Shabbat: A Temple in Time

Ki Tissa By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Feb 26, 2000 / 5760 | Torah Commentary

If “seeing is believing,” the converse of that adage is surely “out of sight out of mind.” There is something fragile about a faith predicated on sight. Remove its visible attendants and it soon collapses. What did Shakespeare say of another human state? “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove.” Constancy in love or faith soars above the transient.

Moses tarried atop Mount Sinai too long. In his absence, his nation of former slaves is afflicted with doubts. They plead with Aaron: “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt–we do not know what has happened to him (Exodus 32:1).” The musical note above the word “ha-ish” (that man) requires the Torah-reader to extend its pronunciation. Suddenly, Moses is a mere mortal, a passing stranger who intruded into their lives! The people cannot bear to be without a visible symbol that embodies God’s presence. Though knowing better, Aaron obliges their importuning with a molten calf that serves to reassure them of God’s abiding nearness.

It is, to say the least, an unexpected tale of inconstancy, positioned to heighten its impact. Our parashah is largely a narrative interlude between two blocs of architectural material: the detailed design from on high, how to build the Tabernacle and the equally detailed account of its actual construction. In the first part we are told twice, at the outset and conclusion of God’s instructions to Moses, that the purpose of this mobile sanctuary is to serve as a vehicle for bringing God’s presence into the midst of Israel’s camp (Exodus 25:8, 22; 29:45-46). However, before the Torah continues with its erection, it pauses to give us some welcome narrative relief.

It behooves us to pay attention to the juxtaposition. My colleague Prof. Stephen A. Geller in his endlessly fascinating literary study of the Hebrew Bible (Sacred Enigmas, Routledge, 1996) has argued cogently that its authors expressed abstract ideas in a mode utterly different from the Greek. Without benefit of sustained logical analysis, they garbed their theological insights in a kaleidoscope of literary genres. Their thinking was intuitive; their discourse full of passion and poetry, concreteness and metaphor, admonition and narrative. The sequence of material often holds the clue to the writer’s (or editor’s) intention; and such is the case with our narrative interruption.

The story of the golden calf is less about Israel’s recurring bouts of faithlessness than God’s ultimate unknowability. To be sure, the tale bristles with decadence, rage and bloodshed, but there are no long-term consequences at the moment, other than the lesson learned by Moses that God is beyond human ken. When the dust has settled and harmony restored, Moses in a theophony of supreme delicateness is denied his request to understand God fully. The reality of God’s transcendence is not cast in terms of philosophic abstractions but poetic allusions. From the cleft of a rock, Moses catches but a partial and fleeting glimpse of God’s back. The void is bridged only by knowledge of God’s name, that like a prism, refracts the ways in which God relates to a humanity far from perfect.

To my mind, this intimate exchange is meant to temper the primitive idea that the Tabernacle could house the deity. Though the Holy of Holies afforded a place to fathom God’s will and the alter a place to address God, the Tabernacle was not to be conceived as God’s earthly residence. The narrative of the golden calf was inserted precisely at this point to counter the profusion of architectural minutiae. The holiness of the space signified only God’s accessibility, not presence. According to Rabbi Simon the Pious, a third century Babylonian mystic, what Moses caught from the rock’s cleft as God passed was only the tefillin knot on the back of God’s head, that is, a symbol of God’s ongoing connectedness with humanity (B.T. Berakhot 7a). As long as Israel was mindful of God’s incomprehensible grandeur, the Tabernacle could facilitate the possibility of a divine-human relationship without risk of diluting God’s majesty.

Another curious feature of our text, I believe, takes up the tension between God’s indwelling and grandeur or immanence and transcendence from a different perspective. The commandment to keep the Sabbath is voiced twice out of nowhere, once at the end of God’s blueprint to Moses and then again right before the Torah takes up its execution (Exodus (31:12-18; 35:2-3). In other words the golden calf narrative is framed by Shabbat. Again, I find that the meaning of the references derives from their location. The twofold shift from Tabernacle to Shabbat seems intended to remind both ancient Israelites and modern Jews that God’s holiness is to be experienced in time as well as space. Indeed as Abraham Joshua Heschel taught nearly fifty years ago in his timeless book The Sabbath, Judaism prefers the medium of time: “Time was hallowed by God; space, the Tabernacle, was consecrated by Moses (p. 10).” “Holiness, in space, in nature, was known in other religions. New in the teaching of Judaism was that the idea of holiness was gradually shifted from space to time, from the realm of nature to the realm of history, from things to events. The physical world became divested of any inherent sanctity. There were no naturally sacred plants of animals anymore. To be sacred, a thing had to be consecrated by a conscious act of man (p. 79).”

Thus in the midst of the construction of the Tabernacle the Torah invokes Shabbat to affirm time as a medium more suitable to monotheism. A temple in time, Shabbat is unmarred by images and unhampered by geography. Whereas a holy site reduces us to passive reverence, a sacred moment requires of us to transform ourselves and the space we occupy. A sanctuary of stone induces in us the illusion of permanence and the image of a world-to-come in terms of a place to which we go. In contrast, Shabbat, though it stops the clock momentarily, confronts us with the passage of time, even as it foreshadows an afterlife that consists of an endless Shabbat.

Despite the attention the Torah devotes to the building of the Tabernacle, it represents no more than a concession to human weakness. An imageless, universal God above nature and beyond the cosmos cannot be confined by sacred space. The Torah provides enough internal evidence to suggest that a grander conception of holiness would eventually prevail.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Chancellor Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Ki Tissa are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld