Skip to content

Parashat BeMidbar 5773 — 05/08/2013

Parashat BeMidbar 5773 — 05/08/2013

When the camp is to journey, Aharon and his sons shall come and take down the Partition-curtain and cover the Ark of the Testimony with it. … Do not let the tribe of the Kohathite families be cut off from among the Levites.  Thus shall you do for them so that they shall live and not die: when they approach the Holy of Holies, Aharon and his sons shall come and assign them, every man to his work and his burden.  But they shall not come and look as the holy is inserted, lest they die. (4:5 ff) (Artscroll translation)

When King David had solidified his throne, he turned his attention to building the Temple (which his son, King Solomon, actually built).  His stated motivation was that he was living in a palace made of cedars, while Gd’s was living just behind some curtains (see the end of II Samuel).  In the desert of course, everyone was living in tents.  What happens to the house when you strike the tent?  What happens to the Holy of Holies when the Tent of Meeting was struck?

We can begin answering this question with another question: What happens to your lap when you stand up?!  The answer to our question is “a lap is not a thing.”  Our lap is a structure or a configuration of our body that exists when we are sitting.  It doesn’t exist when we stand up.  But it is not a “thing” that has mass and extent and that somehow is visible at some times and invisible at others.  Similarly, a tent is a structure of canvas or skin or some other material that encloses a space.  We look at the material and say, “that’s a tent,” but on another level, the space enclosed by the material is actually the tent – it’s the space in which the inhabitants carry out all the activities of their lives and which they call home.  The same is true for a house of cedar (or wood and sheetrock) of course, but the structure is more permanent than a tent and we tend to identify the house more with the structure than the space within.

I think we can extend the analogy to individual human life as well.  One of the Chasidic Rebbes said, “Don’t say you have a soul.  You are a soul.  You have a body.” (When I googled for the quote it was attributed, many say falsely, to CS Lewis.)  Now the soul is a “piece of Divinity” at the deepest level of our personality.  It is infinite, without boundaries (ayn sof).  Since it has no boundaries, it is no-thing, but it is not nothing.  Since it is no-thing, it must have something surrounding it in order for it to interact with the material world.  That surrounding is our body.  Our body is like the canvas of a tent, while our soul is like the space within it.  When we see someone, what we are seeing is their body, the superficial, bounding aspect of their personality.  What we don’t see, unless our gaze is very penetrating indeed, is the inside of the tent, the space in which life takes place.  Perhaps it is significant that Gd “blew” into Adam “the breath of life.”  It is as if Adam were a deflated balloon, purely material, and the Gd “inflated” him so to speak, creating a sacred space within his physical existence where his inner life would play out.

On the cosmic level as well, we find a similar structure.  The physical world is like the shell around the transcendent, infinite inner reality that gives rise to it.  In the language of our Sages, Gd “clothes” himself in the creation, or sets up the creation as curtains around His inner circle, as the Psalmist sings (Ps 104) You have donned majesty and splendor, wrapping with light as with a garment, spreading the Heavens as a curtain.  And this structure is mirrored in the structure of the Mishkan / Tabernacle and later in the structure of the Temple.  The curtains and the walls enclose a space which is where Gd “dwells” as it were, and, when we were worthy of it, from where Gd spoke with us and guided us along our way.  Significantly, even during those times when the Ark of the Covenant was in the holy space, it (miraculously) took up no space itself (you can’t make the dimensions work out otherwise).  In other words, the Ark, which contained the two tablets of stone upon which Gd wrote the Torah, somehow exist within that space that represents infinity, but are either swallowed up in it or has merged with it so that there is no break in the infinite of the Holy of Holies.

The Hebrew word for a space within some structure is chalal.  There is another kind of space that is referred to by this root.  In the expression chillul haShem / Desecration of the Name [of Gd], the chillul has the connotation of empty.  However it is the emptiness of inertia, an emptiness from which the holiness has been drained, an emptiness in which Gd has become estranged, irrelevant, meaningless.  We are commanded to give up our lives if need be to prevent chillul haShem, for what is life worth if it is empty and devoid of meaning?  This is not life, it is just inertia, the inertness of a corpse, the ultimate source of impurity.

Our growth as human beings is first to become more and more aware of the “space” within ourselves, the infinite basis of our own existence at the depths of our minds, and then to begin to see through the forms and phenomena of the world outside ourselves, until we are able to sense the infinite basis of their existence, and see that it is one with our own.  Then we will live in a space suffused with holiness, bathed in the light of Gd.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 6

Mishnah 11

Everything the Holy One, Blessed is He, created in His world, He created only for His glory, as it says: Everything that is called by My Name, for My glory I created it, I formed it, indeed, I made it (Is 43:7) and Hashem will be king forever (Ex 15:18).

R. Lau associates the four expressions in the text from Isaiah: My Name, I created (barati), I formed (yatzarti), I made (asiti) with the “four worlds” that the Kabbalists identify as the concentric structure of creation.  These four worlds are atzilut – the highest world (the word has the connotation of nearness – i.e. to Gd, and also of nobility), beri’ah – creation (i.e. ex nihilo), yetzirah – formation (of already-existing material) and asiya – acting, doing, i.e. the material world in which we live.  R. Lau explains that Gd is so exalted that we can have no comprehension of Him at all, except that He clothes himself in first, His Names, that is, the modes by which He interacts with His creation, and then in the different layers of activity from the finest and most subtle to the grossest material.  Gd thus sits in the center of a layered structure, one within the other.  Although human beings have bodies, which exist in the outermost layer, we also have souls, which are able to penetrate through all the layers of creation and can experience the Holy of Holies, the sacred space at the center of creation.  Such a person reflect Gd’s Glory in its perfection, and is rewarded with bliss eternal.

A joyous Shavuot to all!