Parshat Vayakhel: “And they shall make for Me a sanctuary and I shall dwell in their midst”

“And they shall make for Me a sanctuary and I shall dwell in their midst”

Rabbi Daniel Epstein teaches philosophy and Jewish thought at  Midreshet Lindenbaum

We are approaching the end of the Book of Shemot, the book of revelation.  In the arid vastness of the desert, a place devoid of civil glamor, a place untouched by the commotion of the city – Moshe ascends the mountain, and enters the cloud of fog to receive the Tablets of the Law, inscribed by the Divine hand.  Such is the Torah’s recount of man’s encounter with God; when the mortal body of man, created from the earth and infused with a Divine soul, meets the Almighty, upon which no mortal has ever set eyes. 

Moshe emerges from the cloud of fog bearing the Tablets, upon which are inscribed the Ten Commandments, later to be translated into laws and statutes explicated and elaborated upon in the Shulchan Aruch.  This Divine revelation, which no human can even glimpse without becoming blinded, is manifest in the “ordinances which you shall set before them”.  These laws and ordinances are the human reflection of the Divine.  Perhaps this is the meaning of the words in Devarim (5, 4):  “The Lord spoke with you panim be’fanim in the mount out of the midst of the fire.”

The Torah chooses its phrasing with precision: panim be’fanim [literally: “face inside a face”] and not panim el panim [“face to face”].  The words seem to convey that in every person’s face there is also an inner face, hidden within but reflected outwards – much like the letters inscribed upon the Tablets.  The story of the revelation, which transpired as a face-to-face encounter – “as a man speaks unto his friend” – is, in fact, a story about mankind, whose existence takes place on the axis between the revealed and the hidden; the immanent and the transcendental. 

We live in a reality in which the word mikdash, mishkan and shechinah are reminiscent of the distant past.  We utter these words in our prayers; however, the endless repetition of these words makes us none the wiser as to their meaning.  Our own lives are like a stage, where everything is exposed.  A stage – and not a mikdash, a sanctuary. 

In today’s reality, the trendiest word is “transparency“, and even the innermost chambers of our hearts have been unable to evade it.  In our present times, everything must be transparent, put out on display for all to see.  Literally everything: body, soul and life itself. 

If so, how could we possibly understand a story about a Divine revelation that takes place within a cloud of fog?  Or identify with a prophet who hides his face?  Or grasp the concept of a mishkan that is completely covered in cloth curtains and divided into sections separated by partitions?  Or that behind the curtain that separates the Kodesh – the Inner Sanctuary – from the Kodesh HaKodashim – Holy of Holies – there dwells the Holy Ark, which lies beneath the kaporet, a golden covering that hides the Tablets of the Law from the eyes of all humans?

And into this innermost sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, the Kohen Gadol enters once a year, enveloped by a cloud of incense.

These days, funnily enough, the word cloud evokes another image altogether – the virtual space where all our digital information is stored.  The cloud has transformed from a means of bringing one closer to the Divine secret, into a data-storing entity.  In much the same way that the virtual data-cloud is constantly under threat by hackers, near is the day when the secret of the Divine cloud will be subject to attempts of penetration.  An ever-growing chasm seems to be forming between the reality described by the Torah, and the reality in which we live.  Our role is to deal with this disparity, and for this purpose we turn to the commentary offered by the great exegetes of the Torah, who understood well that this discrepancy is hardly new – it has been there since the revelation at Mount Sinai. 

So where do we begin?  From the verses we do not understand? I suggest we begin with the reality in which we live, one disguised by “normalcy”, and, seemingly, the only one which exists. 

In 2013, a Korean-born German philosopher by the name of Byung-Chul Han, wrote a manifesto titled The Transparency Society.  This is the summary given on the book’s back cover:

“Transparency is the order of the day, and from now on will frame every aspect of our lives – from the public domain to the individual; from the political to the intimate.  In this straitjacket of sorts, all things are refined and integrated, without an ounce of opposition; dissolving into the streams of communication, disrobed of their uniqueness.  Like produce in the market, everything is put on display, labeled by its price, robbed of its story.  All objects are rendered meaningless; faces become void of expression; time is divided into molecules.  We find ourselves in the “hell of homogeneity”, in which news is constantly produced, yet never able to fill the infinite void in which we are encaged – from which the only escape is to click Accept and Like

The society of transparency, which cannot tolerate breaches of any kind, challenges us with the following choice: to be seen or to be a suspect.  Can one escape this society of absolute supervision?”

The book’s main thesis is that the transparency society is one that believes in absolute positiveness, and, as such, dismantles anything it considers negative.  However, “man’s soul requires spaces where it can be completely alone with itself, observed by no one.  The soul assumes it is impenetrable.  Complete exposure would burn it to nothingness, and lead to a soul burn-out.  Only machines are completely transparent.  True spontaneity, unfiltered experience and complete freedom – all of which are the makeup of our lives – cannot tolerate transparency.”

The author goes on to cite W. von Humboldt, who wrote:

“When one hears a word, one never thinks of it in the exact manner another would. This minute difference has a ripple effect, and spreads beyond language itself.  It follows then that every understanding is also a misunderstanding; every compatibility of thought is always, by nature, a separation.”

Complete exposure is a falsity: it may promise closeness and wholeness, but it actually produces alienation and emptiness.  Instead of satisfying people’s passion, it stimulates it infinitely.  There is one secret that must never be exposed – the secret of individuality. 

Byung-Chul Han’s book ends with a statement which correlates with the opening word of our parsha – vayakhel [“and he assembled”]:

“In the transparency society, there are no communities, in the empathetic sense of the word.  There are only random gatherings, or masses of isolated individuals; multiple egos chasing a common interest or brand communities, which cluster around a specific brand.  They are distinct from assemblies that are capable of collaborating politically or otherwise, and creating a collective “we”.  They lack the spirit.”

This is an important statement about the concept of congregation.  In our portion of Vayakhel, the congregation first assembles at the bottom of the mountain and later around the mishkan.  The people were prohibited from ascending the mountain, and they only had limited access to the mishkan, the part beyond the parochet being off limits.

The Sefat Emet (R’ Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter) draws our attention to the proximity between the end of the portion of Ki-Tisa and the beginning of Vayakhel.  The last verses in Ki-Tisa relate Moshe’s descent from the mountain with the second Tablets, and tell us how he was compelled to cover his face with a veil because his face radiated with a light that the people couldn’t bear to look upon.

And thus writes the Sefat Emet:  “As to the veil which is mentioned right before ‘And Moshe assembled the congregation’ – vayakhel – and the mitzvah of Shabbat… this teaches us that on the Sabbath, Moshe Rabeinu gives the Children of Israel the ornaments that had been taken from them [following the sin of the calf], because Moshe Rabeinu’s strength is notable on the holy day of the Sabbath more than on any other day.  On all the days of the week the light of the Torah is manifest through the veil of Creation.  However, on the Sabbath, the light of the Torah is revealed unfiltered.”

The mishkan envelopes and conceals the Holy of Holies – dwelling place of the Holy Ark – much like Nature camouflages the Ten Utterances with which the world was created; or human skin conceals the inner light found in the soul and found, too, in language and expression.

On the Sabbath, when we extinguish the flame of labor and put out the fire of disputes, something of the hidden light that connects mortals and their Creator is revealed; God and man can sit at the same table, and mortal eyes are not consumed by the Divine fire.  As it is written quite plainly in our portion:

“You shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations on the Sabbath day.”

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