Sunday, March 3, 2019

Parashat VaYakhel: Creating Through Unity

Creating Through Unity
Thoughts on VaYakhel 2019
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And Bessalel and Aholiav and every wise-hearted man in whom God has given wisdom and understanding to know how to do the task of the holy work, shall do all that God has charged. (Shemot 36:1)

The Hakhamim described the uniqueness of Bessalel, the head contractor of the Mishkan, in a single sentence:
Rav Yehudah said that Rav said: Bessalel knew how to join the letters with which heaven and earth were created.[1]
Understood within context of the Torah’s many thematic and linguistic similarities between the Mishkan and Creation,[2] the Hakhamim were teaching that the Mishkan represented a “second creation.” The “letters of creation” are likewise a reference to the Rabbis’ cryptic portrayal of creation with letters, as the Talmud elsewhere refers to our ability to create by means of Sefer Yessirah – a book that details the central role of the Hebrew alphabet (“letters”) in beriat ha-olam.[3]

It is surprising, however, that as they likened the construction of the Mishkan to Creation, the Rabbis spoke about the “joining of letters.” The Torah’s telling of Creation, after all, is an elaborate story of the opposite verb – separation. Following God’s initial creation of formless matter (tohu va-vohu), each of His next consecutive actions represented separation – light from darkness (1:3-4), the upper “waters” from the lower ones (6-7), dryland from water (9-10) and day from night with the heavenly bodies (14-18). Indeed, political philosopher Leo Strauss once remarked, “Creation is the making of separated things.”[4]

Ramban (R. Moshe b. Nahman) relatedly wrote that the letters of the Torah are in fact a sheet of God’s names that Moshe separated in a particular way, to yield the words and sentences that express meaning in our text. The Torah could theoretically be read to portray altogether different meanings, however, by dividing its letters into different words and sentences.[5] The great kabbalist R. Yosef Gikatilla similarly expressed: “The Book is therefore not vocalized, has no intonations, and lacks punctuation, for the Torah contains all wisdom, revealed as well as concealed … And thus, the Torah may be interpreted in many aspects as man inverts the verses one way or another.”[6] “Creation” of our Torah is thus likened to that of the World – as a “formless matter” of thousands of letters incoherently strung together take form by means of a deliberate process of separation.

Describing Bessalel’s divine power to create, then, we would perhaps have expected the Hakhamim to refer to his ability to “separate the letters with which heaven and earth were created” – the absolute opposite of their reference to his “joining” those letters!

Consider, however, that the Torah twice expresses a theme of unity in the context of constructing the Mishkan:
And you shall join the panels to one another with the clasps, that the Mishkan be one whole. (Shemot 26:6)
And you shall join the tent, that it become one whole. (26:11)
Indeed, the very idea of turning to the people for their donations (terumah) was interpreted by some as an expression of unity, as well. “Having been liberated from slavery, they were now asked to embark on a community project…everyone was able to contribute something to its construction and take pride in what was accomplished,” Kenneth Seeskin wrote.[7] Countering a world that was built and maintained through separation, then, the Mishkan introduced an alternate reality of creation through unity.

This contrast between the construction of the Mishkan and Creation arises with regards to the mystical concept of simsum (contraction), as well. The kabbalists long pondered the paradox of an infinite God’s creation of a finite world, questioning the existence of anything aside from Himself. R. Yisshak Luria, the Ari z”l, famously taught that God created by means of simsum. By “withdrawing” into Himself, God consequently “made space” for the existence of a physical world.[8] A midrash that imagined a conversation between Moshe and God regarding construction of the Mishkan, however, mentioned the concept of simsum with an opposite meaning! According to the midrash, God responded to Moshe’s confusion about building a sanctuary to “house” Him, by explaining: “Moshe, not as you think. Rather, twenty boards to the north, twenty boards to the south and eight to the west – and I will descend and contract (mesamsem) My presence among you below.”[9] Whereas beriat ha-olam took place by means of God’s “separation,” the very entity of the Mishkan sought His “union.”

Rav Yehudah said that Rav said: Bessalel knew how to join the letters with which heaven and earth were created.
Using the very same “letters” of beriah, Bessalel transformed the concept of creation by introducing the foundational reality of creation though unity. Living in a world first created through separation, much of our own interactions take place within the frame of distinction – we associate ourselves from different people, thoughts, ideas, allegiances, etc. Joining “letters” and materials to one another, the Mishkan connected Am Yisrael to one another and to God. And it introduced the eternally relevant paradigm of creation through unity.

In memory of Felix Torgueman z”l – a “man of letters” who created through “unity.”

[1] Berakhot 55a.
[2] Recall our thoughts on Parashat Tessaveh 2019, “Man-Made.”
[3] See, e.g., Sanhedrin 65b and 67b.
[4] Leo Strauss, “On the Interpretation of Genesis,” L’Homme 1981 (21:1), pg. 9. Cf. our thoughts to Parashat VaEra 2017, “Separation & Unity.”
[5] Introduction to the Commentary of Ramban on the Torah.
[6] R. Yosef Gikatilla, Shaarei Sedek. Cited by Moshe Hallamish in An Introduction to the Kabbalah (New York, NY, 1999), pg. 217.
[7] Kenneth Seeskin, Thinking About the Torah: A Philosopher Reads the Bible (Philadelphia, PA, 2016), pg. 99. Cf. our thoughts on Parashot VaYakhel-Pekudei 2017, “The Unity Project.”
[8] See, e.g. Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York, NY, 1995), pg. 260-4.
[9] Pesikta DeRav Kahana 2:10. See, as well, Shemot Rabah 34:1. And R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s analysis in Halakhic Man (Philadelphia, PA, 1983), pg. 49-52, as noted by R. Reuven Ziegler “The Halakhist as Creator,” in Books of the People: Revisiting Classic Works of Jewish Thought (New Milford, CT, 2017), pg. 282 fn. 25. And Cf. R. Shai Held’s “Being Present While Making Space,” in The Heart of Torah vol. 1 (Philadelphia, PA, 2017), pg. 184-8.