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Parashat 03/12/2010

Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

To begin with, I’d like to add a small point to something we discussed last week.  We said that there was an absolute limit to human perception, simply because we are finite creatures, and full comprehension of our infinite Creator is, by definition, impossible.  Even if our mind expands and grasps infinity in its nature, our perceptions and cognitions are still directed through a physical body; this is so that we can interact with the physical world on its level and raise it up towards infinity.  However, it is still a limitation.

There is another aspect to this, however.  What was Moshe Rabbeinu asking of H” when he asked to “know Your ways”?  According to our Sages, he was asking Gd why we see good people having problems in this life while the wicked sometimes prosper (tzaddik v’ra lo, rasha v’tov lo).  All of us have asked this question at some time in our life, perhaps many times.  Moshe Rabbeinu of course was uniquely in a position to receive an answer, yet the answer was, in the words of my parents, “When you’re older you’ll understand.”  What we do understand is that all the experiences we have in our life are tests for us.  Tests have two purposes.  First, they indicate to us where we stand in the area being tested.  If we fail the test we understand that we have additional work to do in that area.  Second, tests allow us to actualize our potential when we pass them (see Ramban’s commentary on the Akeidah).  Often a test will draw out potentials that we never knew we had.

For a test to be effective however, it has to be a real test!  If you have a crib sheet, you’re not taking a test.  Thus, there is another reason why human beings cannot know the reasons behind Gd’s decrees – if we knew, we would no longer have the advantages of being tested.  We would lose our free will, and the very purpose of our existence would be obviated.  (See also Praying with Fire by R. Heshy Kleinman, pp. 229-30.)

Turning to our double portion of this week, we have, in large measure, a repetition of the last three parshiyot.  That this is a very straightforward repetition can be seen in the fact that Rashi’s commentary, which is exceptionally thorough, often dissecting a verse word by word, is silent for large stretches of text.  There are nuances though, and I’d like to consider one of them.

At the beginning of Vayakhel, the Israelites are commanded to work for six days, and rest completely on Shabbat.  Immediately thereafter the command is given to “work” on the Mishkan (Tabernacle).  From this we learn that even work that is completely dedicated to Gd does not override Shabbat.  Somehow Shabbat is primary and the Mishkan is secondary.  Our Sages give many reasons for this; I’d like to explore one avenue.

As we mentioned last week, Shabbat represents holiness in time, while the Mishkan represents holiness in space.  In Relativity theory, of course, space and time are linked into a greater wholeness.  However there is an aspect of time that differs fundamentally from space.  Space possesses symmetry.  No matter in which direction we look, space is uniform.  There may be objects embedded within space, but the space itself is uniform.  The laws of nature do not distinguish any particular direction in space.  Up is different from down because the earth is below us, not because of any fundamental difference in directions.

Time is different.  We have to consider time on two levels – microscopic and macroscopic.  On the microscopic level of individual particles and their interactions, the laws of nature are symmetrical with respect to time reversal.  If we had a movie of the interactions of all the particles in a gas, for example, it would look the same played forwards or backwards.  On the macroscopic level however, time has a definite direction.  We get older (sigh) and not younger, even with plastic surgery.  Foods left out spoil, they don’t improve (except maybe trifle).  In general, we see a trend towards mixing and disorder, and not the other way around.  The reason for this discrepancy is that we do not perceive on the microscopic level.  On the microscopic level the system is simply moving among an extremely large number of configurations, all of which look more or less the same on the macroscopic level.  The overwhelming majority of these states correspond to disorder; only a tiny minority of them correspond to any kind of human-perceptible, macroscopic order.  Consequently, if a system is in an orderly state, it is extremely likely it will change into a disorderly state.  If it starts in a disorderly state, the probability that it will move into an orderly state is vanishingly small.  This tendency towards macroscopic disorder is called the law of Entropy.  (Note that this law applies to closed systems, that is, systems that do not interact with their environments.  The incredible order that we see in nature is a result of the fact that these orderly systems are open systems, constantly exchanging energy and materials with their environments.)

When Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they introduced mixing (of Good and Evil) into their natures, and indeed into Creation as a whole.  Gd tells Adam that “on the day you eat of it you shall surely die,” and that is exactly what happens.  Once entropy is introduced to the world, death is inevitable.  It is the duty of all of Adam’s descendents, and particularly the Jews, to rectify Adam’s sin and sort out (i.e. un-mix) Good and Evil, and thereby to overcome death.  When Israel declared at Mt. Sinai “we will do and we will hear,” our Sages tell us that they had actually returned the world to its unmixed state prior to Adam’s sin.  However this return was clearly unstable, because 40 days later they were dancing around the golden calf and we were, it seemed, back to square one.

The purpose of the Mishkan was to provide a physical structure by which the law of entropy might be reversed.  The rituals performed there [which we are introduced to in the next Book, Vayikra (Leviticus)] are designed to unmix good and evil in ways that we don’t understand.  But I think the point Torah is making here is that prior to any kind of rectification on the level of space, we must first have rectification in Time.  Mixing is basically a temporal phenomenon, and it is in the area of restoring symmetry in time that we have our primary work.  Thus Shabbat takes precedence over the Mishkan.

We spend most of our time in the world of mixture, trying with all our energy to create a pocket of order in which we can enjoy some peace and serenity.  Perhaps Torah is telling us that our efforts will be futile unless we first create for ourselves a pocket of order in Time!