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Parashat Va-Yakhel-Pekudei Parashat Ha-Hodesh

March 8, 2013

by Rabbi Len Levin

Sacred Space and Sacred Time:

This week we take out two Sifrei Torah. In the first we complete the book of Exodus, especially the long sequence of Chapters 25-40 which is devoted to the construction of the Tabernacle and all its appurtenances. In the second we begin the narrative of the Exodus from Egypt, which we will continue and conclude during the upcoming holiday of Passover. The one deals with sacred space, the other with sacred time.

In his book The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel said that whereas the ancient pagans glorified and sanctified space, Judaism sanctifies time. He exemplified this thesis by elaborating on how the Sabbath, that most distinctive creation of the Jewish spirit, creates a “palace in time,” in which we feel transported and uniquely close to God.

Heschel was only partly right. Yes, there is something distinctive about the Jewish relation to time, and much of what is uniquely Jewish has to do with the way that we commemorate the cycles of day and night, weeks, months, and seasons of the year to imbue each of them with special meaning.

But especially in ancient Judaism, a great deal of care and creativity was lavished on demarcating a special place where one would be supremely conscious of God’s presence. The term Shekhinah, which the mystics used to denote God’s indwelling presence, comes from the phrase, ve-shakhanti be-tokham-“and I will dwell in their midst” (Exodus 25:8) that introduces the instructions for building the Mishkan (from the same root Sh-K-N), translated “Tabernacle” but really meaning “dwelling-place” -a dwelling place for God.

One might think that this sense of setting aside sacred space passed from Judaism with the destruction of the Temple. Not at all! The synagogue is called “mikdash me’at,” or “miniature sanctuary,” a diminutive representation of the Temple. This correspondence is highlighted by the many ways that synagogue architecture recapitulates or imitates that of the Temple. There is a larger area for the laity, and a more concentrated, restricted area-the bimah-where the ritual is conducted. There is an aron-Ark-which in the ancient Temple contained the two tablets of the covenant, while in the synagogue it contains the scrolls of the Torah, each an embodiment of God’s commandments. Many other features of the ancient Tabernacle-the “eternal light,” the table, the breastplate-find their corresponding representation in the synagogue. The purpose of the original is maintained-through a symbolic structure, to consecrate a particular place where one will experience a heightened sense of God’s presence. In the climax of this week’s portion, we read that after Moses had assembled the Tabernacle, the presence of God was so strong that Moses could not enter the inner sanctum. (Exodus 40:35)

But in the second Torah reading, we read of the sanctification of time: “This month shall be for you the beginning of the months, the first of the months of the year.” (Exodus 12:1) Whenever the month of Nisan approaches-and with it the holiday of Passover-we feel certain associations: the coming of spring, the season of our liberation, the beginning of the cycle of festivals that continues through the year. Time itself has a different feeling, a different quality, when the holiday approaches.

“This day shall be to you one of remembrance.” (Exodus 12:14) We are a people of memory. Through the celebration of Pesach, we come to see ourselves as if we ourselves had gone out from Egypt. The Jewish people is constituted by group memory, by preserving the recollection of all the times we experienced, from our beginnings to the present day, as a continuous narrative flow. We went out from Ur of the Chaldees to Canaan, and came down to Egypt. We were redeemed from slavery and came out a free people. We stood at Sinai and heard God’s commands. We lived through the First Temple and its destruction, through the Second Temple and its destruction, and through two millennia of exile, so that we could return to our land and reconstitute ourselves as a nation in the modern age. We continue to live through history in anticipation of the coming of the Messianic age.

We encounter God through sacred space and through sacred time. In the end, I believe Heschel was right that in our core identity, the sanctification of time takes precedence. We are a people whose core identity is found in our narrative, through which we continue to approach God through the progress of historical time.


Rabbi Len Levin teaches Jewish philosophy at AJR.