Shaya Cohen -


Text of Mishkan Book

Seeking Holiness:

The Mishkan as Your Guide

Shaya Cohen

Creative Judaism Series, Vol. 2

Copyright © 2019 Shaya Cohen

All rights reserved.


Cover Design: Veronika Vana

Quilt: Nechama Cox

The quilt has a series of overlaid patterns numbering “eight,” which is deeply connected to the Mishkan itself, and a reminder that the number 8 is the human bridge between Hashem (9) and the natural world 7). A brief list:: The Mishkan was inaugurated on the eighth day; after Moshe and Aaron and Aaron’s sons perform the priestly service in the first Mishkan ever built, for seven days; the Divine Presence then descended and revealed itself there through the priestly offerings on the eighth day; newborn animals could only be brought as offerings from their eighth day of life onward; there were also eight types of offerings which could only be brought on eight specific days; the High Priest wore eight holy vestments; the High Priest changed garments eight times on Yom Kippur; eight varieties of spices, four for the oil of ointment and four for the incense, were used; eight poles were used to carry the objects of the sanctuary (two for the ark, two for the table, two for the golden altar, and two for the copper altar).


1 The “Why” of the Mishkan 1
2 What is the Mishkan 18
3 The Menorah 20
4 The Showbread 50
5 The Ark 106
6 The Altar 186
7 Final Words 234


For the Lord will again delight in your well-being, as He did in that of your fathers, since you will be heeding the Lord your God and keeping His commandments and laws that are recorded in this book of the Teaching—once you return to the Lord your God with all your heart and soul.

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.[1]

While we were writing this book, Shaya Cohen pointed out this quotation; it was like another door opened for me! I have loved studying Torah and making my contributions to this series of books, and suddenly I realized that Hashem didn’t want to provide me with an education that was obscure and difficult, but one that was accessible and engaging. The very foundation of Judaism—the Torah—and the Mishkan in particular, are meant to show us the path to holiness, and to reassure us that these teachings and Hashem Himself is present and available for guiding and deepening our lives. My motivation to explore and write grew as I embraced this understanding.

For most people, however, Hashem, the Mishkan and the Torah are obscure and inaccessible. Many observant Jews learn from a young age that meticulous performance of the mitzvot is the path to holiness, the means to being a good Jew and to living an honorable life. They are also taught the symbols of Judaism and what they represent. Life is filled with holy observances, praying to Hashem, and following the customs and laws.

For Jews who are at the other end of the practice spectrum, those who may have only a secular identity as a Jew (for a multitude of reasons), Judaism only provides an ethnicity, sometimes an appreciation of the Ten Commandments, and perhaps a mix of practices of holiday observances, whether they attend a Seder or go to synagogue once per year at Yom Kippur. For ethnic Jews, Hebrew school enables the students to gain a sense of identity as a member of a “club.” And of course, there are many Jews within and between these extremes who determine on their own the degree and depth to which they will live as Jews.

As different as the two extremes of observance seem to be, they have one thing in common. Few people ask one simple question: why. Why do we offer certain prayers? Why do we follow certain practices? Why do we have designated holidays? Why do we have any of the accoutrements of the Jewish religion?

In asking this question, we are reaching for more than the common answer given in Fiddler on the Roof: “Tradition!” We are not content to merely rest on historical repetition, or the answer one might give an inquisitive but simple child: “Because!”

Instead, we’d like to ask the questions of the Torah itself: why is there a Menorah in the Mishkan? Or why are we commanded to offer sacrifices? Or the ark that was built to protect the tablets of the Ten Commandments—why was the ark built as it was, and why are we instructed to put the tablets inside the ark, and not somewhere else? And the twelve showbreads represent the twelve tribes, but why are we told to make them and place them in the Mishkan?

We might be tempted to pull back from pursuing the “why” question for a myriad of reasons, including our lack of confidence in our ability to discover the answers, as the opening quotation of this chapter suggests. After all, isn’t that question part of the mystery of Hashem? Is it appropriate to want to know the mind of Hashem? Aren’t these the kinds of questions we are supposed to accept on faith?

But Moshe assures us that the “why” question is significant: (1) Hashem wants us to explore these questions; (2) Hashem has written the Torah so that it is not beyond our understanding; (3) An understanding of Torah is available to everyone. He says, “No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”[2] The words that reflect our grasp of Torah rest on our lips, ready to be articulated, and in our hearts, to be experienced. They are always available to us and are part of our very being.

Ultimately in this book we will talk about the meaning of the symbols of the Mishkan, why Hashem wanted us to build the Mishkan, the place where He would reside among us. But before we take that journey, let’s explore the “why” of the Mishkan and Torah and why they are so valuable.

How “Why” is Different from the Symbolism of Practice

When we look at the “why” of Jewish practice, we are suggesting in this book that the Mishkan and everything it includes provides us with the opportunity to understand what Hashem wants us to know, how we can most fervently experience our lives, our relationship with others and our connection with Hashem. Certainly, the symbolism of practices provides that connection to some degree. For example, we mentioned the Menorah earlier, which, when lit, illuminates the world around it; it allows us to see the world more clearly, and reminds us that we are to be a light to the world.

But the question “why” asks us to take that understanding even further: why are we called to light the Menorah in particular? Hashem provided light through Creation, and we know that He wants us to continue his creativity. So how do we use light to be creative, and what does it mean to bring light to, or enlighten, the world? Perhaps it means that we are to be instrumental in offering wisdom in a time of global depravity: we can offer hope to those who are suffering; we can teach others alternatives to evil action; we can model how to be in relationships, how to treat others, how to handle life’s difficulties, how to demonstrate resiliency. When we offer these kinds of wisdom and teachings, we are indeed shining a light within the world. We also, through our actions, remind ourselves that we are to live our own lives in these same ways.

We want to emphasize that when you ask “Why,” your own answers might be entirely different than ours. Or you may identify a preliminary answer at first, if you are new to this process, and build on it or refine it over time. The key here is not to come up with the right or perfect answer. Rather, we want to suggest that it is a spiritual journey in taking your practice to a deeper level. Asking “why” takes you on a path of curiosity, exploration and learning. It enlivens your practice, allowing your observance to expand and be enriched, and will strengthen your relationship with others and with Hashem. You will be fulfilling Hashem’s call to be creative and to be intimate with Him, to understand your place in the world, and to pursue your life with delight and love.

The “why” question can be applied to any aspect of Judaism; remember, Hashem delights in our love of learning and our pursuit of the holy. And since Hashem argued and discussed concerns with our forefathers, Hashem certainly is not surprised if we argue with Him. We only need to remind ourselves that we are encouraged to ask questions and not to take things, ideas, or teachings for granted, but to embody them as we learn them. That kind of dedication requires us to be open, curious, and willing to be surprised; we never know what we will discover! But Hashem is waiting for us to show up, to be inquisitive and not be afraid. As Jews, He calls us to be present, open and available in our relationships and in our lives.


To many readers, the Mishkan, the tabernacle, is at best a mystical artifact, lost in the fog of time and with no relevance to our lives today. Nevertheless, the description of the Mishkan, its construction, and its uses (from bread and flame to sacrifices and angels) takes up a very significant amount of the Torah, suggesting that it is really quite important to the Jewish people.

But why? What role does the Mishkan fulfill? Why is it such an important part of the foundational text for all of Western Civilization?

We think the answer is available to us, if we keep asking the right questions.

First of all, we should understand how the Torah tells us the Mishkan came to be – it was a direct result of the loneliness and fear that the Jewish people felt when Moshe went up Mount Sinai and seemingly wasn’t returning. The people were still in a relatively primitive state, and it took them many years to be able to understand that Moshe and Hashem were in fact different entities, that Hashem was ready, willing, and eager to have a relationship with each person directly, and did not necessarily require an intermediary like Moshe.

So when Moshe went up, and did not come back when expected, the people panicked for want of leadership. Aaron was still there, but he was pliant and almost never initiated action: it was the people, not he, who insisted on the creation of the golden calf.

We know that Hashem nearly destroyed the people when He realized what they had done. Still, the problem remained: how could the Jews be persuaded that Hashem was always with them, that there was a place where He would “dwell among them.”[3] In this way, even if we did not recognize the divine component within our souls, we would have an external connection to remind us of Hashem’s presence among our people.

So the Jews created an incredibly beautiful structure[4] and ritual items[5] based on the specific directions and plans of Hashem.

Eventually the Mishkan was essentially rooted and expanded as the temple planned by King David and built by his son, King Solomon. But the Temple was really just the Mishkan with a permanent structure around it.

So the Mishkan maintains its significance and holiness as given to us in the Torah.

What Does the Mishkan Teach Us Today?

The Mishkan and its holy items represent many beliefs in today’s Judaism. Many of the items, with their accompanying significance, appear in our homes and synagogues. The holiness of the Mishkan is eternal, and as Hashem’s home, it reminds us not only of Hashem’s presence in our lives: Hashem will forever reside in our hearts. Hashem not only exists in our hearts, but He regularly meets us there in prayer, on special holy days, with our families, and in our synagogues. He wants us never to forget that He will always be with us, never abandon us, and that we are to seek holiness by being close to Him. That is the mission of the Mishkan: to remind us of Hashem’s love and devotion to us and how we can serve Him and nurture our devotion to Him.

To the casual reader, the Torah can seem like little more than an odd ancient historical text, documenting the perspective of a tribal people wandering in the wilderness. But a lot depends on our assumptions. If we, for example, see the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) as a single document with a common theme, then a great many things “pop out” of the text.

One example: in the Six Days of Creation, the Torah tells us of the separation of the waters above and below, and of the light from the darkness. Uniquely for Hashem’s creations, the Torah does not tell us that these separations were “good.”

Indeed, one could read every subsequent act of creation as a means for Hashem to “fix” the previous not-good “oops”: plants reach upward, animals reach even more upward, and finally mankind is created, capable of spanning the gap between earth and heaven, connecting physicality and spirituality. And with that, Hashem stops creating. The rest, seemingly, is up to us.

Fast forward… all the way to the Book of Exodus, where Hashem is describing the home—the Mishkan—that we are supposed to build, so that He might “dwell among us.” And look specifically at the items that Hashem tells us are supposed to be tamid, perpetual. What are the items that are necessary for a home that is suitable for Hashem?

We have the “perpetual light,” the ner tamid. [6] What does it do? Using pressed olives, the perpetual light achieves two goals that tie back to the first days of creation: by taking the physical oil and converting it to light, we are taking something that is material and converting it into energy: the light, like the burning bush, shows the fusion of matter and energy, the connection between the waters above and below, as well as the spreading of light into darkness. Which helps explain why the light[7] is described as being an olah, an elevation. The perpetual light mitigates Hashem’s own acts of separation.

There are also perpetual sacrifices: a pair of lambs and a meal-offering. If one recalls that plants and animals are described as being created on subsequent days, it is easy to see that when we offer both flora and fauna in the Mishkan, we are also furthering the goals of those first days of creation: we take from living samples of the natural physical world and elevate them by offering them to Hashem. We acknowledge that our purpose in this world is to engage in actively lifting the natural world, making our lives and our world connected to spirituality. (The concept is connected to many other biblical commandments as well, like the grass (hyssop) and blood of Passover).

