated in the opening verse. Afterwards, the reading continues with the final commands for the construction and dedication of the Sanctuary, the incense offering and the giving of the First Tablets. All these subjects reflect a connection to G-d above the limits of ordinary experience.

In order for that connection to penetrate the worldly realm, and to have it permeate even the lowest aspects of existence, follows the narrative of the Sin of the Golden Calf and the breaking of the Tablets. This terrible fall motivated the Jewish people to turn to G-d in teshuvah, evoking a third phase16 the revelation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy a totally unbounded level of G-dliness that encompasses even the lowest levels.

This highest peak finds expression in the giving of the Second Tablets17 and the final event mentioned in this week’s Torah reading, the shining of Moshe’s countenance.18

The shining of Moshe’s face manifested the ultimate fusion of the physical and the spiritual. G-dly light shone from Moshe’s physical body.

And Ultimately, Ascents Without Descent

Similar cycles of descent and ascent have shaped the history of our people. The aim of this process is a final union between the spiritual and the material the Era of the Redemption, when “the world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d as the waters cover the ocean bed.”19

When seen in this context, all the years of exile appear as merely “a fleeting moment.”20 For exile has no purpose in and of itself; it is merely a means by which to evoke a deeper connection to G-d, and a medium which enables that bond to permeate every aspect of experience. When this purpose is accomplished, the exile will conclude; to quote the Rambam:21 “The Torah has promised that ultimately, at the end of her exile, Israel will repent and immediately be redeemed.”

And then will begin a never-ending ascent, as it is written:22 “They will proceed from strength to strength, and appear before G-d in Zion.”


In collaboration with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks - From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe

Vayakhel begins with Moses assembling the Israelites on the day after Yom Kippur, to repeat to them the commandment of Shabbat. The passage raises several questions, especially in its use of the passive in the phrase, "Six days shall work be done." In its explanations, the Sicha touches on one of the greatest paradoxes of the life of faith. If G-d is the source of all blessings, why work in order to live? And if we do work, how can we avoid the thought that it is our labor alone that produces material results? We seem torn between absolute passivity and the denial of G-d's involvement in the world. The Rebbe develops the important concept of "passive labor" in which this contradiction is resolved, and a new understanding of the inner meaning of Shabbat emerges.

1. The Assembly

The Sidra of Vayakhel begins in the following way: "And Moses assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said unto them: 'These are the words which the L-rd has commanded, that you should do them. Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of solemn rest to the L-rd..'"

This raises several questions and points of detail, some of which are mentioned by the commentators.

Firstly, why is the word "assembled" ( Vayakhel) used? The more usual expression would be, "And Moses spoke to all the congregation," as indeed we find several verses later, in the context of the donations for the Sanctuary.

Secondly, the passage says, "These are the words which the L-rd has commanded," but it does not specify what they are. Most commentators take it as referring to the offerings for the building of the Sanctuary, but this is difficult to maintain. For before these offerings are spoken of, the Torah repeats, "And Moses spoke to all the congregation," suggesting that this was the subject of a separate discourse. The implication would seem to be that the "words which the L-rd has commanded" refer to what immediately follows, namely the prohibition of work on the Shabbat. But this raises the further difficulty that the observance of the Shabbat had already been included amongst the Ten Commandments.

Thirdly, what is the significance of the repetitive phrase, shabbat shabbaton, translated in English as "a sabbath of solemn rest?"

Fourthly, Rashi, the Talmud, the Midrash1 and the Zohar2 all make the comment that this assembly took place on the morrow of Yom Kippur, when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai (with the second tablets of stone). This suggests that there is a connection between the assembly and Yom Kippur, whose essence is, as its name implies, kippur, or atonement. This was the day when G-d said to Moses, "I have forgiven according to your word," which was the atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf. What, then, is the connection?

2. Passive Labor

As a first step towards answering these questions, we must consider the remarks of the commentators about the passive form of the verb in the phrase, "Six days shall work be done." Had it been in the active, "Six days shall you work," it would suggest an involvement or preoccupation with the work. The passive suggests that the work will be done, as it were, by itself. The Mechilta comments on this verse: "When Israel performs the will of the Al-mighty, their work is done for them by others." Literally, this refers to a blessing conferred by Heaven, but the comment can also be taken to indicate an attitude that the Jew should adopt in the course of his service towards G-d. It means that during the six days of his work, he should be occupied, but not preoccupied by the secular.

In the Psalms3 it is written: "If you will eat the labor of your hands, you will be happy and it will be well with you." The Chassidic interpretation4 is that the labor in which man engages for his material needs (so that "you will eat") should be only "of your hands," an activity of the outer man, not an inward involvement. His thoughts and feelings must remain bound up with Torah and its commandments. Only then "will you be happy and it will be well with you." As the Sages say,5 "You will be happy-in this world-and it will be well for you-in the World to Come."

This interpretation can also be applied to the phrase, "Six days shall work be done." The passive form of the verb indicates that heart and mind are elsewhere-involved in the Torah-and only man's practical faculties are engaged in the work. And even they are concerned only to make the work a "vessel" for the blessings of G-d. This is what the Torah means when it says; "And the L-rd your G-d will bless you in all that you do." Man is not sustained by his own efforts, but through G-d's blessing. His work merely provides a natural channel for this blessing, and he must remember that it is no more than a channel. Though his hands prepare it, his eyes must remain focused on the source of the blessing.

