Weekly Messages From Rabbi Avi Harari

Mystery

A Message from Rabbi Avi Harari

Parashat Terumah 2018

Parashat Terumah is the first of several parashot that describe the construction of the Mishkan. Ramban (R. Moshe b. Nahman) suggested that the Mishkan was meant to shift the public manifestation of God’s glory at Sinai into the private domain of a sanctuary. He noted the similar descriptions of Sinai – “And God’s glory abode on Har Sinai” (24:16), and the Mishkan – “And the glory of God filled the Mishkan” (40:34), and pointed to the similar restrictions of entrance and required purity of each.[1]

Why did God shift from an open exposure at Har Sinai to a hidden presence at the Mishkan? Although the grand revelation at Sinai would certainly lose its effect if consistently repeated, the Mishkan seemingly introduced an entirely opposite extreme. It represented God’s unexplainable “contraction” into an enclosed area where He would now “abide.” Consider, for example, the fact that the luhot – the very symbol of God’s covenant with Am Yisrael at Har Sinai – were hidden inside an ark which was nestled away in a chamber (kodesh ha-kodashim) which was only entered by a single person (the cohen gadol) on a single day of the year (Yom Kippur). What was the reason for this extreme shift from revelation at Har Sinai to concealment at the Mishkan?

The psychoanalyst and author Stephen Mitchell described a tension that lies at the core of our human needs. He referred to the dialectic between love and desire. Mitchell wrote:

Love seeks control, stability, continuity, certainty. Desire seeks surrender adventure, the unknown. In love we are searching for points of attachment, anchoring, something we know we can count on. In desire we are searching both for missing, disowned pieces of ourselves and for something beyond ourselves, outside the borders of self-recognition that, under ordinary circumstances, we protect so fiercely.[2]
Psychotherapist and spiritual advisor Estelle Frankel explained that mystery and knowledge play equal roles in our relationships with one another. She wrote: “No matter how much we strive to know those whom we love, we can never fully plumb the depths of their innermost being, for, at our core, each of us is an unfathomable mystery.” Frankel posited that the challenge of long-term love is to strike a careful balance between a sense of mystery and adventure with an emotional intimacy.[3]

Our relationship with God must similarly exhibit an interplay between knowledge and mystery. HaRambam famously opened his Mishneh Torah with the fundamental principle to “know that there is a First Being who brought every existing thing into being.”[4] R. Hayim Soloveitchik z”l explained that the missvah to “know God” mandates that we stretch our cognitive capacity to its limits of understanding. Our cognitive breadth, however, is limited. In contrast to God’s infinite existence, our minds are confined by space and time, so a complete knowledge of God is impossible. R. Hayim nonetheless suggested that we are commanded to stretch beyond the realm of knowledge into that of belief. [5] He referredd to the “unknowable” realm of God’s existence, and described it as a necessary component of our relationship with Him,[6]

Prof. David Weiss Halivni introduced a similar dialectic in his analysis of the philosophical implications of the Holocaust. He cautioned philosophers and theologians from seeking its root cause or rationale, and claimed that the question of “Why did the Holocaust happen?” diminishes the uniqueness of the event by rendering it a basic “answerable question.”. He likened its reality to a historic encounter between God and Moshe, following het ha-egel. Moshe then requested to “know God’s ways,” and God responded, “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest” (Shemot 33:13-14).  When Moshe pushed further and asked, “Show me, pray, your glory” (18), however, God responded, “You shall not be able to see My face, for no human can see Me and live” (20). Halivni explained: “One can know God’s ways, but not his reasons…There is no explanation.”[7]

Ma’amad Har Sinai introduced Am Yisrael to an integral aspect of their relationship with God. God then exposed himself in an unprecedentedly open fashion. A relationship built merely upon revealed knowledge, however, is shallow. Without the appeal of an “unknown,” the bond will weaken and lose its passion. God’s transition to the Mishkan therefore set the stage for a side-by-side world of “belief.” It opened the gates of adventure and mystique, and deepened Am Yisrael’s connection to the incomprehensible “Ein Sof.”

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari


[1] Commentary of Ramban to the Torah, Shemot 25:1, and Introduction to Vayikra and Introduction to Bemidbar. See, as well, e.g., Nahum M. Sarna’s Exploring Exodus (New York, 1996), 203-4.
[2] Stephen A. Mitchell, Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance Over Time (New York, NY, 2002), pg. 91-2.
[3] Estelle Frankel, The Wisdom of Not Knowing: Discovering a Life of Wonder by Embracing Uncertainty (Boulder, CO, 2017), pg. 142-4.
[4] Hil. Yesodei HaTorah 1:1.
[5] As cited by his son R. Yisshak Ze’ev Soloveitchik, to R. Elazar Menahem M. Shach z”l, and recorded in Avi Ezri vol. 1 (Bnei Brak, IS, 1995), pg. 41.
[6] Kabbalists often refer to this “unknowable” realms as the “ayin.” See, e.g., Daniel C. Matt, “Ayin: The Concept of Nothingness in Jewish Mysticism,” in Essential Papers on Kabbalah (New York, NY, 2000), pg. 67-108.
[7] David Weiss Halivni, The Book and the Sword (New York, NY, 1996), pg. 156.