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Parashat Tetzaveh 5772 – 2/29/2012

Parashat Tetzaveh

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

They shall know that I am Hashem, their Gd, Who took them out of the land of Egypt to rest My Presence among (or within) them; I am Hashem their Gd. (29:46)

… there is here a great secret, because according to the plain meaning of the matter the Divine Presence is in Israel for the needs of the people, and not for the needs of the Most High.  But this is like when Scripture says “Israel in whom I glory.”  (Isaiah 49:3) And Yehoshua said “and what will You do for Your Great Name?” (Joshua 7:9)  And many other verses come to express this idea: “He desired [Zion] for His habitation” (Psalm 132:13) and [in the next verse] “There will I dwell for I have desired it.”  (Ramban ad loc)

Why were we redeemed from Egypt?  Why did Gd split the Sea for us?  Why did Gd bring us to Mt. Sinai and give us the Torah?  Why did he lead us for 40 years in the desert and eventually give us the Land of Israel?  Why did He have us build the Mishkan in the desert and the Temple in Jerusalem?  (Does this sound like Dayenu yet?)  From the verse it appears that Gd was gracing us with His Presence to uplift and protect us.  Ramban appears to turn this around, and to imply that Gd was dwelling amongst us for His benefit?  But how can puny mortals benefit the infinite Gd?


I believe that to answer this question we must again return to the structure and purpose of Creation as a whole.  At the basis of all creation is Gd, infinite and unchanging, and of course completely Self-sufficient.  Gd has no need of anything outside Himself, which is fortunate, because there is nothing outside of Gd.  However there must have been some impetus for Gd to create, because we see that He did create.


Our Sages tell us that Gd created the universe in order to bestow good on it; that is, Gd “desired” to express His attribute of goodness, and needed a recipient for that goodness.  However it is clear that a purely mechanical universe would be a pretty poor recipient.  Since it is not sentient it knows neither good nor ill, and can receive neither benefit nor harm.  It requires sentient creatures to be the recipient of goodness.


Now it is also true that the more sentient the creature, the more it can respond to good or bad.  It’s much easier to love your pet dog or cat than it is to love your pet garter snake for example (and not just because the former are mammals and therefore closer to ourselves).  According to both our tradition and our observations of nature, the most sentient creatures are human beings, who have the ability to be self-aware.  To my knowledge, although many researchers have tried to demonstrate the existence of self-awareness in other species, none have succeeded, and it seems clear that even if other species do have glimmerings of self-awareness, they are not nearly as developed as ours.  No other species appears to pray, and there are no other species studying human beings, although some people with cats may beg to differ.


Along with this advanced level of self-awareness comes increased responsibility; we, as human beings, have implanted within us a moral sense.  We don’t act just on instinct as do other creatures, rather we understand that we can choose which actions to take.  Now a dog may choose which piece of meat to eat first, as we can, but a dog cannot choose to sacrifice itself for a principle, the way, for example, a soldier might do.  Human beings are unique in that we have free will in the moral sphere.  We can hurt others or we can heal, we can love or we can hate, and the choice is ours.  Therefore Gd instructed the human race in the basic principles of morality to guide the exercise of our free will in a way that will benefit others and create a just and compassionate society.  These principles are the seven Noachide commandments.


Beginning with Avraham Avinu Gd started a process of separating out one portion of humanity to take the lead in the realm of developing self-awareness and perfecting life on earth.  This process came to a culmination with the Revelation at Mt. Sinai, the giving of the Torah, and the construction of the Mishkan.  At that point the Jewish people became consecrated to Gd as a kingdom of Priest/ministers and a holy people (19:6).  With that consecration came a great deal more responsibility – 613 commandments as opposed to 7 – but also greater intimacy with the Divine, as our verse suggests: Gd took us out of Egypt in order to rest His Presence among us.


This progression is nicely summed up by R. Akiva in Pirke Avot (3:18): Beloved is man for he was created in Gd’s image; a greater love [was shown] in that he was made aware that he was created in Gd’s image.  Beloved are the people of Israel, for they are called Children of the Omnipresent; a greater love [was shown] in that they were made aware that they are Children of the Omnipresent.  But this progression is clearly only possible on the basis of our capacity for self-awareness.


Now Ramban intimates that in fact Gd’s resting His Presence in us is somehow for His benefit as well as ours.  I believe if we take the concept of self-awareness a bit further we may be able to understand this.  Certainly if we can be self-aware, Gd is Self-aware.  Ultimately, since there is nothing but Gd, what else is there for Gd to be aware of, other than His own Self?!  But it appears from our Ramban that even this level of Self-awareness can be taken to a higher plane.  When Gd rested his Presence on the Mishkan and later in the Temple in Jerusalem, all Israel was raised to a heightened awareness of Gd and His connection with His creation.  Gd was no longer an abstract idea, and belief in Gd was no longer just an intellectual assent to a reasonable proposition.  Rather, Israel’s spiritual level was raised to the point where Gd was an almost tangible reality, and our belief in His existence was based on direct experience.  And this, apparently, was the purpose of the Creation to begin with, that human beings come to know Gd. 


Why is this important to Gd?  I’m not Gd, so I can only speculate.  Before there was a creation, Gd was, and Gd was Self-aware.  With creation, there were now creatures who could also become aware of Gd.  But of course creation is in no way outside of Gd, so our awareness of Gd is, in addition to being a relationship between us, the creatures, and Gd, the Creator, also another channel of Self-awareness in which Gd can delight.  A back-channel so to speak, since it takes an apparently circuitous route through the creation before returning to Gd.  In a manner of speaking, Gd delights in resting his Presence upon us because it raises Gd’s level of Self-awareness.


We know, unfortunately, that this exalted level of existence did not last.  The First Temple was destroyed after 410 years by the Babylonians, and the strength of Gd’s presence in the Second Temple was not as strong, because the people were not as strong and could not bear it.  After 420 years the Second Temple was also destroyed, and, in the metaphor of our Sages, Gd’s Presence went into exile with us.  We have no Temple, yet we are still Gd’s people, always striving for holiness, for transcendence, to recognize Gd’s Presence in every little particle of creation.  We have our free will intact, we have Gd’s instructions for how to use that free will properly, and we have Gd’s promise that when we do so, He will again come to dwell among us.  Not only for our benefit, but for His as well.