Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Awe from Afar

The mishkan seems to contain a paradox. On the one hand, its purpose is ultimately, "that I may dwell in them". God establishes the reason of the mishkan not for Him, rather, as a conduit through which the Divine presence may permeate the settlement of the Jewish people. Each home, each heart, is filled with the sublime shechina when the mishkan is in service. The Holy of Holies contained keruvim, a visual metaphor of God's love for the Jewish nation. On the other hand, as the holiest place on earth, the mishkan (and Temple after it) had very strict rules which made it a fearful place to be. Touching the holy Ark was forbidden, and the high level of formality forbade sitting when visiting. Even a well-intentioned deviation from the prescribed method of service would warrant death, as Aharon's own sons demonstrated. The paradox of intimacy and formality, love and awe, fills our understanding of the mishkan with tension.

This paradox exists in our relationship with God in general. The first building block of Jewish thought is God's absolute infinite oneness. However, as finite, complex beings, our understanding of Him and the attributes we perceive, as it were, are varied. A fundamental dialectic in our relationship with God is his distant glory on the one hand, and his intimate nearness on the other. Not only are these two philosophic modes, but, at times, individuals can feel the warmth of his nearness, "ואני קרבת אלקים לי טוב" (Tehilim 73:28), and at other times, we recognize the infinite gulf between us, "ואלקינו בשּמים". Who has not felt Hashem as near as a father at some times, setting things up just so, in times of joy, and ennabling us to continue in the face of tremendous suffering, when things are hard? Who has not turned to Him in tears, as to a parent? And yet, we all know the awe of a King, and tremble in trepidation when the chazzan sings the un'tane tokef, of God's judgement, on Rosh Hashanna. We are constantly in a state of flux between the two poles of immanence and transcendence.

But how are we to interact with these distinct human realities vis-a-vis God? The Kedushat Levi relates them to the two primary modalities of feeling, those of love and awe. Awe (yirat Hashem) is active when we consider our relationship to the transcendent Creator of the world. Awe is our reaction to Hashem's Kingship, His distance. It is this mode that produces fear and respect towards the all-powerful, all-knowing, extra-temporal Source of all being. Rav Levi Yitzchak sees an expression of this in God's command to Moshe and the elders to come closer, and yet, "prostrate yourselves from afar" (Sh'mot 24:1). There is a limit to our ability to approach, and we kneel before God's glory.

On the other hand, love (ahavat Hashem) is in mind when we consider the animating spirit that God's breath instills in His creations. He is our father, the one we go to for help and comfort. That intimacy bourne of an immanent, parental bond is one which inspires us to dependency, reliance, and ultimately, to love of God.

Love and awe are different aspects of the same God. Hashem does not change, and yet our perception of Him at various moments does. Because our minds are finite, they see things in a compartmentalized way. However, Love and awe are not mutually exclusive. Our service of Hashem takes the dialictic and merges it. The very act of prostration from afar that Moshe and the elders do is preceeded by "ascending towards God". In the mishkan, closeness and distance rule together. We must, to the best of our abilities, strive to relate to God at once as our most intimate relationship, and yet, still, understand that this closeness cannot begin to bridge the abyss between us and our Creator. Even in our closeness, our ascension onto the mountain, we are still insurmountably far from Him, and bow meekly before that glory which we cannot begin to understand.

The way we relate to the mishkan mirrors the way we relate to God Himself. Perhaps this is part of the lesson the mishkan teaches. We know that each shul, indeed, each Jewish home, is a מקדש מעט, a small Temple. By taking the lessons from the Temple and mishkan, and applying them to our communal and private resting places for the shechina, we can bring the immanence and transcendence of the shechina into our every-day lives.