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Parashat 02/23/2011

Parashat Vayakhal

by Robert Rabinoff

Our Parashah is virtually a copy of Parashat Terumah – it describes the structure of the Mishkan and its appurtenances.  Since most of the last half of the book of Exodus concerns itself with the construction of the Mishkan, it is obvious that Torah assigns great importance to it.  Why is this?

The Ramban tells us that the structure of the Mishkan is actually a mirror of the structure of creation.  Its dimensions, its utensils, the colors used and the types of materials used in each part, all reflect some aspect of the deep structure behind the perceptible creation.  Ramban himself only hints at the details; Kabbalah is not to be disseminated broadly to those who cannot use, or who can misuse, that knowledge.

What I find remarkable however, is the fact that a series of man-made artifacts (even if the blueprint is not man-made) can reflect an outer, “objective,” and most definitely not man-made reality.  How is it that a human being can understand how to make a model of a reality which is bigger than any human being (since each human being, and indeed all humanity, is included in it)?

Actually, the program of Western science is founded on the same principle.  In physics, for example, we seek to express the laws of nature mathematically.  We measure different aspects of phenomena – that is, we compare them to defined standards, so many meters, so many seconds – and assign numbers to describe things.  These numbers are related to one another mathematically, and then, based on the behavior of our mathematical relationships, we are able to predict what a physical system will do under various circumstances.  But consider: what is mathematics?  A wag once put it: “Mathematics is a game played with a pencil on a piece of paper.”  Another wag replied: “No, Mathematics is a game played in the mind.  You keep score with a pencil and a piece of paper.”  Mathematical structures are structures created by human consciousness, and there is no reason at all to expect that they will correspond with anything “objective.”  Riemann defined the curvature tensor in the mid-1800’s.  A full six decades later Einstein used it to connect gravity with space-time curvature (General Relativity).  We find that there is a profound match between subjective mathematics and objective, physical reality.

We know of course that there is an interaction between our subjective, inner experience and outer, “objective” reality.  We learn about the world outside ourselves through our organs of perception, and we affect the world outside ourselves through our organs of action.  We have seen many times in physics that when two phenomena interact with one another, it is a clue that they are in fact two different aspects of one, deeper, underlying level of existence.  Extending this to the interaction between the objective and subjective realms, we can conjecture that they too are two expressions of an underlying level of existence which has the subjective nature of consciousness and the objective nature of existence.

If this is correct, we can understand how our subjective, mathematical structures can describe the objective physical world, and we can understand how the structure of the Mishkan, given to us by the Creator, can mirror the structure and mechanics of creation.  More than that, we see that by plumbing the full range of our own consciousness, from its infinite source through all its levels of manifestations, we can understand, and perhaps even utilize, the full range of potentialities inherent in the Creation.

Perhaps this is what Ramban was hinting at when he said the Mishkan reflects the structure of creation.  When we enter the Mishkan, when we participate in the rituals there, we access the deepest levels of creation, by using our organs of perception and action to align ourselves, that is, our subjective awareness, with those deeper levels.  When, as a collective, our awareness became too crude for that alignment to take place, the Mishkan, and later, the Temples in Jerusalem, no longer served their purpose, and they became subject to the laws of nature and geopolitics, and were destroyed.  Our Sages put it in more poetic terms – because of our sins the Shechinah, Gd’s Presence, gradually left the Temple, leaving it open to destruction.  They further tell us that every generation that does not see the Temple rebuilt is as if it were the generation in which it was destroyed – that is, it is a generation that is not refined enough to make proper use of the Temple and the enlightenment it brings us.  Finally, our Sages tell us that the solution to this quandary is through study of the Torah of the Temples – the traditional knowledge of its structure and functioning as found in Torah and elaborated in the Talmud.  This study, pursued for its own sake, slowly allows us to create the alignment between our individual awareness and the cosmic processes of creation, that was once possible – almost automatic – by attendance at the Temple.  We pray three times daily that the Temple be rebuilt.  In the meantime, we can strive to create the Temple in our awareness, so that Gd may truly dwell among us.