Man should really not be allowed to work. For of G-d it is said, "I fill the heavens and the earth" and "The whole earth is full of His glory." The proper response to the ever-present nature of G-d would be to stand in absolute passivity. To do otherwise would be to be guilty of what the Rabbis called6 "making signs before the King," of the presumption of making one's presence felt. It is only because the Torah itself permits, indeed commands, us to work that it becomes legitimate; when it says, "Six days shall you work" and "The L-rd your G-d will bless you in all that you do."The Torah permits that which is necessary work. To go beyond that would be, in the first place, to show a lack of faith that human sustenance comes from G-d. And secondly, it would be to make one's presence felt in the face of G-d an act of rebellion.

3. The Meaning of "Labor"

In the light of this, it becomes difficult to understand the expression of the Psalms, "the labor of your hands." For the work of the Jew in the secular world is only as a preparation for G-d's blessing, and lacks an inner involvement. There is, however, a psychological principle7 that work which one enjoys is not tiring, whereas even a small effort towards what one does not enjoy is exhausting. The Jew, therefore, whose pleasures are spiritual, and whose engagement in the material world is forced upon him, finds it an exhaustion. Even though it is a positive command8 that "Six days you shall labor," the labor itself, however detached he is from it, distracts him from the spiritual, and is therefore felt to be a tiring labor.

4. The Double Shabbat

This, then, is the inner meaning of "Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of solemn rest,"-the six days are a necessary preface to the seventh. For the Shabbat to be a day of solemn rest, it must be preceded by work, and the work itself must be passive, with the true focus of one's attention elsewhere. It is written,9 "On the Shabbat, a man should regard himself as if all his work were complete." If, during the six days, he had been preoccupied with material concerns, on the seventh day anxieties will invade him and he will not be able to clear his mind to "gaze at the glory of the King" in Torah and prayer. He has opened the door to distractions, and they will intrude upon his will. But if he has given his work its proper place during the week, the light of Shabbat will illuminate him, and it will be shabbat shabbaton-a Shabbat twice over. For Shabbat will then permeate his whole week,10 and when the day itself arrives it will have a double sanctity.

Our third question is therefore answered. And the second is also solved: Even though the observance of Shabbat as such had been previously commanded, the opening verses of Vayakhel explain how the spirit of Shabbat is achieved.

5. The Origin of Idolatry

The connection between the assembly of the Israelites, and the day it took place, on the morrow of Yom Kippur, can also now be understood. The commandment about the Shabbat was in itself the rectification of the sin of the Golden Calf. Rambam11 traces the origins of idolatry to the fact that Divine providence is channeled through natural forces and objects: "Precious fruits (are) brought forth by the sun, and. precious things. by the moon.''12 Although their worshippers recognized them as merely intermediaries, they attached divine significance to them. Their error was to regard them as objects of worship, whereas they are no more than the instruments of G-d, like "an ax in the hands of the hewer." At another level, the excessive preoccupation with business and the material world is also a form of idolatry.13 In the same way, it involves the error of attaching significance to what is no more than an intermediary or the channel of Divine blessing. His mental preoccupation is a form of bowing the head, of misplaced worship. Only when he sees his work for what it is, a way of creating a natural channel for the blessings of G-d, will his work take the passive form and the focus of his thoughts be on G-d alone.

This is how idolatry-whether in its overt or its more subtle forms-is atoned. Six days of passive work, in the sense of mental detachment and the realization that human work is only an instrument of G-d, are the corrective for and the denial of the instincts of idolatry.

6. Passivity in the Spirit

This error and its correction exist on the spiritual as well as the material plane. In Pirkei Avot14 it is stated: "Do not be like servants who minister to their master on the condition of receiving a reward." It is possible to study and fulfill the Torah for the sake of the attendant spiritual pleasures. But this is to be motivated by reward. The highest service is to perform G-d's will for its own sake, unconditionally. And this is like the passive labor described above. It is labor because it is not done for the sake of pleasure. It is passive because such a man does not regard his spiritual achievements as the result of his own talents, but of the helping hand of Heaven. If he opens himself to G-d, however slightly, G-d responds and helps him along the way. This assistance comes even prior to the fulfillment of a command. Commenting on the verse in Job,15 "Who has come before Me that I should pay him?" the Rabbis say,16 "Who made Me a parapet without My making him the roof, who made Me a Mezuzah without My making him the house, who made Me Tzitzit without My making him the garment?" Passivity in the spiritual life means making oneself no more than a channel for the Divine response.

7. Assembly and Unity

Finally, we can now understand why our passage uses the verb "And Moses assembled" instead of "And Moses spoke."It was the day after Yom Kippur, when the sin of the Golden Calf, which had brought back into the world the spirit of impurity,17 was atoned for. The world was to be restored to its original state, as it was before the first sin. There was to be "one nation in the land," and the world was once again to become a private domain (reshut hayachid, literally, the "domain of the One") for the Unity of G-d. Therefore there had to be an "assembly" in which the people were gathered into a unity.

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. I pp. 187-192)