Minutes of Torah
This week we are approaching Shavuot in the holiday cycle, when we symbolically arrive and stand at Mt. Sinai with past and future generations to receive Torah. In the Torah reading cycle, this week we begin the Book of Bamidbar/Numbers, which opens with the Israelites organizing and preparing to leave Mt. Sinai and embarking on an extended journey through the Wilderness to the Land of Israel.
The Torah narrative resumes at the beginning of the second year after the Israelites have left Egypt. Over the course of this first year of freedom, the Israelites have crossed the Sea of Reeds, hiked to Mt. Sinai, received the Ten Commandments, built and worshipped the Golden Calf, constructed and dedicated the Mishkan/Tabernacle, and installed the priests who will officiate over the sacrificial service there. It is time to move on from Sinai; the question is how they were to do so.
In Bamidbar, the narrative opens with Moses organizing the people by clan and tribe symmetrically around the Mishkan. Essentially, the Israelites are to create a marching formation of individuals organized by tribe, with three tribes situated on each of the four sides (north, south, east and west) surrounding the Mishkan. Hence, the Mishkan was always to be in the center of the ensuing march through the Wilderness.
The rabbis teach that the Israelites’ construction of the Mishkan parallels God’s creation of the world. Hence, this process of building sacred space presents a powerful metaphor expressing the human ability to develop their capacity to imitate God’s creative power — as well as the related obligation to direct this power towards sacred ends. In constructing the Mishkan, the Israelites learn to imitate the Divine by working collectively and collaboratively towards a shared sacred goal.
Here, the orderly grouping of the people around the Mishkan extends the metaphor further: the community itself, organized around its sacred Mishkan, now becomes the metaphor for the Divine Presence.
You may recall that in Exodus, God instructs Moses to “tell the children of Israel to build me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them.” Now, as this process moves towards completion, God dwells in the midst of a community which has not only built the Mishkan, but which is prepared to act in harmony with the sacred ideals and values it embodies.
The medieval Jewish poet and philosopher Yehudah HaLevi — the author of the seminal work, the Kuzari – interpreted this description as the organization of the Israelite camp, with the Mishkan being the heart, and the community of Israel organized around it representing the body. HaLevi’s metaphor underscores his view that the systemic organization of the people around the Mishkan expresses the interdependence of the people and the spiritual values of the Mishkan, at the center of which rests the ark holding the tablets.
Thus, the ordering of the individuals, clans, and tribes, as well as their equidistant placement encircling the Mishkan, indicates an intent to infuse the entire march through the Wilderness with a sacred value.
Our body can thus represent the camp of the Israelites. Our heart — the metaphorical center of the body — is our personal Mishkan, containing within it both the whole, unbroken second set of tablets Moses received on Mount Sinai, as well as the broken set he shattered at the foot of the mountain. Thus, by empowering the body with the ability to carry out the mission articulated by the personal Mishkan in our hearts, we can infuse all our actions with a sacred purpose.
In this week of parashat Bamidbar and Shavuot, we immerse ourselves in both the holiday and the Torah reading cycles, simultaneously arriving at and taking leave of Mt. Sinai. And if we can place the metaphorical Mishkan at our ‘center’, i.e., in our hearts, our highest aspirations and ideals for ourselves and each other can be achieved, directing our hearts, and derivatively, our minds, to live in accord with our Creator’s intention.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!