Tuesday, January 27, 2009


This week’s Torah portion is one of those tedious recountings of long lists of things, in this case the materials that were gathered together to build the Mishkan – the tabernacle or sanctuary. Oddly, though, it begins with Moses repeating the commandment that Shabbat is to be kept as a holy day. This odd introduction is usually taken to mean that Moses was reminding the people that nothing, not even the construction of the Mishkan, was holier than Shabbat – that the rules of Shabbat observance have primacy over almost everything else.

Part of the fun of Torah study is assuming that nothing in the Torah is there by accident, that it all means something. One interpretation of the reiteration of the laws of Shabbat at this point is the idea that the end of any activity or cycle is a time to stop and take stock. This parsha comes at the end of a bad period – Moses has been up on the mountain receiving the Law for a second time – after the first time, when he descended with the Tablets of the Law, he found the people had made and were worshipping a golden calf, and in a fit of rage he smashed the first set of tablets. He then went back up and got the second set, and again descended on the day that would from then on be observed as Yom Kippur, and immediately called the people together to give them the instructions for building the Mishkan.

So at the end of this bad period, Moses repeats the laws of Shabbat. Shabbat is rooted in God’s creation of the world, so one interpretation of this is that the end of any cycle is an imitation of God’s creation of the world and a time to stop and take stock as we do on Shabbat as we look back at the week that just ended. Similarly on Yom Kippur we take stock of the year and the last day of each month, the day before Rosh Chodesh, is called Yom Kippur katan – little Yom Kippur for the same reason. We have the concept of a cheshbon hanefesh – an accounting of the soul – only by keeping track can we really know what we have done and have a chance to change what we wish to change. The rabbis say that if you want to, say, stop gossiping, if you make a note of each time you gossip, in about 80 days you will be a different person – one who does not gossip.

This is also, and I think not coincidentally, the last reading of the Book of Exodus – again a time to take stock. In Exodus we had the entire cycle of the Egyptian captivity from Joseph through Moses and at the end of Exodus we are on our own, in the desert, we have received the Torah, and the people give their possessions to build the Mishkan. It’s interesting to note that this was a voluntary subscription – God does not require that we give anything to God, though later in Leviticus we learn that giving to the poor is not voluntary, it is required. Still people give gold, silver, fine cloth and all they can to build the Mishkan. In Hebrew, Mishkan means a place to live, a dwelling place. In the Book of Numbers, Balaam, a priest of Baal, is called on to curse Israel and when he looks over the Hebrew camp he says “Ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael!” How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, mishkenotecha – your mishkans – your dwelling places – O Israel!” The term Mishkan has come to mean tabernacle because it is used in the Torah to refer to the tabernacle, but its real meaning is a dwelling place. The rabbis tell two stories about this:

A king gave his daughter in marriage to a prince of another land. As the newlyweds were about to leave for their new home the king said to them “I can’t bear to part with you, and I can’t ask you to stay here, so in your new home would you please make a small place for me to stay when I can come there?” Similarly God could not bear to part completely with the Torah and could not keep it, so he asked the people to make a place for him to live among them.

The other story is that, after the sin of the Golden Calf, God could not bear to stay with the people but could not let them go completely, and so asked the same thing.

So whether God’s wish for a dwelling place with the Jewish people was out of his love for us or as punishment for our transgression, we made a place for God to live, and the Torah tells us how this was constructed and decorated down to the finest detail along with telling us in equal detail how affairs were to be conducted there. Why all the detail, particularly when much of it repeats things that have been told earlier in the Torah?

I think the answer lies in the idea of cheshbon hanefesh – in taking account of our actions and keeping track of what we do, think, and say in just the kind of detail with which we are told the plans for the Mishkan. It’s a kind of Zen notion of imbuing every action, every thought, everything that we say with purpose just as, in creating the world, God reviewed everything he created and “saw that it was good.” If the Mishkan is where God dwells with us, then our nefesh, our soul, is where God lives within us. If our soul is God within us, then every action we take, every thought we think, every word we say could be seen as Godly acting, thinking, and speaking, creating our world. That’s not so farfetched, really. Did you ever notice how when you get up and think it’s going to be a really lousy day it usually is? Or when you expect to have an argument you usually do?

We’ve known for a long time that parts of our brains are extremely sensitive detectors of threat in our environment – so sensitive in fact that a lot of the time we “detect” threat that isn’t even there and react to it as if it was. Well it turns out that our brains are also wired up in a way that both senses and affects others very directly. Turns out there are these things called mirror neurons that sense what others are feeling, their mood, etc., and then affect in turn how we act, perceive, etc. Take those two interesting neuropsychological facts together and you go a long ways toward the idea that if we don’t exactly create reality, we definitely color it, and how we color it has a great effect on our lives.

So try an experiment – this week, just give some thought to the idea that your thoughts, actions, and speaking are not just random or reactions to what is outside you, and might just be that inner voice of God thinking, speaking and acting through you, then next Shabbat look back and see if that small cheshbon hanefesh affected you at all.

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