Our Rendezvous with God

Naso By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jun 11, 2005 / 5765 | Torah Commentary

The completion of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, like the construction of the Temple by Solomon centuries later, restricts the locus of God’s presence to a single sacred space. Access to God henceforth is through but one portal. The constriction causes the Midrash to wax poetic. One sage explains the prosaic verse in our parashah (7:1), “On the day that Moses finished setting up the Tabernacle.” with the more sensuous verse from the Song of Songs (5:1), “I have come to my garden, my own, my bride.” The latter suggests the romantic image of “a king who became angry with his consort and expelled her from his palace. When he later sought to bring her back, she said [to his emissary], ‘Let him first do something novel for me and then return me.’ Similarly, God originally accepted sacrifices from on high, as it is said: ‘The Lord smelled the pleasing odor’ (Genesis 8:21). And now, God will accept them from below, which is the force of the verse from The Song of Songs, ‘I have come to my garden, my own, by bride'” (Pesikta de Rav Kahanav, Mandelbaum: ed., I, p.1).

Clearly, the Tabernacle is the innovation that brings about the reconciliation after the sin of the Golden Calf. The designation of a sacred space eliminates the distance between heaven and earth. Rashi in his brief comment on the verse in our parashah (7:1) sharpens the image of the Midrash. “On the day the Tabernacle was finished (kallot), Israel was like a bride (kallah), entering the marriage chamber (huppah).” The erection of the Tabernacle paved the way for Israel’s reunion with God.

Another midrash stresses more overtly the price of proximity. This time the vivifying image is that of the young daughter of a king. As long as she was a small child, the king would converse with her wherever he might find her. But once she became an adolescent, that is, after puberty, the king decided that it was dishonorable to speak with her in public. Instead, he ordered the erection of a pavillion for the purpose of talking with his daughter. Analogously, when Israel was still in its infancy, it beheld God’s presence in Egypt, at the Sea of Reeds and at Mount Sinai. But once it had received the Torah and reached the status of God’s chosen nation, God deemed that to continue to address it in public was unbecoming. With maturity, intimacy was to be expressed circumspectly.

Hence God ordered the building of the Tabernacle in order to communicate with Moses from within, as the final verse of our parashah affirms (7:89): “When Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he would hear the Voice addressing him from above the cover that was on top the Ark of the Pact between the two cherubim; thus He spoke to him” (Pesikta de Rav Kahanah, I, pp. 3-4).

Yet every advantage has its downside. True, Tabernacle and Temple gave visible assurance of God’s care and accessibility. But once that locus of divine indwelling was destroyed, what could possibly replace it? The destruction of God’s house should have augured the demise of Judaism. The well-known answer, of course, is that the Rabbis, who replaced the priests at the helm of the nation, came up with the institution of the synagogue. But what exactly constituted a synagogue? How would we have recognized one? The heart of this radically new institution was neither a building nor a book, but a number. Whereas, prior to the Temple’s end, holiness was ascribed to a sacred place that could not be duplicated, after 70 CE, holiness resided inconspicuously in the quorum of ten men, without which basic communal rituals could not be enacted. To conduct a worship service, to recite certain prayers, to chant from the Torah or Prophets, to perform a wedding or a funeral all required a minyan (Mishnat Megillah 4:3). A synagogue became any place where a minyan assembled to create a setting of sanctity. The very term beit keneset, a house of assembly, alludes to the role of a cipher in rendering a space as sacred. Of the three monotheistic faiths that derive from the Hebrew Bible, only Judaism defines holiness numerically, because it alone had to negotiate the loss of an exclusive cult anchored in a national shrine.

The Talmud echoes the new salience of a minyan. Once Rabbi Yitzhak, a third century Palestinian teacher, asked his Babylonian friend, Rav Nahman, why he had failed to come to the synagogue to pray? “I couldn’t,” he responded. “So you should have gathered ten men on your own to pray,” chided Rabbi Yitzhak. “It was too troublesome.” “Well at least,” needled Rabbi Yitzhak, “you should have had a synagogue official come to inform you when exactly the congregation would be praying [so that you might join them from afar].” At which point, Rav Nahman protested, “What’s this all about?” “We have a tradition,” asserted Rabbi Yitzhak, “that goes back to Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai [in the early second century] that this is the intent of the verse, ‘As for me, may my prayer come to You, O Lord, at a favorable moment’ (Psalm 69:14). And what indeed constitutes that ‘favorable moment’? It is when the congregation is absorbed in prayer” (BT Berakhot 7b-8a).

Elsewhere the Talmud states the same view negatively, again in the name of a third century Palestinian sage, Rabbi Yohanan. “When God visits a synagogue without finding a minyan, God erupts in anger saying in the words of Isaiah (50:2), ‘Why, when I came, was no one (ish) there, why when I called, would none respond” (BT Berakhot 6b)?

The surface meaning of these two passages is unmistakable: optimally, we should offer our prayers in a minyan. God is more attentive to the prayers of a group than of an individual supplicant. The presence of a minyan elevates the level of sanctity, making our individual prayers more acceptable to God.

The Zohar plumbs the meaning of the minyan still further by turning the Talmud’s negative declaration on its head. The verse from Isaiah is to be read positively. The key is not the noun “no one” (ein ish), but the verb “when I came” (ba’ti). Wherever God finds a minyan, God’s presence is felt. That is how we are to understand the verse in Exodus (25:8) “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” Every minyan is a sanctuary (mikdash) in which God may dwell. By implication, exile has not severed us from God. The minyan made Judaism portable, a ubiquitous rendezvous for God and Israel.

But how does the Zohar know that the rendezvous requires ten worshipers? From the noun “no one” (ish, literally man). The minyan is a reconstitution of the Adam of Eden, who was created whole and not piecemeal. Thus when God finds a ready minyan, God invests it with God’s spirit exactly as God had done to the original Adam: “He blew into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). The formation of a minyan, then, draws God near to inspirit it with holiness. Most profoundly, the Zohar’s conception of the minyan avers that true holiness cannot be attained individually but only collectively. God appears most palpably in the spaces in between (Zohar, III,126a).

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Naso have been made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.