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Human Constructions and Constrictions

Trumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

"They shall make a sanctuary for Me, so that I may dwell among them. According to what I will show you, after the form of the Tabernacle and the form of all its vessels, and so shall you do." (Exodus 25:8)

The Talmud comments that the end of the verse -- "so shall you do" -- means: "so shall you do through all the generations." (Sanhedrin, 16b)

Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, the renowned student of the Gaon of Vilna, is perplexed by this passage of Talmud. If God issued a commandment to build a Tabernacle through all generations, how is it that we make no attempt to carry out this commandment in each generation? And if the explanation is that it is impossible to carry out, then why does God stress the fact that this is a commandment that is applicable to all generations? If He feels that it's important to carry out this commandment here and now, why does God not arrange matters so that it becomes possible?

Every Jew is a living Tabernacle in miniature.

Rabbi Chaim explains that the answer to the question is offered by the verse itself -- so that I may dwell among them -- which literally means within each and every one of them. The commandment to construct a Tabernacle is primarily a personal commandment; every Jew is "a living tabernacle in miniature." God rests the Shechina, His Divine Presence, primarily in the human heart.

When the Shechina finds a comfortable resting place in the majority of Jewish hearts we have a Tabernacle in the outside world as well. But the Shechina that dwells in this Tabernacle is an emanation of the Divine Presence in Jewish hearts. The connection between man and God is not forged by buildings or objects no matter how holy. Such a connection can only originate in the human soul. The human heart of the individual Jew is the true resting place of the Divine Presence in this world.

The obligation to construct God's Sanctuary throughout the generations stressed by the Talmud can be carried out at any time and in any place, as every individual Jew can make himself a comfortable resting place for the Shechina. How is this accomplished?


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Rabbi Chaim explains:

The Zohar compares every Jew to the Temple (i.e. the permanent Tabernacle). Just like the center of the Temple is the Holy of Holies, the center of the human being is his heart. His head is above him, his feet are beneath him, so the heart which is at the midpoint of his trunk, is the actual center of his being. Just as the holiness that is the source of all that is good in the world emanates from the Holy of Holies, the life force of the human emanates from the heart.

The parallels go deeper. The Holy of Holies houses the Ark of the Covenant topped by the two winged cherubim, one of which represents God, while the other represents Israel. The Divine voice heard by man emerges from between these two cherubim.

When Moses arrived at the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he heard the voice speaking to him from atop the cover that was upon the Ark of the Testimony, from between the two cherubim, and He spoke to him. (Numbers 7:88)

In terms of our human frame of reference, the space in the Holy of Holies above the cherubim belongs to the Divine, while the area beneath is human territory. The point of intersection of the sphere of the human with the dimension of the Divine is located between the cherubim.

The parallel to this focal point in the Temple, which therefore occupies the place of the Ark in the Holy of Holies of the human being, is the portion of the soul known as ruach and its physical parallel, the human heart.


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According to Jewish tradition the human soul has three parts -- nefesh, ruach, and neshama. Each of these spiritual aspects has a physical counterpart in the human body whose assigned function is to serve as the antenna that is perfectly attuned to receiving and translating spiritual signals into the language of physicality.

The brain captures and translates the message of the neshama into concepts and ideas. The heart collects the signals of the ruach and translates them into character, emotions and speech. The liver is dedicated to the nefesh and translates its messages into desires and drives.

The Gaon explains that the neshama is above man's level. The nefesh, which is akin to the life force in animals, is beneath man. And the ruach perfectly represents man's essential spiritual level.

The human heart serves as the physical antenna and receiver of the spiritual force of ruach.

Thus the human heart, which serves as the physical antenna and receiver of the spiritual force of ruach is the exact counterpart of the cherubim above the Ark in the Holy of Holies.

Just as that is the point where the Divine voice connects with man, the ruach in man's heart is the connection point with the neshama, which represents the Divinity within man.

But what does all this have to do with constructing a Tabernacle or Temple? If man is designed this way by God, then he automatically symbolizes the Temple without having to go about constructing it.


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In order to comprehend how this construction is a human task despite all the Divinely supplied spiritual equipment, we must understand from a Torah perspective the difference between thoughts and emotions on the one hand and actions on the other hand.

The vast majority of the 613 commandments of the Torah are focused on actions. There are 248 positive commandments requiring us to take positive actions (such as the eating matzah on Passover, or circumcision of the new born on the eighth day, etc.), and there are 365 negative commandments which forbid other forms of action (such as the desecration of the Sabbath, or theft, etc). Very few of the commandments are directed at thoughts or feelings. So heavy an emphasis is placed by the Torah on actions versus thoughts, that the Talmud states the following as Divine policy:

God considers a good thought the equivalent of the completed good deed, as it is written, then the God fearing spoke to one another, and God listened and heard, and it was recorded before Him in the book of memory of the God-fearing and those who give thought to His name (Malachi 3:16).

Who are those who give thought to His name? Rabbi Asi taught: "Even a person who planned to carry out a positive commandment and was unable to execute his design because of circumstances will be rewarded as though he had actually done it. On the other hand, an evil thought is not given the weight of the deed, [even if it was only the circumstances that rendered its execution impossible], as it is written, had I perceived iniquity in my heart, God would not have listened." (Psalms 66:18) (Talmud, Kidushin 40a)

From the standpoint of reward and punishment only deeds are counted, not thoughts. As a special mark of His goodness, God is willing to assign righteous thoughts the weight of deeds, so that they may be rewarded as well.

