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Understanding the Divine by Way of Analogy

Ki Tissa 5777/18 March 2017

March 20, 2017

Everything we know, we know by way of analogy. Even language operates by way of analogy. Words are but breathes of air or marks on a page. They are not the thing itself that we are describing. When we point and say “this is a tree” the word “tree” is not the thing we are pointing at.

The four Parshiyot that conclude seder Shemot: Titzaveh, Ki-Tissa, Vayakel and Pekudei are described by the great Hassidic Mussar Master, the Slonimer Rebbe, as being the very heart of the Torah. These parshiyot, to which we often respond blankly at their deadening detail describing a disused and disturbing institution: a sacrificial sanctuary, the Slonimer identifies as the most important in the entire Torah. He is not alone, but follows a long line of Rabbinic commentators in this regard. A small part of the reason for this is the fact that the other what we might call candidates for this honor, the story of creation or the decalogue, are ultimately aimed at all humanity while the commandments describing the sanctuary and the sanctification of the priesthood are meant specifically for the People of Israel and are connected to their habitation in the land of Israel. We shall revisit this idea in a few minutes. For now, our interest is in the claim itself and the Slonimer’s rationale for this claim. What makes these parshiyot, including our parsha this morning, so important?

Simply put, his explanation is based on reading the description of the Mishkan analogously. Every step in its construction, every aspect of the vestments of the priests, are understood as analogies to the Supernal Human Being, which itself is an analogy by which we can conceive of the Universe itself. That is, the structure of the Universe is envisioned as being arranged, so to speak, in human form and therefore every aspect of the Sanctuary corresponds to a part of the Supernal body. For example, the Laver at which the priests wash before entering to do their service might correspond to the eyes of the Supernal body that both see and water or even weep. The Holy of Holies into which the High Priest enters only on Yom Kippur might be analogous to the head and brain of the Supernal body. The point is that worshipping correctly within the Tabernacle’s precincts empowers human beings to align themselves with this Supernal Body and thereby to bring the entire Universe into proper alignment. The Universe understood as the very body of the Divine is ultimately dependent on the worship in the Tabernacle that can bring together all of the disparate elements of creation and return them to their original order, thus perfecting the Universe.

The Slonimer extends this analogy to include human beings and the Torah itself. In other words, every word of the Torah also corresponds to an element of the Supernal Body as does every element of the human body. It is something like one of those Russian dolls in which each doll contains another doll just like it, which contains another doll just like it, which contains another doll just like it, etc. etc.

Thus the Universe is conceived of as a human body, the Sanctuary corresponds to the parts of this body, the words of the Torah correspond to this body, and the human body and spirit also correspond to this celestial body. In fact these different entities are not merely analogies nor merely corresponding one to the other, but are in fact the same thing looked at, as it were, from different perspectives. The Universe is diverse but everything is not only connected but an element of the same thing. Moreover, the Celestial Body itself is only an analogy to a Reality that otherwise cannot be conceived or described. It is, therefore, no surprise that our tradition should put so much emphasis on the actions of the human body and spirit and we can, at least, understand our tradition’s putting equal emphasis on every word of Torah. Now we might even be able to understand the great interest and importance that commentators like the Slonimer placed on the details of the Mishkan and by another analogy, the Land of Israel that was seen as the geographic heart of a similarly analogous interpretation of the geological world. The physical earth also serves as an analogy to the Divine Template.

If we are to understand what meaning these esoteric interpretations have for us, I suggest we begin not with the Russian doll at its largest, but with the smallest doll, the one most deeply hidden within the puzzle. For our purposes, since we have identified only four of a possible myriad of layers, we can ascribe to the world’s geology the innermost being. Without a physical home, nothing else exists as we know it. Thus, the first Divine analogy is the world itself as evidenced by the primacy of the story of creation. In this analogy every land must have its place in the Divine order. The portion of this order given over to the people Israel is the land of Israel. Creating order in Israel is the task of the people of Israel, while creating order in every other land is the task of the people assigned to that particular territory. Interestingly, in this light, the fact that among the most important commandments that the People of Israel are enjoined to observe in welcoming and nurturing the stranger, suggests that ordering the land is not merely an ethnic or nationalistic endeavor. Rather, the goal of an ordered land is justice – it is justice that we have been commanded to pursue. We have also learned that the land of Israel itself belonged at first to other peoples and we have learned the hard way in history that it will belong to the people of Israel only in so far as they are able to create a just society. If not they will be vomited out as were the peoples before them.

Thus, the next level in our ascending Russian doll is human beings. Like the land we are enjoined to create order, to pursue justice and thereby to align ourselves with the large doll that is the universe toward which we are moving. Being in the second position, so to speak, our task is both to insure order below us, that is, in the land, and on our own level. Just as justice is the key to aligning the land with the Divine template, so too justice is the key to aligning ourselves with the Divine template. Just as chaos on the land threatens the very existence of the Divine, so to chaos in the human realm threatens the Divine template. This fact, in turn, accounts for the existence of the level of Torah. It is by way of Torah, by way of memory, of story, of law and of culture, all of which must be aligned with justice that we fulfill our obligation to mirror the Divine template.

That leads us back to the Sanctuary. Memory, story, law and culture combine with justice to create worship. When Moses asked of Pharaoh to let the people go it was so that they might worship. Worship is central to this project because it combines all of the elements necessary for the maintenance of oder through justice and thereby shapes human action so that it corresponds to that Divine template toward which all this is itself aimed.

Finally, from the level of the Sanctuary we ascend to the level of the Supernal body itself, only to discover that it too is only an analogy. That no such body exists, but the analogy of the body does describe that which stands beyond the reach of words and concepts. What is astounding about this insight is that that which stands beyond the reach of words and concepts never the less also stands within each of the dolls in our Russian doll set, at each of the levels that we have been given to see and experience, in all of our limbs, in every stone and flower of the land and in every act of worship used to bring these elements into order. Diversity, far from being a source of competition and conquest, is a source of strength in so far as it points to a far greater unity.

The Divine is not actually configured like a human being. The Tabernacle doesn’t actually correspond to the limbs of this Divine template. Each word of the Torah does not actually represent the sinews of the Divine. People are not fashioned as images of the Supernal Person and the geological structure of the Universe is not centered on the Earth which, in turn, is not centered on the Land of Israel…And yet. This imaginative projection of our tradition profoundly expresses not a reality, but a hope. It is hope that undergirds all acts of worship, whether formal or informal, whether liturgical or personal. Not only hope, but hope mixed with a sense of purpose. That is, that beyond all appearances, there is an energy that we must certainly recognize as Divine that calls on the human heart to hope in the first place. That makes hope an obligation. An obligation that translates hope into action, that impresses on us the fact that hope is only true hope when attached to actions that embody that hope, and the actions that embody this vision of hope are always in pursuit of justice. These are the issues that worship calls upon us to focus on and commit to. Whether that worship occurs in a wilderness sanctuary or in this sanctuary. Therefore, these parshiyot of sanctuary building may indeed be the heart of the Torah itself.