But there is so much more. The Torah continually reminds us of parallels between Hashem’s home and our homes, our marriage to Hashem, and our relationships with each other. And this is where the descriptions of the Mishkan come alive in telling us what, specifically, we are supposed to be doing in our own homes, in our own marriages.

The first use of the word tamid, “perpetual,” references the showbread in the Mishkan[8]. Why bread? Perhaps in part because when Adam and Chava are banished, Hashem tells them, “By the sweat of your brow you should eat bread.” Bread represents hard work. More than that: bread requires more joint effort between Hashem and us than any other thing mankind could make in the ancient world. Wheat must be sown on plowed earth; it must be weeded, tended, and then harvested. The grains must then be separated and milled; the resulting flour must be aged. Only then can water be added, and bread baked. Unlike, for example, refined metal, bread requires both active natural and human involvement throughout the process. In other words, bread represents partnership. The kind of partnership that forms the very best marriages, where both partners are fully committed, each contributing toward a common goal.

In Hashem’s home, as in ours, it is that kind of partnership for the sake of holiness that makes the home fit for the divine presence.

What are the other perpetual elements in the Mishkan? Leviticus tells us of a perpetual fire on the altar. [9] The symbolism in this case is quite clear: the fire looking for an offering represents the desire that we have for each other. Hashem seeks man, and man seeks Hashem, just as man and woman cleave together.

So, in a nutshell, Hashem’s home is both a reminder of our mission in this world, and of the essential components of a home fit for a good and holy marriage: partnership, desire, and mystery all together pledged toward the common cause of completing Hashem’s creation of the world.


The Menorah is a holy symbol from the Temple, and it was the centerpiece of Titus’ triumphant arch (and the tragic destruction of the Second Temple). For thousands of years, this has been the image used in synagogues and Jewish homes (as well as the emblem of Modern Israel) as a representation of Judaism. But why? What does it actually mean?

A common answer is that the menorah represents light, in all its forms: truth, knowledge, and even goodness. One thinks of “A light unto the nations.” And this is a good first step. But why, for example does it have seven arms on one stalk? Why is it described in botanical terms?[10]

In parallel, both Christian theologians and Jewish thinkers like Joseph Cox, and Christian theologians have recently connected the menorah to the burning bush where Moses first meets Hashem. The burning bush was a plant that was on fire without being consumed, just like the menorah. And the bush represented not just heat and light, but also holiness. The burning bush, just like the body and soul, are the unification of the physical and spiritual. So, too, the menorah can be seen as a physical object being used for spiritual ends.

My son made a delightful and novel connection that I have never seen before. He connected the menorah to something else entirely, something that predates the burning bush in the Torah.

In the story of Pharaoh’s second dream[11], which he asked Joseph to interpret, he dreamt of seven heads of grain growing on a single stalk. These represent Egypt herself. Seven on one, just like the menorah.

I would suggest that the menorah and Pharaoh’s corn are mirror images of the other, representing the mirror images of Egypt and Israel – and indeed, the mirror image of heaven and earth. Both the menorah and the grain have seven arms. Both are on a single stalk.

The word for “stalk” is first found in the Torah[12] when Hashem is described as the maker of heaven and earth. “Maker” is the same word as “stalk” in Pharaoh’s dream and for the menorah. So, the “stalk” is a metaphor for Hashem.

So here we have it: heaven and earth come from the same source, the same Creator. And they are mirror images of each other, made at the same time, formed from the waters that are divided on the second day in Genesis.

The Torah frequently contrasts Egypt and Israel. Egypt was the breadbasket of the ancient world and its sustenance came through harmonization with the waters below (the Nile) and not from rainfall. Consequently, its symbol comes from the Nile and represents agricultural wealth. Egypt is Nature and the celebration of mankind’s physical existence and connection to physical water.

Israel, in contrast, is meant to be a spiritual light unto the nations, gaining its sustenance through a relationship with Hashem. Israel exists because of heaven and seeks to connect mankind through our souls.

The language reflects this nicely. The word used for Nile in the Torah is constructed from the Hebrew letters Yud-Alef-Vav-Reish, which means the source of irrigation. But that same word has, within it, the word Alef-Vav-Reish—ohr, or “light”—the very same as the light enunciated in, “let there be light” in the creation. So, just as the source of Egypt’s blessings come from the waters below, Israel’s blessings come from the light above.

The exegesis writes itself from here. The number seven (as both the menorah and the corn have seven “fruits” on each stalk) can be explained in a host of related ways: seven is the number of the days of creation, the number of Nature. The Torah uses seven names for heaven, so we say it has seven levels. And seven spiritual giants were buried at the cave of Machpelah that Avraham purchased (Adam, Avraham, Sarah, Leah, Rivka, Yitzhak, Yaakov).

Corn comes from the earth, while the menorah is described as being like almonds, which come from trees that reach upward as long as they live. The contrast is clear: the Torah divides the world between those who seek to look down, to live in harmony with Nature, and those who seek to connect to the spiritual plane, to look up to the heavens and the lights of the menorah, seeking to perceive and understand those things that are well beyond the reach of our physical bodies.

Menorah as Change: Seven as the Number of Creation

As we see with the creation of the world, the number “seven” represents the physical creation of the world. The number is very common in the Torah – it is the number required to make something anew, or to change something. It is also the number of “arms” of the menorah.

Just as it took Hashem seven days to create the world, it takes mankind a period of seven years to transform ourselves or others. Seven is the number representing the cycle of days to achieve Shabbos, the cycle of seven years to the land’s fallow year, the period of mourning, shaming, and healing. Each of these things is compared, by the use of the same number, to the creation of the world.

Just as Hashem changes the universe in seven days, when a person changes himself he has changed his entire reality—it is as if he has built the world anew.

It works in the negative sense as well: Hashem threatens to take “sevenfold” revenge on anyone who kills Kayin; Hashem is telling mankind that to take another life is like destroying the world.

In another prominent example, a Jewish servant works for seven years, and then he is free to go—but if he prefers, he can decide to stay in his new world, with his master, his house and his wife. After seven years, therefore, he is allowed to lock in the rest of his life—he is now deemed able to commit himself.

Similarly, when Yaakov bows seven times to his brother Esav when they reconcile, those seven bows (coupled with the presents, the repeated statement that Yaakov is Esav’s servant and that Esav is “my lord”) can be understand as Yaakov giving back the blessings that he had stolen. Yaakov is making full restitution for wronging Esav in the first place.

So while the number “seven” is quite common in the Torah (and consistently carries the same symbolism), the combination of “seven” with another “seven” (or seven squared) is much less common, and reveals another dimension.

For example, the kosher animals collected for Noah’s ark were saved “seven and seven”: I think the “seven, seven” refers to the notion that there are seven earthly levels, mirrored by seven levels of heaven (as described earlier). A kosher animal is one that has the seven spiritual levels that are also mirrored, so it has the potential for being elevated into the spiritual world as well.

If this reading is correct, a pair of sevens represents a spiritual analogue to the physical.

We can see this in the story of Yaakov and his wives. Yaakov meets Rachel, falls in love and ends up working seven years to receive her sister, Leah, and then seven more years for Rachel herself. We believe that the seven, seven signifies the deeply spiritual relationship that Yaakov had with both Rachel and Leah. Unlike his predecessors, Yaakov consulted with his wives and there was a reciprocity that they shared. Yaakov and his relationship with his wives represented the kind of marriages that Hashem wants us to have with Him; he wants our terrestrial marriages to mirror our celestial marriages with Him. Yaakov was also blessed with the most children, a manifestation of his efforts to have reciprocity and sharing in his marriages. He was blessed in all things because he talked and he listened.

Other examples are Pharaoh’s dreams, which are also combinations of sevens and sevens – ears of corn, cows, and famine. These prophetic dreams, too, represent a full transformation of Egypt (and Israel) in all of its forms: the introduction of Yaakov’s family (and all the culture and baggage that came with it) into Egypt, the transformation of Egypt wherein Yosef would end up purchasing all the land and people to be slaves for Pharaoh, the wheels that were set in motion for the enslavement of the Jews and their subsequent violent Exodus. Egypt and Israel were transformed by that experience, both physically and spiritually: seven, sevens.

“Seven and seven” (in this case, multiplied) is also the number of days between leaving Egypt and the events at Mount Sinai. After centuries of what could best be described as divine neglect, the Jews found themselves thrust into a crash course on how to be close to Hashem, to receive the Torah. We relive this experience between Passover and the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) every year, as we count seven sevens from the time of the Exodus until the time the Torah was given.[13]

Lastly: while every seven years the land must be left fallow, every seven, seven years, all the land outside of a walled city reverts to its previous owner. It is called yovel, or Jubilee:

And thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years; and there shall be unto thee the days of seven sabbaths of years, even forty and nine years.[14]

The purpose of the Jubilee is to force each person, no matter how involved they become in matters of the tangible world to seek a relationship with Hashem, to pray in the face of uncertainty of the Jubilee year itself.

Seven sevens perpetuates insecurity (and growth) in both a physical and a spiritual sense. Just as seven and seven made Yaakov experience the full marital gauntlet, the Torah is telling us that from the animals in the ark, to descending to—and then rising out of—Egypt, to the lights of the menorah, when we encounter seven sevens, we undergo a complete reboot of ourselves and our relationship with our Creator.

Menorah as Inspiration

When we look for spiritual inspiration, we will not find it in Nature, even if we find nature moving and satisfying. Nature has its own laws. Nature is its own system that can be modeled (at least to some extent) using the natural sciences of biology and chemistry and physics. As attractive as those sciences are, and as comprehensive and seductive as the mathematics that describes those sciences can be, any law we can derive from Nature ends where humanity begins. The menorah, signifying stalks of corn, represents both Nature and its counterpoints.

In Nature, might makes right. The young kill the old. Life has no intrinsic value, and events like sunlight or storms or avalanches or rainfall all seem to happen for no moral or underlying reason that is connected to mankind. The Torah is telling us that we must not look to Nature to help us define justice, and the menorah reminds us to look beyond Nature and look upward for our morality and for justice.

Justice in the Torah values every human life as the host for a spark of the divine spirit—even the newborn, the old, the infirm or handicapped—as well as the powerless widow or orphan. It is Torah Justice that rejects the way in which Nature seems to pick winners and losers, that says that each person, no matter how fast or strong or smart they might be, is equal in the eyes of the law.

The illumination of the menorah shines a light on the divine nature of justice: “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”[15] We must seek our inspiration from a relationship with the Hashem, not with Nature.

Menorah is Re-Unification

When Hashem gave Moshe instructions for building the tabernacle, He gave him specific instructions for building the menorah:

And the Lord spoke unto Moshe, saying: Command the children of Israel that they bring unto thee pure oil olive beaten for the light, to cause the lamps to burn continually. Without the veil of the testimony (outside of the curtain), in the tabernacle of the congregation, shall Aaron order it from the evening unto the morning before the Lord continually: it shall be a statute forever in your generations. He shall order the lamps upon the pure candlestick before the Lord continually.[16]

In order to understand the relevance of this commandment in the present day, we have to first understand it in the Torah itself.

