Thursday, February 23, 2012

Teruma - The Path to Holiness (And What is Holiness Anyways??)

Parshas Terumah deals with the construction of the Mishkan - the desert Tabernacle - and its vessels. The construction of the Mishkan is part of a general mitzva (commandment) to construct a Mikdash - Sanctuary - for the service of God. In the desert, where the Jewish people were not settled in a specific location, the Mishkan sufficed. Eventually, when the Jewish people had fully settled in the land of Israel, a full Temple was built in Jerusalem during the reign of King Solomon.

Rabbi Samson Raphael
This is the mitzva expressed in the verse (Exodus 25:8), "And they shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell in their midst." Significantly, the Torah does not say, "and I shall dwell in it (i.e. the Sanctuary)", but rather, "I shall dwell in their midst." The goal of the Sanctuary is to somehow make the Jewish people themselves worthy of God's presence. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (d.1888) puts it:
...the ושכנתי בתוכם ["and I shall dwell in their midst"] of our verse extends far beyond the mere presence of God in the Temple, but that it means the proximity of God in our midst, showing itself in accordance with the covenant, in the whole happiness and prosperity of our private and national life under His protection and blessing.
The Temple is a model for us of how to sanctify ourselves. From the Temple, we learn how to make ourselves holy, so that each of us can become a living Mikdash.

This goal, of course, is the work of an entire lifetime, and one that we will never truly complete. Nevertheless, it is a task that we must begin, which means that we need to have some basic idea of what it is we are trying to acheive. First of all, how do we start? What basic characteristics are necessary to begin this process of self-sanctification?

A hint may be found in an enigmatic midrash that connects Parshas Terumah to the end of Parshas Mishpatim:
כשאמרו ישראל נעשה ונשמע מיד אמר להם ויקחו לי תרומה
(ילקוט ראובני - ונראה שהמקור הוא תנא דבי אליהו רבא פרק י"ז)
"When the Jewish people declared (Exodus 24:7), "We will do and we will hear," God immediately said to them (Exodus 25:1), "Let them take for Me a portion..."
This midrash indicates that there is a special connection between the great declaration of נעשה ונשמע - "We will do and will hear" - and the commandment to construct the Mishkan. This declaration somehow demonstrated that the Jewish people were ready to take the step of creating a Sanctuary for God in this world. What exactly is the connection between these two concepts?

A number of commentaries address this question, of which two, in particular, struck me as particularly significant.

The first explanation is from the commentary of Dr. Isaac Unterman, in his English commentary on the Torah (published in 1973). He writes:
The construction of the Tabernacle for God was likely to lead to a serious error: to think, God forbid, that the Holy One was in need of a resting place, that he was corporeal. For this reason, the command to build a Tabernacle could not be given until it had been definitely established that they understood that the Most High was not of a material substance and hence had no use for rest like living creatures. This was made evident when the Jews said: WE WILL DO AND WE WILL HEAR. Actually they should have demanded to hear first - perhaps they would have found it too hard? But because they were sure that the Most High was of infinite perfection, he had no need for precepts. The latter were absolutely for the good of man. Then there was no point in inquiring whether or not they would be a match to the performance of the commandments. For there is no telling how far man would go in his efforts when it concerns his own good and happiness. At that moment, when this became evident that they were well groomed to perform the task of putting up the Tabernacle, without any fear that it might lead to an error - accordingly, they were then told that "they bring Me an offering" and "they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in the midst of them."
This commentary from Dr. Unterman points to the great importance of having a proper conception of God and of our relationship with Him. Someone who perceives God as limited, in any way, will lack the ability to fully trust God and to wholeheartedly accept His Torah. His relationship with God will be fundamentally flawed. Only once we have achieved a proper, basic understanding of these basic principles is it then possible for us to enter into the realm of true holiness.

Another explanation of this midrash can be found in Sefer Zichron Menachem, written by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Levkovitch of Proshnitz (I don't know exactly when the author lived, but the sefer has haskomos from major figures such as R' Shmuel Salant and the Sdei Chemed, both of whom passed away in the very early years of the twentieth century). The Zichron Menachem focuses on a different aspect of the declaration of "We will do and we will hear!", pointing out that no one person can actually fulfill all of the commandments of the Torah. For example, certain commandments are restricted to kohanim, whereas others are restricted to non-kohanim, and so on. How then, could the Jewish people declare "All that God has spoken we will do and we will hear"? The answer is that at that time the Jewish people had attained such a degree of unity and brotherly love that they were like one person, and therefore, if one Jew performed a mitzva, it was as if all of them had done so.