Elsewhere, however, the Talmud (Yuma 29a) teaches that the thoughts of sin are worse than the acts of sin themselves. How can these contradictory ideas be reconciled? Is thought more important than action after all?


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Explains Rabbi Chaim that this question is precisely the correct place to search for the secret of how to construct the human being as a Temple of God.

The link between the ruach in the heart and the neshama in the mind where the bond with God is made occurs in the realm of thoughts and feelings, not deeds. If this link is powerful, than the brain, the receiver of the messages of the neshama, fills the heart with images of holiness. In turn the heart, the seat of the ruach, bursts into flame and is consumed by the feelings of love and fear of God.

The powerful emotions of the heart pass down to the nefesh with which it is linked and the liver, the physical counterpart of the nefesh, fills the blood that it controls with the life force derived from these emotions. As the blood circulates through the body, all the limbs are inspired with the desire and enthusiasm to carry out God's commandments.

As the blood circulates through the body, all the limbs are inspired to act.

Then, the entire human being is filled with the Shechina, Presence of God.

It is due to this fact that the thoughts of sin are worse than the sin itself. If the heart is full of licentious thoughts, or if it is full of the hot fire of rage against one's fellow Jew, or the cold fire of jealousy, the neshama cannot connect with it. How can the neshama, which represents the Shechina, possibly come to rest on such a heart?


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In the absence of the linkage between the neshama and the ruach, the connection between the brain and the heart cannot be a holy one.

Instead, the neshama withdraws its signals to the brain as it is forced to break its connection with the ruach. The heart receives no holy thoughts or images. Instead of bursting into holy flame, the unholy flame already present in the heart spreads to the brain, and the mind becomes occupied with planning how best to execute successfully the unholy desires of the heart.

If this is allowed to continue without resistance, the brain will send the instructions for the implementation of these unholy desires to the outer limbs and the result will be the execution in action of the iniquitous desires that originated in the heart. The entire human being houses the illicit desires of the human heart as its spiritual force.

The human heart is thus the focal point of the holiness of the human being. The construction of the human Temple involves learning to control negative desires. When the heart is captured by the flames of rage or illicit desire (as all human hearts are wont to be captured from time to time), the Jew who desires to transform himself into a proper resting place for the Shechina must rid his heart of these unholy fires and restore the light of the Shechina in their place. But how can this be done?

The answer: by filling the heart with words of Torah and prayer.

The ruach, the spiritual counterpart of the human heart, is also the home of the human power of speech.


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Onkelos translates the Hebrew phrase nishmat hayim, "living being," (in the creation story, Genesis 2:7) as "speaking spirit." Indeed, the imagery of Onkelos is most apt, for the purpose of the ruach is to receive the communications of the neshama and transmit them to the nefesh so that they can be executed as deeds in the outside world. Thus the essence of ruach is communication, as is the essence of speech.

The holy words of Torah have the capacity of putting out any unholy flames.

The holy words of Torah and prayer have the capacity of filling the heart and putting out any unholy flames that are ignited within it. They are the fire extinguishers that God provided to counteract the unholy flames of the illicit desires that are innate to all of us.

You shall place these words of mine upon your heart and upon your soul [nefesh in this verse] (Deut. 11:18)

You shall place [in Hebrew the word is vesamtem] The rabbis learn from this that the Torah is compared to an elixir of life or sam tam.

The lesson that God is teaching us can be expressed by the following metaphor: A person inflicted a large open wound on his beloved son but he placed an effective bandage on it. And he told his son: "My son, as long as you are careful to keep this bandage on your wound, you can eat what you like, drink what you like, wash in hot or cold water as you please without any fear of coming to harm. But if you remove the bandage the wound will become infected with gangrene." Similarly, God said to Israel, "My children, I created the evil inclination in you, but I gave you the Torah as an effective countermeasure. If you make it your business to occupy yourself with the Torah, you will never be delivered to the hands of the evil inclination, as it is written, if you improve yourself, you will be uplifted (Genesis 4:7). But if you do not occupy yourself with the words of Torah, you will surely end up in its hands, as it is written, sin lies in wait at the door (Ibid)." (Talmud, Kidushin, 30b)

There is a deeper ramification to all this. As long as the Shechina occupies the Temple, it cannot be destroyed. Of what avail is the human machinery of destruction against the Divine Presence of God? In the same way, as long as a Jew is a human Temple and the link between his neshama and his ruach -- that is between his brain and his heart -- cannot be broken, he is invulnerable to the powers of evil.


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The destruction of the physical Temple is always necessarily preceded by the departure of the Shechina. In the case of the human being, this means that death can only happen when the neshama separates from the ruach.

Rabbi Chaim points out that this is a truly frightening thought. It implies that a human being with unclean thoughts and desires in his heart is really experiencing a type of living death. Rashi expresses this idea in the name of the Midrash in (Genesis 11:32) The evildoers are called dead even while they live, while the righteous are considered alive even in death.

But perhaps the most significant lesson to be derived from this essay involves the location of the source of Divine inspiration. There is no need to resort to heroic measures such as long fasts or intense meditation to feel the Presence of God. All you need is purity of heart. The Shechina will automatically come to rest on any observant Jew who maintains this purity of heart. And on any Jew who allows hatred, anger, jealousy or licentiousness to occupy his heart no amount of heroic deeds will ever suffice to feel the inspiration of the Divine Presence.


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