In the first week of creation, the phrase “and it was evening and it was morning” is used to provide “bookends” for each of the days. The verses written above, by using the same words “from the evening unto the morning” tells us that there is a linkage from the menorah’s light to the days of creation. What is that connection?

On the first day of creation, Hashem separated the light and the darkness. He called the light “day” and the night “darkness.” Note, however, that He does not call this separation good. This is a key point, because it indicates to us that our own specific task is to fix that separation!

Our job in this world is to help reunify this gap, to bring light into darkness. And that is why the light is lit “from the evening unto the morning,” to ensure that every person understands that we are not merely to allow darkness to swallow every day. Mankind is not a passive force; we have an active role to play. We are to elevate matter into energy, lighting the oil, healing the chasm between night and day.

Menorah as Enlightenment

If one looks around the world, it is striking just how few people actually seek, and find, meaning in their existences. Modernity, along with its material wealth, has exposed this gap. When you give people whatever they need to live, they find themselves unable to explain why they exist. And so they then need to find outlets for their natural energies – from spectator sports to drug use to gang violence.

Not only do people lack meaning, but they don’t understand what is wrong with their world, so they blame anything else—white people, “the system,” free trade, global corporations. Any target will do, as long as it does not require hard work and sober self-assessment. Constant sensory inputs from music and media, combined with physical distractions like drugs and pornography all serve to help the person avoid the cold, hard truth: their lives are a wasted opportunity.

Religion, on the other hand, has played a profound role in human history. By providing a reason for each person’s existence, religion has guided and shaped our decisions and the resulting outcomes. In times of scarcity and plenty, the non-pagan religions have given people a sense of purpose, an understanding that the good life is not futile or empty. The menorah shines a light on the importance of our identifying purpose in our own lives so that we may help others bring the light into their own.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it:

Our vocation is to be God’s ambassadors to the world, giving testimony through the way we live that it is possible for a small people to survive and thrive under the most adverse conditions, to construct a society of law-governed liberty for which we all bear collective responsibility, and to “act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.”[17]

Jews do not seek to convert others to Judaism, but merely to inspire other people to be creative and productive in their own ways. Leadership is good, but partnership is good, too. So is merely identifying and applauding all the good things that others do; showing appreciation goes a long way toward overcoming the natural envies and fears that make it harder for people to take their own risks.

We can create those bonds through personal connections, through conversations. Every opportunity we have to connect with others, to show them that life can be so very much more than empty loneliness punctuated by drugs and sex, is an opportunity to reach out to mankind:

You shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your G-d, and His testimonies and His statutes, which He has commanded you. And you shall do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord.[18]

Why, if we do all that we are commanded to do, does the Torah also need to add that we should do “what is right and good”? In the Torah, the word we translate as “right” forms part of the word for “Israel” and it comes from a word that means to “strive” or “engage” (as when Yaakov strove with the angel). And the first time something is called “good” is when Hashem creates light.

In addition to the commandments and the testimonies and the statutes, we Jews are always enjoined to push forward—to engage with each other and with Hashem and with the world around us. And we must always seek to create positive things—things that like light itself—have never existed before. The Torah is commanding us to be imitatio dei, to imitate our Creator by creating in turn, and connecting with the world.

Indeed, Judaism is a precursor to Christianity, and Christianity has done far more than any other faith to bring the notion of a meaningful life to the world. Religion is powerful: The world has been profoundly changed for the better through the power of nothing more than disseminated ideas.

Perhaps Jews are out here in the world because one cannot be “a light unto the nations” from faraway shores; we need to interact constantly and work with everyone, to help people find their own productive ways to contribute to the world around them: “what is right and good in the eyes of the Lord.”

Menorah as Empowerment

The vast majority of people in the world are merely consumers when it comes to beliefs. They act in relatively predictable ways. They vote based on name recognition, which means that campaign spending directly correlates to success at the voting booth. People care about what the media tells them to care about. They identify with a tribe, a region, a sports team if for no other reason than accident of birth.

The menorah shines a light on the nature of perceptions and reality. It reminds us about how we see the world and how our perceptions are created. It also represents how we can study our own perceptions and determine if they limit us or empower us. It shows us how we have the power to make a difference in the world by enlightening ourselves and those whose lives we touch. Here is why that matters.

People act based on their impressions, on their perceptions. But those perceptions did not just happen: they are created by someone else, someone with the force of will to project their own version of a story. The people who shape and change the world are those who create the reality in which other people live. They do it with a variety of tools that are well understood by any student of propaganda: clever control of the Media, the Big Lie, flattering the audience, etc. The story can be told in such a way that up becomes down, that black becomes white.

I would even go so far as to say that this is not a bug, but a feature. The world in which we live is one where perception is, in the end, the only thing that matters for anything having to do with human interactions. Beliefs always trump “reality.” Every scandal is only a scandal if people believe it to be one.

A dictator tells a story and people believe it. That dictator creates the reality in his own world, because he creates it in the eyes of the vast majority of his people. A War of the Worlds broadcast can induce panic across the land because words create reality in the minds of people, and people react to those perceptions.

Whether we like it or not, marketing is often more important than any underlying set of facts. And what is truly remarkable about this fact is that at the same time it discourages truth-seekers, it also makes people, potentially, far more powerful and capable than they otherwise would be. The ability of man to create things in his own mind can cut both ways.

The Torah tells us that there is only Hashem. And it also tells us that we should not put any other gods first, which means that the Torah is telling us that something that we worship is a deity, even if it has no underlying power in itself beyond what we lend it. It is man who makes Hashem powerful in the eyes of other men.

For thousands of years people have believed in the famous allegory of Plato’s Cave. It tells us about the “Real” world, accessible not through observation, but through the mental exercises of extremely bright people. The readers, appropriately flattered, are sucked into the vision, the mirage that we call “Reality.” And so they believe, paradoxically, that their belief in Reality is independent of any religious faith. [Usage note: “Reality” is the thing in itself; “reality” is what we think it is.]

The joke, though, is that the tools developed through science and engineering tell us otherwise. In every way we can measure, there is no Reality. The observer always influences the observed, so that each person truly lives in his or her own world.

In a world without Reality, what do we have left? Beyond those things in the physical world that we can measure and manipulate, we are left with what we create in our own minds, our own specific realities. Religions are powerful because we can number their practitioners, measure the effects of the religion on literacy rates, or the creation of orphanages and hospitals, the number of scientific discoveries or engineering innovations.

There is only religion. And everybody has one. Greens worship Nature, and Atheists worship systems or an idea of objective reality just as surely as Muslims worship Allah. Only someone whose self-awareness is below that of a human child can have no religious belief.

And what is the goal of virtually every religion in the world? To get everyone else to acknowledge that it is True. So religions proselytize – Muslims and Catholics and Greens and Atheists all feel it is very important to convince other people to agree with them. Indeed, the success of a religion in the world is an objective measurement of the strength of those sets of beliefs. People instinctively understand that it matters whether other people agree with them. Even Plato, who would have denied it, sought to spread the religion of Reality even as he engaged in sharing his ideas. We spread our religion by convincing others to agree with us.

But we should not be confused into thinking that it does not matter to which religion one subscribes! The worldview that comes from a religion has a self-fulfilling component. People who believe that the world is governed by Fate (which includes both Hindus and Atheists who believe the future can be predicted from a present Reality with the use of sophisticated-enough computer models) are much less likely to be Creators in their own right. They tend to be reactive instead of proactive.

Those who think that a deity (whether Reality or Allah) is the only source of absolute truth and power tend to limit their ambitions. Those who read Ecclesiastes and believe that “there is nothing new under the sun,” won’t be inventing a time machine. On the other hand, those who read Genesis and conclude that they are empowered with Hashem’s own spirit, capable of emulating Hashem by creating entirely new worlds, plausibly have it within their power to do so.

Regardless of one’s religion, it is observationally and objectively true that people who aim high have a better chance of success. The question one might ask is: which religions lead people to aim high?

To some extent, all people absorb the reality of others. Just as concepts of beauty have changed through the ages, women have considered themselves beautiful or ugly based on how they appear in their own eyes, as well as the eyes of others. It is rare to find someone who is secure in being beautiful when those around them are repelled by them.

But the differences between the few people in this world who can (and do) change it, and the 6+ billion people who will live and die without leaving more than a fleeting impression on the minds of those they knew, come down to this: powerful people change the way other people see the world. Projection is reality. It is our mission as Jews to help them see their lives more clearly. That is the purpose of the menorah—to illuminate Hashem’s version of reality, a version in which mankind is a powerful partner with Hashem, and charged to be holy because Hashem is holy.

Thus, we receive many powerful messages from the symbolism of the menorah. In so many ways it is the light of the Jewish people, a people who seek to create a light both in the world and within other people.


At one time or another, children protest, “I can’t do it!” And they name a seemingly-inherent limitation that prevents them from completing their goal. How many times have we heard this complaint from children, and indeed from adults? How many times have we said it ourselves? An adult version of the same excuse might be, “I am only human,” or “I am only one person.” This protest sounds reasonable, but it limits us in extremely dangerous ways.

The question often defines the answer. Worst of all is, “Who am I to do this?” implying that the task should fall to someone else. “Can I do this?” is better, but it still admits to the possibility of failure. The formulation we prefer—and which we try to use ourselves, is— “How do I do this?” If we are always looking for constructive solutions, we are much more likely to make progress.

The difference comes down to whether people think of themselves as a verb or a noun: are we defined by what we do, or are we defined by what we are? We submit that this issue is at the very heart of the differences between successful individuals, cultures and nations, and those who merely tick the boxes, the quiet billions who live their lives, exist within the boundaries of their nature and nurture, and leave this earth without making much of an impact either way.

It starts with the mind, and with childhood. Of all the bullying by students and categorization by teachers and well-intentioned adults, the most dangerous are the labels that become the excuse for inaction and for the status quo: “I am stupid” is the most obvious, but even simple adjectives describing body type or physical limitations are enough to sap ambition. Everyone remembers that offhand remark from a peer or teacher or parent – the statement about one’s limitations, of not being smart enough or attractive enough. These sorts of statements, which often are classified as loshon horah, “evil speech” in Judaism, inject a slow but crippling poison in the ears of the listeners. We are forbidden from speaking about other people in this way, because such speech constrains what the listeners themselves believe they are capable of achieving.

We are even forbidden to say them about ourselves! When tasked by Hashem to approach Pharaoh, Moshe claims that he cannot do it because of some speech impediment. Hashem replies: ‘Who hath made man’s mouth? Or who maketh a man dumb, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I the LORD?”[19] But Moshe will not budge. Once a man has it in his head that he is not capable of something, even Hashem Almighty, in a direct confrontation, cannot change his mind! Our own self-perception is often our greatest enemy. In this case, Hashem gives in, and Aaron is tasked with the speaking role.

In our own lives, we must take responsibility for not trying to imitate Hashem but to be creative in our own right. Rather than trying to imitate nature, we are called to make things that have never been made before. And it is the showbread on the altar that reminds us that we are partners in creation with Hashem. This section, then, will discuss how we can be creative partners with Hashem, as inspired by the holiness of the showbread.