This, the Zichron Menachem explains, was an essential prerequisite for constructing the Sanctuary, for God's presence cannot rest amongst the Jewish people except when they are in a state of unity. This also helps us understand why Parshas Mishpatim, which deals with laws involving man and his fellow, had to come before Parshas Terumah. True holiness can only be achieved when we are in a state of peace with our fellow Jew.

From these two commentaries we learn that, even before we can begin the task of holiness, we must first work to achieve two basic preconditions, a proper conception of God and His relationship with us, and a peaceful relationship with our fellow Jews. Only once these conditions have been met can we properly begin the task of holiness.

But what, exactly, is holiness - kedusha? We tend, for some reason, to imagine "holiness" as a beatific and peaceful state of "spirituality" (a vague concept if there ever was one). In reality, kedusha means "separateness" - and  refers to a state of being separated from the rest of the world. Thus, God Himself - HaKadosh Baruch Hu - is holy in the most absolute sense, in that He is entirely separate from the world. Anytime we speak of something in this world as being holy - kodesh - we mean that this thing has been separated from the world and set aside for the service of God. Thus, for example, the Torah is holy, the Sabbath is holy, the Temple - and, to a lesser degree, every synagogue - is holy, the land of Israel is holy, and - within the Jewish people - the kohanim are holy. In every case, this means that this thing thing is set aside for serving God, and is therefore subject to great limitations on its use. The same is true for the Holy People, the Jewish nation. The Jewish people, as a whole, are a "kingdom of priests" (Exodus 19:6), meaning that they have a relationship to the world akin to the relationship of the kohanim to the Jewish people. The Jewish people are holy, meaning that they are set aside from the rest of the world for the purpose of serving God. Returning to the commentary of Rav Hirsch:
...this blessing and protecting Schechina - proximity of God - is not brought about by the mere correct erection and upkeeping of the Sanctuary, but can only be won by consecrating and giving up our whole private and public lives to carrying out the Divine Torah. A fact that is not only proved historically by the destruction of the Sanctuary, once in Shilo and twice in Jerusalem, but which is distinctly stressed as a warning, not only in the Torah itself..., but also immediately at the foundation and building of Solomon's temple and on almost every page of the  books of the prophets.
This, of course, is a very demanding calling, and one that requires from us a great deal of commitment, determination, and, perhaps most of all, hard work. It is not surprising therefore, to find that the Sages point to the role of labor in association with our verse. The great sage, Shemai'ah, taught (Avos 1:10), "Love work!" In a discussion of the teaching, Avos d'Rabbi Noson (ch.11) states:
רבי טרפון אומר, אף הקב"ה לא השרה שכינתו על ישראל עד שעשו מלאכה, שנאמר "ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם."
Rabbi Tarfon said, "Even God did  not allow His Presence to rest upon Israel until they worked, as it says, "And they shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell amongst them."
The task of constructing the Temple - with all its complexity and labor - symbolizes the even more complex and difficult task of sanctifying ourselves. This is an all-encompassing mission, which demands that our entire lives be focused exclusively on this goal.

It often happens that an outsider will recognize truths that are often missed by those of us who have grown up within the religious Jewish world. As an example, I remember in yeshiva, the non-Jewish janitor remarking about the drunkenness of the yeshiva students on Purim. He expressed astonishment, "That room (referring to the dining hall during the Purim seudah) is filled with hundreds of drunk young men, but there's not a single fight!" (I am not going to enter here into the question of the propriety of this practice. The point is valid regardless.)

Similarly, one of the best descriptions of the concept of holiness in Orthodox Jewish life that I have encountered was written by a non-Jew, Maria Poggi Johnson. Mrs. Johnson is a Catholic Christian who teaches theology at the University of Scranton. Scranton is also the home of a prominent yeshiva and has a vibrant Orthodox Jewish community. Mrs. Johnson happens to reside in the midst of that community and she and her family became very friendly with a number of her Orthodox Jewish neighbors. In 2006 she published a memoir about her relationship with these neighbors and friends entitled Strangers and Neighbors: What I Have Learned About Christianity by Living Among Orthodox Jews.

