Tuesday, 16 Mar 2010

Written by Rabbi Sheila Shulman

Judaism is on the whole a religion of the word, the book.  At the same time we are bodily creatures, and Judaism, at its best, celebrates the body, the senses, and the world we know through our senses.  Not only do we celebrate that world, we sanctify it.  So along with the austerity of the word, there is a sensuosness, an immense capacity to create and respond to beauty, an insistence on the wholeness of life;  the spirit is inseparable from the body.  The Song of Songs is also canonized, part of the Bible, and it is not an allegory.  If it is ‘about’ the love of God and Israel, as Akiva said, it is also about the love of lovers caught up in each other’s bodily beauty, and in the beauty of the world.  There is in Judaism a profound sense that ‘the world is charged with the grandeur of God.’  There is also, as we so elaborately see in this parasha, the understanding that it is a human task to create beauty around us.  

In post-biblical Judaism, that sense is often submerged, but never entirely absent.  We have only to look and listen for it, struggling as it does against the austerity of the word, the book, struggling against the split between body and spirit that began to infect Judaism via Greek thought and Christianity, and became a terrible legacy for the whole western world.  But the Torah and the rest of the bible is our root and our ground, and sometimes we stray from it at our peril.  

This week we read—again, still—about the tabernacle, the mishcan, the small, portable ‘dwelling’ for God that Moses was commanded to get the people to build.  If you read the specifications for it, if you have the patience to read all the specifications for it, you will find that they are both precise and lavish.  The mishcan is meant to be beautiful, the materials of it a delight to the eye and the senses.  Think of all that blue and purple and scarlet, the fine linen and precious woods and beaten gold, the precious stones, the oil and sweet incense and spices.  

Now, in this lovely place, God ‘dwells.’  The word for how God ‘dwells’ is shachan, so you can see how the name of the place, mishcan, came about. Shachan is used only with reference to the ‘dwelling’ of God’s presence.  There is another word for the simple, literal dwelling of people, a word never, with the occasional and mystical exception, used of God.  Shachan is one of those radiant, transparent words—they exist in the vocabulary of every religion—which express the central paradox or mystery of that religion.  They are words which mediate between two apparently contradictory ideas.  The Jewish understanding of God is that God is infinite, transcendent, but also that God is present, here, now.  The writers of the bible found the word shachan, and its other forms, mishcan and shekhina, to express that understanding.  The mishcan is the place where the shekhina, which in the bible means simply the presence of God, dwells.  In the midrash, there is a lovely simile for how God dwells.  The mishcan is likened to a cave near the sea.  The sea perpetually fills up the cave, the water in the cave does not diminish, and is not separate from, the sea.

Something else about how God dwells.  The text does not say, ‘I will dwell in it,’ but rather, ‘I will dwell among them.’  That is, the mishcan is a focus, a centre, a point of numinous concentration.  It is not an enclosure.  It does not separate God from the people, but rather makes it possible for God to ‘dwell among them.’

Every so often in Judaism this sense of the numinous, the holy, becomes especially concentrated in an object.  It is not, ever, that the object becomes holy—that would be idolatry—but rather that the object, because of its power as an image, becomes particularly expressive of the holy.  The object acquires a kind of symbolic charge, an energy.  There are not many such objects.  One, of course, is the scroll, but that is a sermon (or five or six) in itself.  Another is the menorah, which we’ve read about today, though only en passant.  The more detailed description of it is elsewhere, but I found such a sweet midrash about it, and it fits so well into what I want to say about the wholeness of beauty in Judaism, that I took the liberty of talking about it here.  

Why has the menorah become so charged?  Well, it is, mysteriously, made out of one piece of pure gold.  Never mind how—even Moses had trouble and, as we learn in a midrash, had to hand it over to an artist because he forgot the instructions.  After Moses forgot the instructions, he ‘betook himself’ to God once more to be shown, but in vain, for hardly had he reached earth when he forgot again.  When he betook himself to God the third time, God took a candlestick of fire and plainly showed him every single detail of it, that he might now be able to reconstruct the candlestick for the tabernacle.  When he still found it hard to form a clear conception of the nature of the candlestick, God quieted him with these words: ‘Go to Bezalel, he will do it right.’ And indeed Bezalel had no difficulty in doing so, and instantly executed Moses’ commission.  Moses cried in amazement: ‘God showed me repeatedly how to make the candlestick, yet I could not properly seize the idea; but you, without having had it shown to you by God, could fashion it out of your own fund of knowledge.  Truly you deserve your name Bezalel (‘in the shadow of God’), for you act as if you had been in the shadow of God while He was showing me the candlestick.’ No wonder William Morris and his fellow artists/craftsmen took Bezalel to their hearts and their theories and their work. But that is by the by.

Clearly this is a very important candlestick, and clearly it is in some connection both with the divine world and with human creative power.  It is all one, yet it branches, it has cups shaped like almond blossoms; it is clearly a tree.  We could see it, perhaps, as the humanly forged counterpart of the eytz chaim, the tree of life that is the Torah, something that points in the same direction, only visually, sensuously.  And perhaps it carries more primitive echoes as well, of the world tree or cosmic tree, with its roots deep in the earth and its crown in heaven.  

The menorah with its seven lights was the original ner tamid, the original eternal light, with the six branched lights facing the seventh central light.  How can we not, looking at it, be set to thinking about the days of creation and the Shabbat, on time and eternity and how they are connected? And then if we think of the light itself, the richness of the imagery can become almost overwhelming.  All over the literature, in the bible, in the midrash, this kind of small living light, even more than the light of the sun, is used as an image of the presence of God’s spirit, the ruach-ha-kodesh.

So the menorah, like the tabernacle and everything in it, is an object of unabashed physical beauty, shapely and harmonious, suggesting the most rooted and solid of trees, yet delicately holding and sustaining a fragile radiance that we must tend perpetually, a radiance that is the sign of God’s loving presence in creation.  Here is the kind of wholeness that goes on living in Judaism, a wholeness that we have to keep attending to, because it will only live as long as we go on seeing it, wanting it, needing it.

Rabbi Sheila Shulman
March 2010


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.