The Relevance of the Showbread

Placing the showbread on the altar is a commandment that is linked to each week (as opposed to a day), placing the new bread (which was baked on Friday) on the altar each Shabbos. There are twelve loaves, corresponding to the twelve tribes – or perhaps the six days and six nights (or the physical and spiritual aspects of each of the six days).

Bread is also the food which requires the greatest amount of human interaction – bread, like money, does not grow on trees. There are many time-consuming steps between plowing fields, harvesting grain, and the baking of bread. Wheat must be sown on plowed earth, it must be weeded, tended, and then harvested. The grains must then be separated and milled, the resulting flour aged. Only then can water be added, the mixture worked, and the bread baked. Thus, Hashem provided the materials for the showbread, but only we ourselves could produce (create) it. This assured that our offering was produced at the highest possible level for the altar: our own creative offering to Hashem.

But what does it mean to us today?

We think the answer connects back to the nature of bread itself. Among all foodstuffs, bread is quite different from meat (which can be found in the wild) or fruit, which can simply fall from a tree. This is the reason for the continuous offerings, the commandments incumbent on the entire nation. The showbread is to remind us that we are to see a weekly cycle of work and accomplishment, with Hashem our partner in all of our endeavors. We work with Him to make bread, life-sustaining food. The showbread reminds us of the reasons for our existence: to be creative in the world.

We have the tradition every Friday night of each of us recounting their greatest accomplishment of the previous week – the thing they did of which they are most proud. It could be a kind word or deed, a good grade on a paper, anything that they can look back on with satisfaction.

This is partly what Shabbos is all about: Hashem created the world, and then on Shabbos he rested. So, too, all week long we labor and create, and then on Shabbos we rest from those labors. From one week to the next, we share the results of our labor with each other and then commemorate those actions with the showbread. We experience a link between the past, present and future, as we labor, then rest; the commandment of the showbread gives us continuity, and displaying the bread honors the accomplishment for our entire people.

Why There are No Pictures in the Torah

The Torah is an extraordinary text in no small part because it devotes many chapters to describing what things ought to look like, but never has so much as an accompanying sketch to help the reader along. It stimulates our own creative juices, rather than our needing to rely on specific instructions. A single picture certainly can be worth a thousand words, especially when conveying an architectural plan. But we are given no pictures or visual aids of any kind.

So when the text reads, “You shall erect the Mishkan according to its manner, as you will have been shown on the mountain,” we should read it as: “You shall erect the Mishkan guided by the inspiration that you have been shown on the mountain.” Which means that the Torah is explicitly inviting the builders of the Mishkan to tap into their own creativity.

The fact that the Torah uses words and not pictures tells us that we are enjoined to think for ourselves, to engage our imaginations, at every level. Being a Jew does not mean obediently going through the steps: it means engaging with Hashem and ourselves in order to jointly build Hashem’s home together. The challenge of building is not the negation of the self; it is the responsibility and challenge of both understanding and interacting with a divinely-inspired internal vision, and building something that is the synthesis of the vision of both Hashem and man.

In this way, we can answer the original question: having the Mishkan (and much else besides) described using merely words is not a “bug,”; it is a feature. Many of our sages compare the creation of the Mishkan by mankind to the creation of the world by Hashem.

The Mishkan is not merely holy because it exists; it is holy because we build it. The investment of human capital – both physical and spiritual—is required to build a home suitable for Hashem.

In this way, we can answer the original question: having the Mishkan (and much else besides) described using merely words is not a “bug”: it is a feature. Many of our sages compare the creation of the Mishkan by mankind to the creation of the world by Hashem. There are many deep and beautiful parallels, from the connections to Shabbos, to “man and woman” mirroring the angels on top of the ark, to a “measure-for-measure” partnership between Hashem and mankind. When we build the Mishkan, we echo Hashem’s own creative act.

The first words of the Torah begin with creation: Bereishis barah Elokim, usually translated as “in the beginning, Hashem created.” Hebrew is a rich language because of all the ways in which things connect one to the next. The word we translate as “in the beginning” shares the source word, the shoresh, with the word meaning “head.” Which means that “in the beginning Hashem created” can also be read as, “In/with the head, Hashem created.”

The creation of the world was an act of imagination – Hashem’s imagination. And so when we create in turn, emulating Hashem’s creation of the world by building His home, the Mishkan, we are to involve our own imaginations, our inner visions. The Torah does not paint us a picture for a simple reason: the Mishkan is not fully designed in heaven. We are to be full partners in that act of creation, engaging both our physical bodies and our spiritual souls in the act of making something new and beautiful so that He may dwell among us.

So Hashem calls us to be creative beings, entrusts us with carrying out our creations with his guidance and our own imagination.

Desire to Create Beauty

The desire to create is embedded in our actions to produce something new. That desire quickens the heart, tickles the mind, and fires up the imagination. The object of our desire which is (at least in all the ways our instruments can measure) “merely” physical somehow engages with and attracts the soul. We want to revel in the experience, immersing in the object of our desire, through every sense we possess: sight, sound, taste, smell and touch.

The arts are one area that we think of when we think of creativity. A 2×4 piece of wood is a static thing; it was made impersonally by a faceless machine. But that same piece of wood, worked over a lathe, lovingly handled by an artist, and crafted into a sculpture, is no longer a mere piece of wood. It is more.

Beauty is necessarily dynamic. Ideally, beauty requires the engagement of two living souls, but it can also be the connection between one living soul and the object of a creative act. Beauty is alive, because desire is not a static thing – it must be constantly in motion, an ongoing swirling and fluxing attraction. Even if the beautiful object is static (think of the Mona Lisa), the observer is not. He studies her carefully, noticing different aspects, fascinated in turn by what happens under different lighting, or when he is in a different mood. More than this: I think the Mona Lisa is attractive because the painting has had its creator’s soul poured into it – and the ensoulment of the artist into the art is itself not static.

This is the power of art. It is something into which creators have poured themselves. We see in that thing the expression of the creators’ souls, their spirituality poured into something which, if it were to be described using purely physical language, may be nothing more than sound frequencies, the way a person moves his or her body, or the result of paint smeared on a canvas.

When someone invests in creating a poem or a piece of music or art, that creator has invested her soul into that object, creating something that can be deep and rich and hypnotically attractive; think of Hashem’s creations in the stunning world around us, as well as His creation of mankind. And man’s creations in partnership with Hashem are no less beautiful (albeit in a different way): think of a symphony, or a Mona Lisa, or a cheerful and engaging toddler.

Of course, not all creations are beautiful just because they have been created. We can make garbage at least as easily as we can create something that is attractive. The challenge is to keep growing, to use our creative powers to advance down a mystical path instead of merely to create a graven image, a pale imitation of Hashem’s own creations. Our challenge is to make something that has never existed before. That thing is the best kind of beauty of all. It is the kind of art that can touch and inspire and enthrall millions.

This is not merely echoing Hashem’s creations. Hashem has already created the world. Remaking things that have already been made is not human progress; it is mere repetition, like marching in big circles (think of all the pagan conceptions of the world as nothing more than a wheel). When we make things, we are not supposed to imitate nature, Hashem’s own work.

And just as birds and airplanes fly using different mechanisms, Hashem’s creation and our own efforts are similar only in spirit and not in technique. But just because we don’t create in the same way that Hashem does, it does not mean that we don’t create at all. An airplane may not work like a bird, but it still flies – and in its own way, very well indeed. Our technology is different from Hashem’s, but they both serve their respective purposes.

If we simply duplicated things that have already been created, we would be stuck in a repeating pattern, an ultimately static existence. And without dynamism, there can be no beauty. So, true beauty requires us to do what Hashem did: create things that never existed before.

Holy creation is creating something that opens up doorways, growing in new areas of personal or communal or even technological development.

Art and Making Graven Images

On the Ninth of Av in the Jewish calendar, we read in the Torah that Hashem’s anger is kindled when we do two things: make a graven image, and do evil.

“Doing evil” seems easy enough to understand—Hashem wants us to do good. It is not hard to see why acts of kindness and holiness are what we need in order to improve the world and make the most of our lives.

But why are graven images – idols—such a problem? Of all things we can do or make, why is this one singled out?

Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. [20]

Man is insecure. There are many powerful forces beyond our control and our understanding. These forces seem to hold our lives in their hands, and they are fundamental forces like wind and rain and sea and volcano and sun. In turn, they may be influenced or managed by what might be called “higher order gods” – Luck, or Fate, or any of a number of named deities in the Greek, Norse, or other pantheons.

In a primitive world, people simply worshipped the natural force itself. Slightly more advanced societies named deities as being in charge of their respective natural component. But it really all amounted to a “cargo cult” of sorts; paying off the appropriate deity by means of sacrifice and suffering would do the trick.

Note that idol worship was tightly connected to doing evil: buying off the deity had a cost, in sacrificed foodstuffs, children, and virgins, not to mention the hearts of vanquished enemies. And if the god was satisfied, then he did not care what men did between them. Might made right. Once the volcano deity got his virgin, the powerful people in the village could go back to whatever it is they liked doing, which usually involved being unkind (to say the least) to others.

This all seems so deliciously unconnected from our modern, technologically advanced world. After all, even the words “graven image,” and the concept of idol worship, sound like a quaint notion from an ancient past. But think about it: are people today really so secure about the Big Bad World that they won’t seek out an idol?

Think, for example, about superheroes in film and television. As organized religion fades, superheroes have come back into fashion. Some of them (Ironman or Batman) are ordinary men who harness their ambition to become extraordinary. Most, though, have magical powers that make them better than mere mortals. Deities from ancient pagan worlds are coming back as superheroes, including Thor and Loki and others.

Why are we attracted to superheroes? For the same reason the ancients worshipped idols: Superman gives us an alternative to taking responsibility for our own world. Who are we to change the world, when there are superheroes out there who are so much more capable than a mere mortal? It is all an excuse for passivity, for choosing to become a cheerleader instead of taking the field.

And here it comes full circle. The problem with graven images are that they are external, shared images, but the spiritual path for each person must, in Judaism, be internal. Each person has his or her own unique path, with a conversation—words—at the heart of that internal quest. The Torah has no illustrations and the prophets never painted. Words engage with each person’s soul.

It is words—the spoken word—that is at the heart of the Torah. Words talk to the soul, not, as do graphics, to the eyes. People perceive the same words differently, each engaging with their own imagination to give the words life.

Idol-worship represents wasted opportunities for individual development. The graven images do not require us to act in holy ways or to study Torah; we come to rely on them to fix our lives, bring us benefits, make us happy, and solve our problems. We only need to sit back, offer a few mantras, and let the god represented by the idol take care of the rest. The idols don’t expect us to stretch ourselves, to pray, to build our relationships with other people and with Hashem. They don’t expect us to be creative, take risks or expand our horizons. If we worship idols we can live a passive existence without growing.

The problem with being a cheerleader is that standing on the sidelines (rather than engaging in the game), living a life in which we avoid risk because we are playing it safe, does not grant immortality. We will all die anyway; the question is whether or not we achieve while we are alive.