In chapter four, titled "The Holy God and His Stiff-Necked People", Mrs. Johnson discusses the concept of holiness. She writes:
The word "holy," kodesh in Hebrew, is tricky. We tend to use it, rather vaguely, to mean extra-good, super-spiritual, or even just really, really nice. The original meaning of kodesh is actually "separate" or "set apart." When God tells his people that he is holy, he means that he is different - nothing remotely like the gods of the Egyptians or the Canaanites. "My thoughts are not your thoughts," he tells them. "And my ways are not your ways. I am utterly unlike anything you have experienced or could imagine" (Isa. 55:8, paraphrase). If you try to understand the nature of God and decide to worship him by doing what the Egyptians and the Canaanites and everyone else does - creating and bowing down to images - you will get it wrong. No images. Nothing in the world, nothing that can be represented in matter, can adequately communicate God's essence.
Holiness is not only strange; it is dangerous. If you see God, you die. If you touch the mountain where the presence of God has entered our universe, you die. If you panic because Moses, who is the only person who seems to have any idea what is going on, has been up the mountain for forty days, and you need something that you can understand and touch and control, and you pool all your gold and make an image of a calf and worship that, then lots and lots of you die.
So when God says, "I am holy," he doesn't mean "I am nice." And when he says, "You shall be holy," he doesn't mean "You ought to be nice too." He means that, although his people can never imagine or understand him, they are to be like him. This is the outrageous job that God gives to the Jews: the job of making manifest in their lives the holiness, purity, absolute justice, mercy, and goodness of God. It is not a job they can begin to do if they care, even a little, about being normal, fitting in, going with the flow. To be holy means precisely to be different: set apart, proudly weird, bizarrely countercultural, and defiantly unlike the business-as-usual world all around them. That is the task that our neighbors have inherited, and they give themselves to it heart and soul.
The unique task of holiness that has been set upon the Jewish people cannot begin until we recognize that we are set apart from the world at large and we accept the sacrifices that this separation entails. We simply cannot expect to live ordinary, mainstream lives and also achieve the goal of holiness that God has set upon us. The Torah demands from us, as we saw in the words of Rav Hirsch, "consecrating and giving up our whole private and public lives to carrying out the Divine Torah." Nothing less will suffice.

Of course, when faced with such a demanding concept, it is easy to get carried away. Any number of religious groups, including Jewish groups, have taken the concept of holiness to extremes of asceticism, abstinence, and social separation that go far beyond what God demands from us. Indeed, by going to such extremes, these groups really miss the point. As Rav Hirsch put it, the demand of holiness is that we devote our entire being to "carrying out the Divine Torah." We do not decide for ourselves how to become holy, for, in truth, we can have no real understanding of what that goal truly means until we get there. Instead, God has provided us with a detailed guide towards achieving this goal - the Torah. This is why the Holy Ark - containing the  Tablets of the Covenant and a Torah scroll - is placed at the center of the Sanctuary. The entire Sanctuary is to built around the Torah, symbolizing that the only means by which we can truly achieve holiness is by adherence to the laws and teachings of the Torah.

In summary, God has set upon the Jewish people the extraordinary and demanding task of achieving a state of holiness and becoming a dwelling place for God. This is a task that demands a great deal of hard work, and can only begin when he have attained a certain minimal level of understanding of the nature of God and our relationship with Him. Moreover, we cannot even begin to work towards holiness while we are in a state of discord with our fellow Jews, for only in a state of unity can God's presence dwell in our midst. This task demands from us that we devote our every aspect of our lives towards this purpose, and that we, therefore, cannot expect to live "ordinary" lives like the people around us. God has given us the Torah as our guide towards achieving this goal, and, for this reason, the Torah must always be the central focus in our lives. While the goal of true holiness might appear to be beyond our abilities, if we truly strive towards this goal, then God will respond in kind, and he will grant us the abilities to achieve that which would otherwise be impossible.