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Architectural Preparation and Divine Presence

mascettiBy Yaakov Mascetti*

Years ago, while spending a Shabat with my best friend Amos and his family in Ma’aleh Gilbo’a, I bumped into Rav David Bigman, the rosh yeshiva there, and had a short chat on teaching literature in Israel, studying Torah, etc. Just the standard conversation one has when bumping into someone in the street… Rav Bigman always astonished me with his unique perspective on the various Gemara sections we studied there, but this time he said something that has remained with me ever since: he was lamenting the fact that the young men who came to study in the yeshiva every year were more and more educated to give for granted an ontological dichotomy between mind and body, or, if you wish, between soul and body. After a brief request on my part for an elucidation on what that meant, he said that the forma mentis of the rabbis of the Talmud rarely has common grounds with the very Platonic and dichotomous mindset the modern West, and that in order to understand some of the things they are reported to have said or done we should, at times, get rid of those polarities.

As someone who grew up Catholic in a Catholic cultural context, the Pauline message regarding the spirit of the Law has always been a point of reference, in the sense that that was what Christianity established as its creed vis-à-vis Jewish tradition in its Pharisaic form – there is a spirit of the Law, and there is a body of the Law, and if one does not understand the distinction between the two there is no way he or she can comprehend the essence of the Divine message. Of course I am not making a qualitative argument here, Gd forbid, but a methodological one: the Jewish conception of the connection between the external level and the internal essence, between the body and the spirit of things, is most certainly less dichotomous. And even though it is possible to recognize many different cultural influences on the various rabbinic authorities of the Talmud, the Platonic line dividing the spiritual and the material is often blurred, and at times the bond between the two is presented as a rather complex interrelation / dialogue of two coexisting sides of one existence.

The preparation of the Tabernacle is fascinating and, needless to say, highly symbolic. The Divine commandment is inscribed in each and every part of the sanctuary, and Moses carries out the coordination of the works with care and precision. And once the Divinely ordained artistic opus is completed, G-d’s presence descends onto the sanctuary and the dialogue between Moses and the Omnipotent takes on a different form – one of immanence and, if I may propose the term, of material containment. G-d speaks to Moses and his presence is physically visible. But here is where we are invited to stop and think for a minute: G-d orders Moses to make Him a sanctuary, and then, rather than promising his ensuing presence within the sanctuary (built, in all its minutest details, with very specific dimensions, just like Noah’s Ark) says “and I will be present within them.” One would expect the Divine voice to promise Moses that if all is done according to the instructions soon to be delivered, G-d will reveal his presence within the newly created material container. And yet what G-d presents as the container is the individual – and they will make me a sanctuary and I will be present within them.

The Divine presence within the Tabernacle presents a classic example of a situation in which that very dichotomous reading appears to be the only possible perspective on things – the sanctuary is a material container, and the Divine is an infinite and spiritual content, but the two are in no way related. Once the container is destroyed or if the vessel is not made according to the very detailed instructions, G-d’s presence is no longer possible and the material sphere goes back to being irreconcilable with the Divine. True, but not entirely. G-d’s presence is not merely projected into the sanctuary, like a liquid would be poured into a container, into a vessel – it is, rather, an essential core of meaning within the individual who built the sanctuary, within the individual who looks to the sanctuary as the locus, the place of G-d’s presence. So G-d, in his undeniable iconoclasm, requests a sanctuary, descends into it, and speaks to his prophet, after having defined that locus of presence as every single individual. So yes, we do need dichotomies like tabernacle / Divine presence, body / spirit, but we must also realize that our subjective being, our consciousness as thinking individuals, is really the one true locus of presence of G-d. Do as you are told, perform, act according my instructions, measure out every detail, and then see how I am actually present within you and not within the physical container I just asked you to build. Or better, see how my presence is revealed within the performance of actions in everyday life – “and they will do”; “do so”; “and they will make me a sanctuary.” Divine presence is not one side in a dichotomy we are forced to accept – it is, rather the meaning of the action, the essence of the intention. For, we say, within the performative one sees the crumbling of that very dichotomy. Do, act, perform – and I will be in You, I will be in your actions.

*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.