May we all make the most of our time on this earth, to take personal responsibility and grow, to create and do good, not through graven images, but through our relationship with Hashem.

Creativity and Technology

There is nothing about the Torah that excludes reason or inquiry from our lives—on the contrary! Jerusalem does not stand for the view that truth is delivered solely through revelation, but on the view that revelation provides the hard rock upon which any kind of edifice can be built. Revelation is the launching pad for mankind’s hopes and dreams. Reason, and scientific enquiry, technology and engineering, are all useful tools and change the world. But whether medicine is used to kill the unborn or heal the sick depends not on medicine itself, but on the principles that guide it, on the foundation-stone that is selected. This is what Torah provides for us.

When we study Torah, we realize that the amorality of reason has been exposed: reason has no moral code of its own, and conforms to fight on behalf of whomever happens to be wielding it at the moment.

We can see the weakness of reason merely by looking at our modern world, a world in which mankind’s technological marvels have accomplished so very much, but all the computational logic available to billions of people has not done anything to advance human morality.

To the contrary: technology, the product of vast amounts of scientific inquiry and engineering development, is agnostic about good and evil, unable to lend any moral insight at all. Morality is, and remains, a matter to be determined by people alone, and not by computers. People now have more power than ever before, but in an age where people are in love with Reason as a source of answers, we are entirely rudderless in how that power should be used. Indeed, by thinking that we can intuit the Good from what makes us feel good, or by using logic to define the Good, we end up just fooling ourselves. Absolutely any atrocity can be justified in the name of logic.

The Torah approach is to turn this premise on its head; to argue that what mankind does is better than Nature – after all, civilization and technology build complexity, pushing back against the natural entropic decay processes. Modern society considers “pure” physicists or biologists or chemists to be at a higher level than a mere engineer—the “intellectual” fashion is to think that scientists are learning about nature, while the latter merely manipulate it for man’s selfish desires.

And who thinks that pure scientists are superior? Anyone who worships the earth itself, thinking of Mother Earth as some kind of deity. Those who feel the “pure” sciences are at a higher level are trumpeting their allegiances – they believe that earth and nature are not just created by Hashem, but are Hashem “Herself.” That form of idol worship leads us to the situation in which we find ourselves today: pure scientists are considered the de facto high priests of the earth-worshipping religions, while those who have learned to improve the natural world through technology, such as engineers, are ridiculed and excoriated for destroying the environment.

Engineers and technologists are not focused on learning about nature, about what Hashem made. Instead, using knowledge gained from the natural world, they emulate Hashem by inventing and creating entirely new things. They may not be scholars of Hashem’s creation, but their work is an elevation of mankind itself, raising humanity through imitatio dei. Just as Hashem created the world, we are meant to imitate Him and complete His creation.

We are supposed to respect human creativity and creations, because Hashem does. When the Jews are slaves in Egypt, we are forced to build the storehouses of Pit’om and Ramses. But in all the punishments of Egypt and its people, these storehouses and their contents are never touched by a plague. Indeed, while everything outside is destroyed by plague after plague, Hashem leaves the buildings entirely alone. There are a lot of similarities between the building of storehouses and the Tower of Babel. A key commonality is the fact that Hashem does not destroy the Tower, or the store houses, or indeed any home that is built by man. Even with the mitzvoh of destroying Amalek, the Torah does not tell us to destroy their buildings or their physical creations.

And throughout the Torah, this seems to be the rule: Hashem may punish people, but He rarely destroys our physical creations, even when our edifices are not built with any holy intention in mind at all. Hashem approves of people building—and creating—things. And He does everything possible to avoid destroying anything made by human hand.

How Technology and Creativity Work: Experimentation

People do not learn new things in a vacuum. Most commonly, we learn to appreciate them by doing them (think of etiquette or Shabbos), but even valuing something is not the same thing as understanding that thing. When the Jews daub blood on their doorposts in Egypt, it is unlikely that they understand the meaning of the act: they are told what to do, not why it is important. Action precedes understanding.

What is not well understood is that the secular world often works the same way. We often assume that life is like a standard laboratory experiment: we theorize and then test the theory. Invention and creation come after study and knowledge.

This assumption is wrong. Historian Phillip Glass points out that innovation often works the other way around! Telescopes and spectacles were not invented by scientists, but by craftsman who were experimenting. Scientists came along later and used the technological tools to study the skies.

Likewise, the history of human technological innovation is dominated by human invention, which then enables science – it is not science that enables invention! Such enormous advances for human health as running water, sewage systems, and shoes all predate the germ theory of disease that much later explained how people get sick. The history of medicine is full of examples of medicines that work, but nobody is quite sure why until much later (think of aspirin and penicillin). And forces like gravity, which can be described and modeled very beautifully by science, are still not understood. The lack of understanding has not stopped mankind, from ancient times to the present day, from harnessing gravity in countless human-made machines and mechanisms.

Technology is human creation for the purpose of doing something—not for the sake of knowledge itself. Science, on the other hand, is often an investigation into the natural world, to understand and explain the energies and masses of the universe, from galaxies to single atoms.

We should not oversimplify; in developed form, science and technology can and do work together. And there are exceptions, such as nuclear fission, where science postulated something that was tested afterward, following the “accepted” version of how things are supposed to work. But these remain exceptions. Technology, by and large, has led the way. Engineers, those much-maligned junior cousins of scientists, design and develop the computers that scientists use, the software that run those computers, the cars and trains and airplanes that scientists use to attend conferences. Humans were harnessing fossil fuels long before geologists declared that they came from fossils.

Henry Ford did not invent the assembly line. He appointed bright people, then left them alone. Over the course of a few years, the moving assembly line organically germinated and grew from the grass roots. The assembly line was such an egalitarian development that the official company magazine did not even recognize what had happened until well after the fact.

It is quite telling that Ford’s executives didn’t even have a name for the assembly line at first, and that the term ‘assembly line’ was hardly used even in the technical press in 1913 and 1914. The Ford innovation wasn’t a research and development goal, nor was it first developed as a theory and then put into practice.[21]

The process that was begun in the early part of the 20th century continues today. The most productive factories are not those that are designed by great minds on a clean sheet of paper; the most productive and nimble factories are those that involve every worker on the floor, each as free as possible to improve what they contribute to the whole. And then the great minds study what has worked, and use it as the baseline for the next great factory.

From Alexander Graham Bell to the modern discovery of how to extract natural gas from shale, it is not perfect understanding that leads to breakthroughs, but rather accidents and errors (though often aided by persistence).

Human creativity is typically not actually a result of a great thinker in an ivory tower. It is usually achieved through hands-on work: tinkering, crafting and actively experimenting. People do, and the doing makes it possible for people to understand.

When the Jewish people accepted the Torah, they said “na’aseh v’nishmah”, “we will do and we will hear.” And we find that this is the pattern that works best, not just with the Torah, but with many other kinds of knowledge as well. WD-40, the ubiquitous machine spray, was not invented in the mind. Thirty-nine previous formulations were tried, and found wanting. The fortieth worked, hence the name. So much of life follows this process of trial-and-error. And Hashem was our model for experimentation!

Trial and Error

Arguably, teshuvah is the oldest complete concept in the world. It is, after all, the first thing that Hashem shows us how to do, through his own creative acts. Teshuvah in our own lives can be defined as confession, repentance and promising not to repeat the deed. Why do we observe teshuvah and how is it related to Creation?

From the beginning. Hashem makes the heaven and the earth, but it was tohu v’vohu, “formless and void.” Hashem does not say that what he made was good. But then He makes light, and the light is good.

Then Hashem divides the light from the darkness, and then He separates the firmament and the waters above and below – heaven and earth. But the Torah does not tell us it is good!

So there appears to be a problem. A separation has occurred. And what is done cannot, apparently, be directly undone – the creation and separation has already happened. Hashem does not undo it! So we learn a simple lesson in how to follow Hashem: when we do teshuvah, we have to actually fix the problem, not merely wish it away.

We know this both from our human experience, and because this is what Hashem then does. He starts creating the conditions for the reunification of the waters. First, He pools the heavens and the dry land, so that there are “anchor” points through which the world can be reunified. That is declared good. And then He creates plants – the first things that start in the land, and reach upward toward the skies. This is life, a force that perpetuates, and can persevere against the rocks, gases and fluids that make up an otherwise-dead physical world. Hashem sees that this, too, is good.

But it is not enough. Plants cannot, by themselves, reunify that which has been divided. They are good, but it is only a step in the right direction. So Hashem makes the sun and moon and stars, to provide cycles, and begin movements (such as tides) in the right direction. In some respects, it is like a swing, going back and forth. When there is a push to help it along, the swing can reach ever-higher. Hashem provides the daily and seasonal cycles that can put everything on the swing into motion. Then, too, the sun and moon shine their light, their energy, downward. It is a way to share the energy of heaven with the earth, to start to bridge the gap between them. This, too, is good.

But it is still not enough. So Hashem keeps going. He makes creatures of the ocean, and flying things, providing more upward force for the water and land below. Every kind, and every variety. This too is good. But Hashem is not yet done.

On the fifth day, Hashem does something extraordinary. He starts to combine the growing things. He creates animals designed to eat the product of the earth, to grow from the grasses that already grow upward. This is also good! The combined effect of the sun and the moon, the grasses, and the animals are able to start to achieve the effect of reunification.

But Hashem is still not done. He then makes mankind. Mankind has the power to combine all of the elevating elements. Man eats both the grasses, and the animals that are “pure” (fully digest plants and elevate themselves). And then Hashem gives mankind the incredible gift of His own creative powers. Mankind then has the power to reunite that which was divided – the heavens and earth.

And now Hashem is done, and He can rest. It is not that He has finished the creation of the world (it is up to us to do that). And it is not that mankind has healed the rift between heaven and earth that Hashem created – because even now, thousands of years later, we have not yet achieved it. But Hashem has put into place all the ingredients that could do the job for Him, even though the actions would be up to mankind. And He rests.

In the beginning of the Torah, Hashem has given us the blueprint for our own lives: that we are supposed to create and do, and then stand back and judge whether what we have done is good or not. And while we cannot “unmake” the mistakes we have made, we can and should work diligently to improve and, if need be, to fashion the tools that will eventually repair the rifts in the world. In a nutshell, the purpose of our existence is given to us in the first chapter of the Torah.

If mankind’s job is to heal the rift between heaven and earth, why then does the Torah not go straight from the creation of Adam and Chavah to Kayin and Havel? What would have happened if Adam and Chavah had not eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil? What was Hashem’s purpose in putting Adam and Chavah in the Garden, and giving them the choice of eating of the fruit?

Hashem had made a rift, a division. And he wants to heal it, but He never unmakes something that He has made – any more than we can “unsay” something that we should not have said. And so as a corrective to the rift that He created, Hashem makes things that will grow upward: plants and animals and mankind. And he gives man His own powers – we are made in His image, with Hashem’s own spirit in us. This is essential: we are neither animals, who must act within their natures, nor are we angels, who must adhere to Hashem’s program. We are given free will, just as Hashem has free will. But the outcome of both divine angels and human technology is the same, which is why the Torah uses the same grammatical root: “melochoh” is mankind’s technology, and a “malach” represents Hashem’s version of technology.

Part and parcel of that free will we have is that our minds, our understandings, create our own reality. What we choose to see is our reality. And so if we choose to see Hashem, then He is there in our lives. And if we do not see Hashem, then we can just as easily explain the world as a series of fortuitous events and coincidences, entirely subject to the laws of physics. We live our lives according to our beliefs: religious people sometimes make different decisions than atheists do, because religious people are guided by the reality that their beliefs create for them.

This is not dissimilar to the question about whether a glass is half full or half empty. Both are objectively true statements, but they may lead to radically different decisions. Someone who chooses to see nature, for example, as beautiful and majestic is much more likely to go on holiday in the Alps than someone who sees nature as a powerful yet impersonal force, cruelly indifferent to whether someone lives or dies. Both sets of observations are true, but they lead to very different choices.

Indeed, our beliefs allow us to discern patterns, picking them out from an ocean of vast data. Though it may be true that a table is, to a physicist, virtually comprised entirely of empty space, only loosely knitted together by atoms that are themselves bonded with spinning and tunneling electrons, nevertheless, for our mundane purposes, the table is a solid and stable surface which we can use. Our beliefs help us make sense of all the data, and to extract what we think we need to know in order to make decisions. We start with our senses, but it is our thoughts, words, and deeds that form the world in which we live.

As Hashem made us in His image, the reality we construct using our divinely borrowed power of creation becomes our reality.

Hashem made a world that was divided, that was comprised of dualisms. He put in place the living things that could unify those dualisms, and mankind was given the divine power to see the world, and to create our own reality. Adam and Chavah were not ashamed at all by their actions, since they had no knowledge of the dualisms!

Hashem created things before he assessed whether they were good or not; in the same way, we are supposed to use our eyes not to lead us to what we want, but instead to evaluate what we have done after the fact. Thus, na’aseh v’nishmah is a lesson in how mankind is supposed to create new things. Make it, test it, break it, then try again.

What does it mean that action precedes understanding? It teaches us that creating new things is actually a prerequisite for understanding Hashem’s creations. When we create, our actions allow us to appreciate at a whole new level what Hashem has done. We relate to Hashem in a completely different way, as human beings who are also creators, taking the risk of acting before we know exactly what will result from our actions! We can better appreciate the nature of Creation and the creative process, and understand how precious the opportunity is to partner with Hashem to continue His Creation.

The process of creation, failure and success, has been performed by countless people for millennia. Blacksmiths and coopers and glass blowers may be replaced by millions of independent software writers, but the principle remains the same. Emulating Hashem’s creative acts is not reserved for the brilliant few in their academies, but is, instead, a profoundly grass-roots activity. Anyone who is willing to try something new can invent. And anyone who is open to believing that their actions and inventions can be important, can take the time to document what they have achieved, and then share it with others.

It is increasingly clear that we do not have a world in which the elite few do the thinking for everyone else, but instead a world in which vast numbers of individual people and small teams can—and do—invent new things and debunk old and erroneous assumptions.

We know that Hashem wants us to create new things as a pathway to holiness, because we are commanded both to walk in His ways, and forbidden to make any image or thing of a plant or animal found in nature. That leaves us with needing to create things that did not exist before! The Torah does not tell us what that thing is, because if it did so, then the idea behind the creative act would not be fully our own! Hashem gives us the tools, but just as He conceived of and created the world, so, too, we are[22] to do the same to complete the world, Hashem’s creation.

Modern technology has done wonders for our lives. In everything from agriculture to transportation to electricity and domestic machinery like washing machines, the best outcome of all is that we have time. We have, in a sense, moved much closer to life in the Garden of Eden. In the Western world we may wear clothes, but they are inexpensive enough that even the poorest people own more than a single set. Food and housing are no longer a desperate concern.

In a nutshell (and as widely commented on and explained by our sages), the technological acts of building Hashem’s home, the Mishkan, are comparable to the divine acts of creating and directly manipulating the world. The Torah is telling us to be creative, and to embrace creativity – all in the service of holiness.

The Most Holy Offering

There are eight offerings for the consecration of the Mishkan, Hashem’s home among the Jewish people. Though we often tend to take commandments like offering sacrifices as things we are (or were) commanded to do, without much thought for what the offerings actually mean, those of us who read the Torah as divine in origin know that there are no coincidences.

The offerings used to consecrate the Mishkan are each different – but one stands out. The Torah tells us that of each of these offerings, only one of them is “most holy” – the last one, the offering of flour and oil.[23]

Why? Why, of all of these offerings, is the offering of meal and oil the holiest of them all?

The answer is as follows: of these eight offerings, seven are animal, and the eighth is vegetable in origin. But it is not merely vegetable. Both flour and oil require significant human investment into the natural world; wheat needs to be planted, weeded, harvested, winnowed, milled, etc. Oil requires both nature and man’s effort to extract the essence of the vegetable. Oil is thus an amalgam of both divine creation and mankind’s investment of time and energy. The end product is highly nutritious and energy rich, usable as a food and fuel. In the Mishkan and Temple, oil was used for both: an ingredient in edible offerings, as well as to light the menorah.

The reason the Torah says “And when any [soul] will offer a meal offering to Hashem,” [24] the Hebrew word used for “any” is nefesh or spirit. The Talmud tells us that a meal offering was not the spirit of the animal, but represented the spirit of the person making the offering itself!

In this case, the meal offering is connected to the eighth day—the day after Shabbos. What is special about the eighth day? Seven is the number of nature in the Torah (as the world was created in seven days). But the number “eight” is used to connect man and Hashem. So we have circumcision on the eighth day, as well as the offering of the first-born. Similarly, after seven days of inauguration of the priests, it was on the eighth day that the priesthood was consecrated and started active service between man and Hashem. Many sacrifices and festivals that were involved with establishing a connection between man and Hashem were also called for the eighth day. The day after Shabbos is the day in which we work, and build and grow in the physical world. It is the day where, by the sweat of our brow, we work to improve the natural world, to make flour from grasses, and oil from olives.

In this reading, the Shabbos is the completion of the world. But the eighth day, Sunday, is the day that is “most holy” because it is the day when we roll up our sleeves and work, investing our own souls in our labors. Sunday is the day when we start preparing the showbread for the next Shabbos. The Sabbath day happened all by itself (and is never called “most holy” in the Torah). The work that we do to grow, create and preserve our relationship with Hashem is most beloved by Him, and is, like the meal offering, most holy in His eyes.

Another method to understanding of “most holy” is to look at “firsts.” From first fruits, to firstborn children and cattle, the Torah makes it clear that the way to thank Hashem for our creative blessings is to dedicate our first creations to His name. Making and offering the showbread is one important way to show appreciation for our creative blessings. These are called kodesh kedoshim, “most holy.”

Creativity and Its Constraints

It is the ability to work with the theoretical “What If?” that make us capable of changing ourselves, of growing beyond our nature and nurture, to become truly capable of exercising free will. People who exercise their free will are, in their way, the most powerful force in the universe. We are not hotter than the sun, nor do we exert more gravitational force than planets – our power lies in something much more elusive, something that might even be called magical. Coupled with our free will, we are endowed with the power of spiritual creation.

This is not a world in which we can paint by numbers. Life is messy and sticky. In any situation, we make decisions based on inadequate and subjective information, where there is very often no clear “right” or “wrong” answer. There are, instead, decision points that open up a range of possible outcomes, outcomes that cannot be accurately predicted by man or machine. This is the real world of people, as unpredictable and, well, human, as we are.

So Hashem makes the world, and he puts humans on it. Nature has its range of rules, and its complexities and homeostatic systems, but there is nothing within Nature that is like man: unlike anything else we can observe, man is capable of being a purely unpredictable force.

For much of the world, this is not actually the dominant model. In most cultures, man is in fact quite predictable, and we can reasonably accurately extrapolate from the past into the future for peoples across Asia and Africa for most of human history. This is a direct result of the religions and cultures that dominate those regions. These are cultures that reward the notions of harmony and subjugation of the self for the greater good.

It is Judaism and its children—Christianity in all its forms and even, at least in early days, Islam, that broke open the mold. The Torah gives us the prototype, Adam, a man who is capable of chaotic action, of doing things that are unpredictable and irrational. And Adam is infused with a divinely-inspired power to change the world with nothing more than his words: he names the animals and his wife; he and his offspring cultivate and herd and build and invent. The Torah tells us that the learning process was brutal: they were at least as likely to get things wrong as they were to get them right. Adam did not act for the greater good.

The Torah’s moral code starts with the basic rudiments of civilization, things like condemning murder and rape. But even with Kayin’s murder of Havel, every single story and lesson in the Torah is presented not simply as “right” and “wrong” but instead is told with nuance and depth, with full awareness that the players did not have all the information, and they made decisions without knowledge of the outcome. How, for example, was Kayin supposed to know that Havel would die?

In this, however, we have an advantage that the characters in the Torah lacked: the Torah itself. By studying the text, there is a great deal we can come to understand about our own lives, and the decisions that we make every day. We can learn, for example, that time spent reflecting or praying can be very valuable in avoiding making poor decisions. Imagine that Yaakov tells his mother, when she asked him to disguise himself as Esav, “I hear you, but I think I just need a few minutes to consult with Hashem first.” Rebekkah, the woman who sought advice when the twins in her womb were fighting, would hardly have rejected the request. A few minutes of Yaakov’s thoughtful prayer may well have led to a different outcome.

So, too, Aaron could have asked for the time to consult with Hashem, when the people demanded a golden calf. The people who were agitating for Aaron to do something were frightened, but they were not openly seeking idolatry. It may well have been that Aaron, after prayer, would have found a different path.

In the Torah, creativity and productivity are good things in themselves. The following verse tells us, however, that we need to recognize that even good things will have unintended consequences and potential detrimental results.

When you build a new house, then thou shalt make a parapet for thy roof, that thou bring not blood upon thy house, if any man fall from thence.[25]

This is common sense, right? “Be safe” is the message. And the example given is protecting people on flat roofs from falling off the edge.

Except that this is not reflective of a close reading of the text. We don’t believe that there are any extra (or missing) words. The issue is that the text does not read: “Thou shalt make a parapet for thy roof,” which is what it would say if the Torah is merely telling us to make sure our roofs are safe.

Instead, the verse starts with “When you build a new house.” Which begs a simple question: why are we commanded to make our roofs safe when a person builds a new house?

Indeed, the same Torah tells us to make an elevated altar for which there is no parapet – a priest might well fall off the edge. And so we have a related question: What is the difference between the altar and the new house?

I think there is a shared answer: building a new house, unlike buying one that already existed, or building an altar from divinely-delivered specifications, is a more creative act on the part of the builder.

Which would mean that the original verse should be understood in a broader context. It is not really about ensuring that roofs have parapets. Instead, the Torah is telling us that when we engage in a creative act, we need to think about and mitigate the potential downsides of that creative act. A modern analogue would be that engineers who build bridges or buildings should be careful to try to make them safe.

Our free will is meant to be a result of consideration, and some degree of consultation. Otherwise it can all slide into chaos and destruction. Decisions are not obvious, and life is messy.

What do most people do when faced with real free will? They run and hide. Consulting with others requires the ability to take criticism. Considering one’s own life forces each of us to acknowledge our failures. Doing this while still persevering is very challenging even for the greatest people.

While most people do not unlock their creative potential, those of us who are cognizant of just how powerful our thoughts and words and deeds truly can be, need to remain mindful of our own limitations: caught up in the moment, even the greatest people can do very stupid things.

As a reminder to use our creativity effectively, making the showbread reminds us that we are called to weigh our creative opportunities rather than run from them. We are to evaluate their potential rather than act willy-nilly, thereby making the most of our creative powers in the world.

Free will and creativity are such a huge part of our purpose in the world: we know that each person can be the reason for the creation of the world, and we ask ourselves: “How can I be worthy of that valuation?” It is at once an empowering and terrifying question.


The structure of the ark that holds the most central teachings of Judaism, the tablets that Moshe brought down from Sinai with the Ten Commandments, represents much more than Jewish law. It was built with cherubim, one on either side, a male and female, pointing to the significance of the love between man and woman as well as man and Hashem.

So what are the life conditions that move us toward seeking love with Hashem and with one another in marriage? Strange as it might seem, it is our own insecurity, the unpredictability of our lives, that motivates us to reach out. Once we begin to reach out, we discover that Hashem not only wants us to be in an intimate relationship with Him, but he also wants us to be in a loving, exclusive and intimate relationship with another human being. Once we’ve made the commitment to marriage, we are faced with new challenges: creating ways to work with the difficulties that always arise in our relationships; learning how to face them; committing to work through and resolve them. The first factor in seeking out others is to recognize our own insecurity.

Embracing Insecurity

Rational people love to make sure that we have good, secure and predictable lives. We want to have good pensions, to eliminate surprises, and especially avoid downside risks. The problem with our instinct to seek and attain security is that it is all, ultimately, an illusion. Death comes to us all: we cannot avoid it. More than this, the purpose of life is not merely to live, but to make our lives meaningful, to improve ourselves, our loved ones, and the world around us. So we must grow, or we have wasted the only opportunity we have to really live.

Our language is full of similar truisms: “Needs, must”; “Necessity is the mother of invention”; “No pain, no gain.” These are all fine in a vacuum, but they miss a key element: it is through relationships that we grow. The best teachers are not institutions, but people; people never remember the amazing school system, but they cherish the amazing teacher. The best marriages involve two different people who never stop investing in each other. And the best religions are those that require us to think about what Hashem wants from us, how we can grow and change to be better partners with the Creator in this all-important journey.

Relationships, however, are hard. They require soul searching, being subjected to criticisms that cut deep, being willing to consider and even embrace profoundly challenging changes. Relationships are so intimidating that many people give up on even trying to have deep relationships with other people, choosing to commit to their cats or dogs or even their cars or interior décor instead.

And here’s the rub: people who are secure and safe do not grow. The illusion of self-sufficiency (and security) is a major impediment to personal growth. We only reach out to others when we are not self-sufficient, when we are scared enough by the alternative that we have no choice but to hold hands and walk off that cliff. Without insecurity, we do not take the risks needed to initiate, sustain and grow relationships.

Our desire for permanence in a constantly-shifting world is understandable, but it is anathema for personal development. Ultimately, the world is not improved through huge buildings, or great institutions or enormous bureaucracies. Those things can all be useful implements for sustaining a way of life, but they are often impediments for personal or public growth. Static civilizations are dying civilizations, though that decline and death can happen so slowly that we miss it unless we look for large historical arcs—the decline of Greek intellectual civilization, or the extended quagmire of the Roman Empire. In the more modern world, we can see how government bureaucracies today, from public schools to the EPA, go from dynamic and proactive collections of earnest well-meaning people, to hide-bound institutions that only exist for the purpose of perpetuating themselves.

In the Torah the Jewish people complain that Moshe, “that man,” went up on the mountain, and they cannot handle the insecurity of not knowing what happened, or how to secure their future. They crave a permanent physical manifestation, something beautiful and great, something that, unlike leaders, is not capable of wandering off and disappearing from their lives. They want a leader who cannot die.

And so they make the golden calf and worship it. And they are so very happy with their creation that they celebrate the calf. They are comforted by this manifestation of Hashem. A golden calf, like nature, is much easier to understand than a deity, Hashem, who has no physical manifestation. In the calf, the people have found their permanence.

What they did not know is that Moshe, at the same time, was receiving precisely what the people said they wanted – the permanent tablets with the Ten Commandments inscribed by Hashem Himself. It was the ultimate symbol of an unchanging compact, a divine and eternal gift that would change the relationship between Hashem and man for all time.

What happens? When Moshe sees the Jewish desire for security, for predictable permanence, he destroys the tablets. He eliminates the very idea of a static relationship, of a symbol that can pass from generation to generation venerated by each in turn. Moshe makes it clear that the only way for Jews to exist in this world is if we stop trying to create a false sense of security, but instead embrace lives of insecurity, of uncertainty. Lives in which we are incentivized to grow and improve and make something of ourselves. So Moshe breaks the tablets and in so doing, incinerates the Jewish security blanket.

When people try to eliminate insecurity from their lives, my Rabbi says that they are trying to take Hashem out of their lives. A person who has everything, needs nothing. And if we do not need anything, then we do not reach outside ourselves to build relationships with others. Those relationships might be with other people, or they might be with Hashem—but they are risky either way.

Yet the Torah is full of commandments and reminders of the importance of insecurity: we are forbidden from the “safe” way to make money, by charging interest. Loving others, and especially strangers, are commandments to force us to stay outside of our comfort zone. The commandment to live in Israel is itself to force us to “look up” for our sustenance, as Israel lacks the dependable “clockwork” agriculture of Egypt. So personal and national growth are baked into the cake, and irrevocably tied to perpetuating insecurity.

Yet we learn of the servant who chooses safety with his master after the requisite number of years, instead of going out into the world for himself, chooses to have an awl driven through his ear: he no longer is open to listening to Hashem’s voice. The servant has chosen to listen only to his master. Freedom means uncertainty, risk, and responsibility for our own decisions. Most people don’t want that responsibility.

But Hashem wants us to want Him! One intriguing feature of the Torah it that it isn’t really telling us to merely trust in Hashem – that would be too easy, too pat. That way leads to fatalism, to believing that Hashem arranges all things, so all we have to do is be good little servants, and everything will work out for us in the end. This is clearly a feature of many religions: it is not Torah Judaism.

Instead, we are told to seek to be close to Hashem, in a myriad of ways. After the splitting of the Red Sea, the people sing a collective verse in the first person: “This is my Hashem and v’anveyhoo”—that last word is really two words: “Me and You.” “This is my Hashem,” and “Me and You!”

That “Me and You” is a statement of yearning, a desire to be close, in any way we can. And because it is put in the first person, we understand that each and every person has the opportunity for a personal and unique relationship. None of us are supposed to do things exactly like other people do them – otherwise, what am I here for?!

So Hashem has given us a world in which we are full of reminders that we need relationships. We need them when we are young and less capable. We need them when we are grown, and we rely on society to help meet our needs. We need other people when we are old and no longer able to do what we used to do. Death is itself the greatest reminder: our lives are finite. What will we achieve before the end? Any achievement worth its salt comes about as the byproduct (if not the primary product) of relationships: business, families, service to others.

Jewish history is full of Jews forgetting this basic lesson, and reverting to form. To take but the most prominent example: The Mishkan (Tabernacle) became the temple, and then Jews started building it bigger and bigger – even though the core components and features were the same ones that could be carried by hand and traveled through the wilderness. Did the Beis Hamikdosh (Temple) really need to be grand, or was it just a concession to misplaced human priorities? I suggest that making the Temple enormous and impressive was actually similar to the sin of the golden calf, and for the same reasons.

On the other hand, the Torah itself, as well as the corpus of Jewish Law, the Talmud and the commentaries over the millennia, are testaments to insecurity. Judaism is not a “paint by numbers” religion; it requires investment and involvement by each generation, parsing and arguing at every step of the way. If we are insecure enough so that we are forced to invest deeply in relationships with other people and with Hashem, then we are able to grow and make something of our lives.

There is another vessel in the Mishkan and Beis Hamikdosh that renewed the connection between these two marriages, with Hashem and our spouse, each and every day. The kiyor or laver, was made “of bronze, and its pedestal of bronze, from the mirrors of the women [who bore those] who assembled at the door of the Tent of Meeting.”[26]

The clear meaning of the verse is that the laver was made from mirrors used by women in Egypt to incite desire, lust, in their husbands. How on earth can such an object be present in the Mishkan, let alone be a critical feature? The question is an obvious one, especially for those who tend to consider love and lust to be embarrassing.[27] Indeed, our sages tell us that Moshe had a hard time understanding this instruction.[28]

Imagine the laver in use. The Cohen (priest) must wash his hands and feet in it before he approaches further to serve Hashem. As he is washing himself, he sees his reflections in the highly polished metal, the very same bronze that Jewish women had used to make themselves attractive to their husbands, to strengthen and grow their relationship. And then, having prepared by washing his hands and feet, the Cohen goes into the Beis Hamikdosh and does the very same thing—to strengthen and grow the relationship between mankind and Hashem. The priest is making himself desirable to Hashem, just as his mother did for her husband!

And the commandment concerning the laver tells us that marital love comes first, as a prerequisite to heavenly love.[29] The laver is the preparatory step for service to Hashem, and it is the only vessel in the Beis Hamikdosh that has its own base, that can stand by itself. Marital love inspires and reinforces our service to Hashem. Love between man and woman not only allows for the creation and nurturing of children, but it is the essential building block of society. Marital love is holy.

In fact, love within a marriage might even be considered more important than the marriage to Hashem. In Melachim (Kings) we learn that workers on the Beis Hamikdosh spent two months at home for every month they spent in Lebanon working. Why? R. Avin said that Hashem cherishes marital intimacy more than the Beis Hamikdosh itself. That the Mishkan and a marriage are even comparable tells us that they are on the same plane: they have the same goal! Intimacy between husband and wife is a union of holiness: the act of coupling with love takes something that would otherwise be a merely an animalistic act and joins it to heaven. That is why the keruvim atop the holy ark look like a man and woman, reaching to embrace one another. And that is why Hashem’s voice to Moshe comes from the space between the two: it is at the unification of man and woman where we can most tangibly feel Hashem’s presence and experience holiness.

The Torah describes the process of rapprochement between Hashem and the Jewish people in a dance of oscillating words: the people do X, and Hashem does Y. Then the people respond with Q, and Hashem moves onto P, and so on.[30] There is fluid movement on both sides, changes in posture and attitude and desires, sometimes flexing in toward each other, sometimes bending away or even—when things go very wrong—one of the dancers abruptly breaking it off and leaving the dance floor.

It is this sort of language that helps us understand that Hashem is not some kind of great static thing: a strong but silent gravitational force or a distant and proud king. On the contrary, the Torah’s words show us that Hashem is a full participant in this dance, able to be distant or near, equally capable of being inflamed with anger or with love.

