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Parashat Tetzaveh 5776 — 02/20/2016

Parashat Tetzaveh 5776 — 02/20/2016

In honor of Joseph’s 35th birthday

Shemot 27:20-30:10

In a normal (non-leap) year, Tetzaveh is usually read right before Purim. (This year is a leap year, with an extra Adar, so Purim is another month down the road.) There is an interesting connection between this parashah and Megillat Esther – Tetzaveh is the only parashah from the birth of Moshe Rabbeinu to his death at the end of the Torah in which he is not mentioned explicitly. And Megillat Esther is the only book in the Bible in which Gd is not mentioned. Indeed, the name Esther (possible from the name of the goddess Astarte?) is related by Rabbinic exegesis to the root s-t-r, which means “to hide.” The entire Purim miracle is a hidden one; Gd operates behind the scenes, as it were. Of course, this is how Gd generally operates – through the normal laws of nature. Ramban, in fact, holds that it is heresy if a Jew does not believe that everything that happens in the world, happens because Hashem decrees it to happen that way; He may just choose to make it happen that way using the laws of nature. In the cosmic game of hide-and-seek, Gd is hiding and we’re all “it.”

The commentators wonder why the construction of the Mishkan and its vessels, and the priestly vestments, and the whole sacrifical ritual are spelled out in such painstaking detail in the Torah. Here is R. Steinsaltz’ take:

The Tabernacle is a type of instrument whose function is to connect the earth with heaven. To succeed in this task, it has to function properly, without mishaps. This instrument’s only test is whether it really works. If it was assembled incorrectly, even if the error was only in the minutest detail, it does not matter if one had the best intentions when assembling it – it will not work; it will simply malfunction.

R. Steinsaltz goes on to compare the construction of the Tabernacle to the construction of a spaceship. Everything has to be perfect or the results can be lethal (if there’s a human occupant). Every step of the design has to be reviewed over and over, in isolation and in relation to the other pieces of the craft with which it has to interact. The news feeds almost gleefully trumpet every failure and emphasize how the tiniest error in the manufacture or the programming caused all this loss.

There is a debate in the Talmud about whether absolute precision is possible (efshar l’tzamtzem). The question is if, for example, we are told to make the Ark 1½ cubits in one dimension, does that mean precisely 1½ cubits or does it mean 1½ cubits ± 1 mm, or ± 0.01 mm? This can be a question in time as well: (see Bechorot 17-18) if a kosher animal’s first birth is to twin males, and the heads come out at exactly the same time, which is considered the “firstborn”? R. Yosi haGelili says, “Both,” because it is possible for them to emerge exactly at the same moment. The Sages say that it is a matter of doubt, because such a situation is impossible. In the first case, the argument is whether human beings can be absolutely precise. In the second case, it appears that the argument is whether Gd Himself can be absolutely precise.

The Torah hints at this lack of precision in Parashat Bo. Moshe Rabbeinu tells Pharaoh that “about midnight” Gd will slay all the firstborn. The commentators ask: Why “about” midnight? Can’t Gd tell exactly when it’s midnight? They answer that certainly Gd can tell, but if Pharaoh’s astrologers miscalculated, they would call Moshe a liar! (This is a pretty incredible statement in and of itself, that in the panic of the mass dying, people would quibble with Moshe about a few minutes one way or the other, and not even countenance the suggestion that maybe the error was on their side!) Obviously, human error is always a possibility. Humans are limited, physical creatures and as we all know, perfection is well-nigh impossible.

From the side of physics, the problem goes even deeper than that. The famous Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle says that it is fundamentally impossible to pin down the exact state of a system with absolute precision. The more closely we try to locate a particle in space, the less we know about its velocity (actually its momentum). Similarly, the more closely we try to locate an event in time, the less certain we can be about the energy associated with that event. The relationship is inverse in each case. These are absolute theoretical limits and do not depend on the kind of instruments we use to make the measurements.

The basic reason behind the Uncertainty Principle is this: we consider things to be discrete particles, and ask to define their position and momentum. But in reality, discrete particles are not isolated individual things at all – they are waves, and waves are inherently not localized. In other words, the reason we cannot be absolutely precise is that we are approaching the question with the wrong conception of nature. Nature is inherently not m’tzumtzam in a classical sense, because the classical sense is, in fact, not an appropriate template for nature.

Now where does that leave us with regard to the Mishkan? As R. Steinsaltz states, the purpose of the Mishkan is to connect Heaven and earth. Heaven is the realm of perfection, where everything is absolutely precise. The earth, on the other hand, is a world of uncertainty, of doubt, of striving for perfection. Clearly, the physical structure of the Mishkan cannot necessarily be relied upon to provide the precision needed to make the connection, at least not a perfect connection. R. Steinsaltz states that our intentions do not make up for errors in the construction, and of course when we consider things on a purely material basis, this is true – if we jump off a cliff we are going to fall, no matter what our intentions were when jumping, or how pure a life we’ve lived. Physically, we are subject to the laws of nature.

Of course, there is another aspect to a human being, viz. the soul, which is a piece of Divinity, breathed into our material form by Gd, the paragon of perfection. Our soul can indeed perfect itself; indeed, that is the goal of our life and all the instructions for living that life that we get from our tradition. In particular, this was one of the goals of the Mishkan and the services that took place within it. I’d like to speculate that the reason the Mishkan was successful, despite the inherent limitations of the physical world, is precisely because it was used with the intention of taking the souls of the Jewish people and perfecting them. When that intentionality waned, and the services became empty rituals, the Temple was indeed destroyed.

There is a Midrash that states that had Moshe Rabbeinu been allowed to lead the nation into the Land of Israel, he would have built the Temple immediately, and it would have been such a perfect structure that it would never have been destroyed. The downside, according to the Midrash, is that when the purity of consciousness of the people declined, the people would have been destroyed instead of the Temple. What does this mean? Perhaps one way to look at this is that the Temple/Mishkan provides a pipeline by which Gd’s energy is delivered to the Jewish people, and by extension, to the world. But the Jewish people have to be a fitting receptacle for this energy. If we are not, we will be overcome by it, as were Nadav and Avihu (in parashat Shemini). If the Temple were too perfect a conduit, then in our lowered state of receptivity we would have been overwhelmed and destroyed by Gd’s Revelation. Instead, the Temple was imperfect enough that it got overwhelmed; with the conduit gone, the flow of Divine energy slowed to a point where the people could survive.

I think the bottom line for us is this: if we seriously want the Temple back, if we seriously want a real, living connection with Gd, we need to work on perfecting ourselves. Without that, Gd will have no choice but to continue “hiding His Face” in order not to destroy us!

Haftarah: Yechezkel 43:10-27

You, ben Adam! Tell the House of Israel of the Temple and let them be ashamed of their sins; and measure the design. (43:10)

Part of the prophecy of Yechezkel has to do with the construction of the Temple (Yechezkel prophesied partly in Babylonia after the destruction of the Temple). In some cases, these prophecies appear to contradict the instructions in the Torah, which is of course discussed extensively by the commentators, and which I won’t go into here. This verse, the opening verse of our Haftarah, juxtaposes the sins of the people and the “measure” and the “design” of the Temple. Why is this? From our discussion of the parashah, I think we can see why. The fewer the sins, the more our perception is congruent with the underlying reality beneath the surface value of things. We can design and measure better, and we can create a more perfect instrument for infusing Divinity into worldly existence, if we are first “ashamed of our sins” and do something so that we sin no more.