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Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5773 — 03/06/2013

Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5773 — 03/06/2013

And Moshe saw all the work and behold – they did it exactly as Hashem had commanded Moshe, and Moshe blessed them. (39:43)

And Gd saw all that He had done and behold it was very good… (Bereishit 1:31)

And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Glory of Hashem filled the Mishkan.  And Moshe was not able to come into the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud dwelt above the Mishkan, and the Glory of Hashem filled the Mishkan … for Hashem’s Cloud was on the Mishkan during the day, and fire was there at night in the sight of all Israel, in all their travels. (40:34-5, 38)

But when they came to Mt. Sinai and built the Mishkan and the Holy One, blessed is He, restored His Shechinah to them, [only] then did they return to the level of the Patriarchs … and [only] at that point could they be considered “redeemed.” (Ramban, introduction to Sefer Shemot)

As we discussed a few weeks ago, Ramban is of the opinion that the Tabernacle and the Divine Service that took place in it was not a “Plan B” response to the sin of the golden calf.  Rather it was the very culmination of the Exodus, recreating and making permanent the experience of the Revelation at Mt. Sinai, and allowing the entire nation to return to the level of the Patriarchs, and indeed, to the level of Adam before he ate of the Tree of Knowledge.  Hence, Moshe’s erecting the Mishkan at the end of Sefer Shemot, and Gd’s allowing his Presence to fill the Tabernacle, as it must have filled the entire world before Adam forced it to retreat, marks an endpoint and a culmination of the process begun at the dawn of creation.

Of course, as we know all too well, the re-created experience of Revelation did not last any more permanently than the original did.  It took a longer time, some 800+ years as opposed to 40 days, but the First Temple was destroyed specifically because the nation could not sustain the same high level of Gd-consciousness as they experienced during the peak experiences at Mt. Sinai and at the inauguration of the Mishkan.  The same held true for the Second Temple.  In each case the failure to maintain individual and collective activity centered around Gd, around Unity, around pure Being resulted in exile – moving away from a situation that was supposed to have supported such a centering, but which had, in fact, become an empty shell, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

This is a very frustrating situation!  We feel the frustration of doing our best, yet falling short of what we want to accomplish – what we feel we should be able to accomplish.  (I am writing this two days after the Presidential election; one can see the frustration on the faces of the side that lost, but one can equally see it in the one who assumes office, as his ideas and plans confront the political, social and economic reality.)  Apparently Gd too, as it were, feels a similar kind of frustration – our Sages tell us that when Israel goes into exile, so does Gd’s Presence, as the Psalmist says “I am with him in distress” (Psalm 91).  The question is, there must be a reason why Gd designed the universe this way.  What is the reason?

I don’t know if it’s possible to understand the reason completely.  The question is related to the question “Why bad things happen to good people” (Tzaddik v’ra’ lo) and our tradition tells us this is exactly the question Moshe Rabbeinu had asked when he was told “no human being can see My Face and live.”  Yet the answer to this question is really what can give meaning to all the negative experiences we encounter in life.  So even if it is impossible to reach a conclusion while still inhabiting a finite body, it is imperative to try to reach some understanding.  Perhaps some of the models of the relationship between the infinite and finite that we have been considering over the past few weeks can give us a glimpse.

Our tradition tells us that the ultimate purpose of creation is the emergence of a finite creature that recognizes the infinite Creator.  This creature of course is the human being.  As we have said on a number of occasions, the very act of creation of finite creatures requires that they be separate in some way from the infinite.  Once separate, the finite can grow and evolve, reflecting more and more the structure of the infinite.  In the case of human beings, on the individual level this growth is manifested in the growth of our awareness until we are able to maintain an awareness of our Self as part of the infinite basis of all life, along with our everyday awareness of the people and objects in our environment.  In our communal life, when Israel as a people is settled in its Land and living life according to Gd’s Will as expressed in Torah, then Gd’s infinity will be manifest in the ideal structure of society.

The flip side of this of course is that separation from the infinite leaves the finite without attachment to its basis.  We experience this in our individual lives as anxiety, greed, etc. – trying to find stability in the changing world, where there is only relative stability.  Ideally, the discomfort of being detached from our infinite basis forces us to seek a way to reconnect with the infinite.  We know from experience that in fact the result is sometimes quite the opposite – we fall into counter-productive behaviors that preclude us from any such reconnection, and which cause harm to others and to the environment.  This is apparently what happened in the incident of the golden calf.  When Moshe Rabbeinu was “late” coming down, the people’s connection to Gd was severed (so they thought) and they went madly casting about for some substitute.  After 39+ days without their leader physically present, they turned away from the infinite and towards the finite, with disastrous consequences.  Frustrating for them, frustrating for Gd.  Nonetheless, Gd forgives and the people move on to build the Mishkan.  The result is that the bond between the people and Gd is stronger than it was before, as we discussed last week (Parashat Ki Tisa).

The model described here is what I called the “helix model” – a model in which we have a circular motion superimposed upon a linear trend.  The cyclical part is the process of differentiation of the finite from the infinite followed by reintegration of the finite into the infinite, or perhaps into a perfect relationship with the infinite.  Since there is now a relationship between the “parts” (if the infinite can be considered a “part” of something), a greater wholeness is created so to speak.  It is this growing value of wholeness after cycles of separation and reintegration that gives the helix its linear, upward motion.

What is the end of this helix?  I don’t know if there is an end or not.  According to Jewish tradition history will come to an end with the advent of Mashiach (the Messiah).  Although there are different descriptions of the details in the traditional sources (which in any event are generally – and purposely – cryptic), the consensus is that an ideal society of ideal individuals will be created, in which life is lived in full awareness of Gd and ordered in accord with Gd’s Will.  Whether the course of Jewish history from the creation of Adam to the advent of Mashiach runs the full gamut of possibilities, or is one cycle in a larger set of cycles I don’t know.  Since the infinite has no boundaries to its growth, perhaps the helix goes on to, well, infinity.  We close Sefer Shemot at the triumphant completion of one of the great cycles of history.  In Ramban’s words, the people had come full cycle and stood, once again, at the same level as the Patriarchs.  As we continue in our yearly cycle of reading we find further separations and further returns.  Now, thousands of years later, we are in a time of hester panim, Gd’s hiding of His Face – perhaps the ultimate in separation where it is as if Gd has completely abandoned His creation.  It is up to us to be the “light unto the nations,” to bring Gd out of hiding and to prepare the way for the next great reintegration.