The dance of the Jewish people with Hashem is, and always was supposed to be, a dance of desire and a dance of love. Our relationship is meant to contain every element found in a good marriage: love and respect and trust and desire. And like any good marriage, there are good times and bad, times of head-spinning romantic flight, and times of hard, but cooperative effort: and then there are times when it is sufficient and beautiful to merely sit together, to enjoy being close to each other after a hard day, or year, or life.

Most civilizations and cultures take their cue from the natural world, and conclude that the world is, and is supposed to be, inherently circular. The world, and the seasons, and so much of what we can see is cyclical in nature, and so it is easy to assume that this is in fact not only the way things are, but the way things should be.

Judaism has a different worldview. On a national as well as the most deeply personal levels, we Jews are on a journey, a historical quest of development and growth. So while the wheels of our wagon, seen in isolation, look like circles spinning in one spot, we are well aware that every time a certain point on that wheel touches the ground, it should touch down in a different and new place. Jewish history is not of a wheel spinning in space, but of a wheel traveling down a road. Every year we have the same Torah readings and the same festivals and the same commandments – but we accomplish and experience those things within the context of our growth, and within the new developments within our relationships with each other and with Hashem.

It has often been said that the opposite of love is not hate: the opposite of love is indifference. At least with hatred, a person still cares. With the emotion of love or hate comes the ability to think of others, to take an active interest in what happens to someone else. When we can think only of ourselves, we can never love or serve Hashem, the author of the guidebook text in which the verse at the very middle is, “love your neighbor as yourself.” It is through loving others that we become capable of loving Hashem. One is the gateway to the other.

The Mating Call

Marriage exists for its own sake. If a marriage is blessed with children, it is a wonderful thing – but the marriage is supposed to be built first and foremost. And when we don’t prioritize our lives accordingly, then we, both as a nation and as individuals, end up paying the price.[31]

Hashem is making it clear: the relationships within our generation are more important than even our connections to our children. Our marriage to our spouses and Hashem trumps everything else, because marriage is the pinnacle of fulfillment.

Judaism is not a transcendental faith: we believe in anchoring ourselves in the physical world through relationships, and then seeking to personally grow and also elevate the world around us. To this end, every physical act that mankind can engage in is something that we ennoble with blessings or prayers or rituals, infusing spirituality into even the most mundane acts. Everything we can do with our bodies can be done in a holy manner, in a way that makes the world a better place. Marital intimacy is the foremost example of how an animalistic act can (and should) be infused with spirituality and create holiness.

Animals call out to each other when they wish to mate. It is a necessary (though by no means sufficient) step in the propagation of their species. On Rosh Hashanah, Jews take this animalistic instinct, and we elevate it when we blow the shofar. Rosh Hashanah is called, “yom teruah” in the Torah, “a day of calling/blasting.” The sound of the shofar is the mating call of the Jewish people: Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the dance. Our spiritual analog to a mating call, blowing the shofar broadcasts our intense and profound desire to connect with Hashem, to renew and deepen the love between us.

This is our Zikaron Teruah[32], remembrance through shofar-blasts. The remembrance is to recall that once again this part of the wheel is touching down, and we are repeating the connection to Hashem, the connection made through the millennia, stretching back to the blasts at Sinai, and the offering of the ram in place of Yitzhak. And the shofar blasts indicate our heartfelt desire to renew our commitments to Hashem, to both renew and grow our marriage to Hashem.

This kind of mating call can be risky, of course. Every relationship is dangerous – even showing our interest in someone else exposes us, cracks the armor that protects us against the slings and arrows that cause so much pain. It is hard to do this, especially if we have been burned before.

And even with desire, of course, we do not have enough to sustain a proper marriage. Marriage to Hashem takes every bit as much of an investment as a marriage between man and woman. There is desire, but there is also risk, and commitment, and the profound difficulties of self-examination and personal growth in order to become the kind of person whom your intended can love and respect in return. Relationships take enormous effort; like Yaakov’s ladder if one stops climbing, then one is necessarily descending. As a result, each person needs to ask himself or herself: do I really have what it takes to make this work?

The journey down the road can begin at any moment. On Rosh Hashanah, we have a designated opportunity: the shofar blast is coming, and the dance is about to begin. Our partner is waiting, yearning to hear the teruah, the Jewish people re-initiating the dance. As the Torah makes clear, Hashem wants to dance. But before He can, He needs us to take the first step, to call out with the zikharon teruah, to simultaneously recall our shared mutual history, and to express our desire to begin the whirlwind love affair all over again.

Engaging in the Dance of Marriage

Once we have decided that we wish to actively pursue a loving relationship with our partner and with Hashem, that we are ready to be married to both, there are certain realities that will determine the nature of our relationship.

The opposition between man and Hashem has always been framed as a kind of marriage, a national marriage to Hashem.[33] Marriages come in different varieties, exemplified by the examples the Torah gives us of our forefathers. We know that Avraham and Sarah had a partnership in which Sarah was not afraid to confront her husband when she thought he was making a mistake.

We know that Rivkah’s marriage to Yitzhak was not equal: from the first time that she falls off her camel, we see that she is unwilling to confront her husband. The Torah never even has Rivkah speaking to her husband directly until she fears that Yaakov’s life is in danger.

The marriages in Genesis are a “sneak peek” of the relationships between man and Hashem in Exodus and beyond.

Hashem first tells Moshe, in their first conversation at the burning bush, that–

When you go, you shall not go empty. Every woman shall borrow from her neighbor, and from her who sojourns in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and garments, and you shall put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters.[34]

And then, after all but the last plague:

Speak now in the ears of the people, and let every man borrow from his neighbor, and every woman from her neighbor, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold.[35]

And then what happens? The people do as they are told….

And they borrowed from the Egyptians jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and garments.

And here is an obvious question: why does it really matter that the Jews got gold and silver from the Egyptians? Are these material possessions really important, and if so, why? And what do garments have to do with anything?

The answer is that “jewels of silver and jewels of gold, and garments” are in fact part of Jewish lore: they come from the very first story of an engagement between man and wife – Avraham’s servant brings out “Jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and garments, and gave them to Rivkah.”[36]

The gift matters! When Hashem tells the Jewish people to enrich themselves with silver, gold, and garments, He is recreating for them the engagement of Yitzhak and Rivkah! In that final act before leaving their home in Egypt to travel and “meet” Hashem at Sinai, the Jewish people would be receiving the same engagement present that their foremother, Rivkah, had received before she left her home to travel to marry Yitzhak.

So far, so good. But then, what happens to this jewelry? At Sinai, when Moshe does not come down when expected, and the people were frantic, Aaron tells the Jewish people to bring their gold – and it is made into the golden calf. Where did this gold come from? It was the very same gold that Hashem had “given” the Jews via the Egyptians! Indeed, the text makes this quite clear when it uses the same phrase “your sons and your daughters” that He had used when promising the gold to Moshe in the first place!

But Aaron does not merely tell the Jews to bring their gold. Instead, he uses a much stronger word:

And Aaron said unto them: ‘Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.’[37]

What has happened here? When the Jews sinned with the golden calf, the Jewish people took the rings that they had received as a betrothal gift – and instead of merely taking them off, they broke the rings off. Gold is not so easily repaired – once broken, it needs remaking from molten metal. The breaking of a ring is analogous to breaking a relationship, severing the link between two entities who are so close that it is impossible to tell where one person ends and the other begins.

How do we know the word can mean the end of a relationship? The very first time the word parak (break) is used is when Yitzhak tries to comfort a crying Esav, after Yaakov stole his blessing. Yitzhak says:

And by thy sword shalt thou live, and thou shalt serve thy brother; and it shall come to pass when thou shalt break loose, that thou shalt break his yoke from off thy neck.[38]

No more would things continue as they had: the destruction of an engagement ring between a man and a woman is an act that, even if they patch things up, will always be remembered as something that cannot be undone. Breaking a ring is how one symbolizes the destruction of a relationship – whether between Hashem and man, man and wife, or (as in the Torah precedent of Yaakov’s yoke) between brothers. Perhaps when Aaron used such a strong word, he may have been trying to signal that breaking off the engagement gold would be tantamount to ending the betrothal between Hashem and the Jewish people.

And so it proved. When Yitzhak was betrothed to Rivkah, their relationship continued for the rest of their lives. But both with Esav and the golden calf, once the engagement ring was broken, the relationships were never the same.

And in any case, none of these relationships was “equal.” Yitzhak was wise and enigmatic. Rivkah was a junior partner, cowed by Yitzhak’s evident holiness—so cowed, indeed, that when she seeks insight about the babies in her womb, she asks someone besides her husband for divine insight.

This makes sense. The marriage is unequal – as, one imagines, our marriage to Hashem must be. Rivkah was clearly subservient to her husband. And why not? Our sages tell us that Yitzhak embodied din, strict judgment. This is the model of our first marriage to Hashem, the first covenant at Sinai. We know that it is a marriage of strict judgment, of zero tolerance for sin. We were expected, initially, to become like Rivkah in her marriage to Yitzhak.

But we, as a nation, rebel. We do not trust that Hashem and Moshe know best, and in our fear, decide to take the initiative ourselves. And so we insist on the making of the golden calf, and in so doing, we break apart the engagement rings. This is a most un-Rivkah-like thing to do. And so Moshe and Hashem tear up the first contract. The marriage of din is over. It is replaced by the covenant of rachamim, of mercy.

With the second set of tablets, Hashem gives us the Attributes of Mercy, or Shelosh-‘Esreh Middos

And Hashem said to Moshe: ‘Cut two tablets of stone like the first; and I will write upon these tablets the words that were in the first tablets, which you broke.’ … And Hashem passed by before him, and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, The Lord Hashem, merciful and gracious, long suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.’[39]

And, like Sarah, we as a nation continue to question and challenge Hashem. Just as with the golden calf, we doubt that our leaders and Hashem Himself really knows what is best for us. As a nation and as individuals, we challenge Hashem at every turn. This has been the nature of our marriage for thousands of years.

Making the Marriage Work

At first glance, we might think that the balance in a marriage really is to be found in some golden mean between selfishness and selflessness that allows for a proper relationship between man and Hashem and man and woman. A marriage is in trouble, however, when either spouse decides that he or she either does all the heavy lifting or none of it. When a married man or woman thinks that he or she is without an actual partner, then the relationship is doomed. So, too, in our relationship with Hashem.

So Shavu’os is the first festival that falls by the wayside when Jews wander from following the Torah. Most Jews are not interested in Shavu’os, because they are not particularly interested in the Torah. What they fail to realize is that if Shavu’os is cast aside, then the rest of our heritage, sooner or later, will follow. When one spouse starts to disregard the heartfelt gifts of the other, the marriage is in profound trouble. That is the state of the “national” Jewish marriage with Hashem.

Of course, our relationship with Hashem is not only national: it is also personal. And each marriage is, within the relationship, meant to be unique. Though the Torah lays down laws that, while always open to refinement and deeper understanding, are nonetheless ultimately unyielding: all of these laws are classified as an asei or a lo t’aaseh – “do this” or “don’t do that.” