Presence and Space (Vayakhel-P'kudei, March 20th 2020) Mar 20, 2020 21:57:19 GMT
Post by Rabbi Neil on Mar 20, 2020 21:57:19 GMT
“V’lo yachol moshe lavo el ohel mo’ed ki shachan alav he’anan, uch’vod Adonai malei et hamishkan - Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud rested upon it and the glory of the Eternal filled the Tabernacle.” (Ex. 40:35)
Why could Moses not enter the Tent of Meeting just because the glory of God filled the Tabernacle? Was it so full that there wasn’t room for Moses? Could God not have just contracted a little? Such a request might be based in the concept of Tzimtzum which comes from Lurianic Kabbalah. In that world view, before the universe existed God was the Ein Sof, the Unending, Unlimited One. How, then, could a limited universe come into existence? God reduced, or contracted, God’s Essence to allow that which was finite to exist. The act of creation was, therefore, an act of contraction, of tzimtzum, to allow this world to even exist. If God could contract God’s essence there, why not here in the Tabernacle? The difference is in the order of creation – in Lurianic Kabbalah God contracts the Divine essence in order to allow space to exist, but with the Tabernacle the sacred space is created first to allow God’s Presence to dwell within. To then contract the Divine essence in the space that was specifically created to be filled by that very essence wouldn’t really make sense.
But is God bound by physicality? Why couldn’t the Tabernacle have been built a little bigger to allow Moses inside? The point, I believe, is that God would have filled the Tabernacle even if it were twenty times bigger, because the point was for it to have been a space for God to absolutely fill. That also means, conversely, that no matter how small the space, God could fill that space, too. Even when two people sit and discuss words of Torah, our tradition says that God’s Presence rests in between those two individuals. This extraordinary quotation from Pirke Avot (3:7) clearly states that as much as we might find real spiritual value in being in our Temple Sanctuary, we don’t need to be there for God’s Presence to dwell among us. As much as we might find real personal comfort from being together in a minyan, in a community at prayer, we do not have to gather in such numbers to have the Divine Presence rest on us. I find that particularly comforting at this time.
To return to the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, it at first seems that Moses cannot enter because it’s full, but it’s far more nuanced than that. In fact, Moses cannot enter because to do so might kill him. Moses has to keep his distance in order to preserve his own life. (You can probably guess where I’m going with this!). God’s Presence is not a light, fluffy cloud. God being “holy” (Lev. 19:1) is not just God being moral, but God being totally separate, other, distinct. Moses being in the same place as God would suggest parity between the two, but that’s simply not the case. Moses has already been told (Ex. 33:20) that he cannot see God’s face and live. God is so other that it is impossible to stand in God’s presence. We so easily anthropomorphize God into a loving Parent or benevolent Ruler that we forget that the closer we come to approaching God, the closer we come to the boundary of human existence, and therefore the closer we come to human frailty and mortality, to the ultimate undoing of self. The closer we draw to God, according to Jewish tradition, the more our physical and ritual impurities risk our own death. Even Moses could not draw too close. There had to be a…. social distancing…. between God and Moses for Moses to survive. Even so, to draw close, he had to wash his hands to avoid impurity. Listen to the verses that precede God’s descending onto the Tabernacle:
“He placed the washstand between the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and there he put water for washing, and Moses, Aaron, and his sons would wash their hands and their feet from it. When they entered the Tent of Meeting and when they approached the altar they would wash as the Eternal had commanded Moses. He set up a courtyard all around the Tabernacle and the alter, and he put up the screen at the entrance to the courtyard; and Moses completed the work. Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the glory of the Eternal filled the Tabernacle. And Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud rested upon it and the glory of the Eternal filled the Tabernacle.” (Ex. 40:30-35)
There’s a sequence here which is really important. The humans wash, create a physical distance with a courtyard, and only then can God descend, confident that God and Moses will not be drawn completely together in the same space for if they were, it would kill Moses. Even Moses had to keep his distance for fear of harm.
Now, as easy as it is to relate this to the social distancing that we experience today, I cannot end without adding in Martin Buber and his concept of I-Thou. For Buber, most of our everyday experience is what he called I-It, the self and every other who is in and of themselves a discrete, separate self. In very special, rare moments of Divine encounter, the self is absorbed into something greater, an encounter that transcends the self, and we become part of an I-Thou encounter. For most of us, social distancing seems the opposite of an I-Thou encounter because it seems to be the rigid delineation of self and not-self. But that is not the case. When God commanded the Israelites to build the Tabernacle, God did not say that that the people should build it so that God could dwell in it, but so that God could dwell among them (Ex. 25:8). Just as with Rabbi Chalafta ben Dosa’s quotation from Pirke Avot, it’s the actual creation of space that allows God to dwell among us. The physical separation of self from others might even be a necessity for the creation of an I-Thou encounter. We can be in differing houses and connected in our prayer or in our study of Torah and no matter the distance between us, God’s Presence can dwell among us.
With this in mind, let us see the current space between us not as a lack, but as an opportunity to draw God in so that God may dwell among us. Let us not be worried about not being able to come into a physical space dedicated for God’s Presence, but instead be enthused with the potentiality of all space, with the opportunity of bringing God in between all of us, no matter where we may be. May God’s Presence rest upon us not because of where we are but because of who we are, and let us say, Amen.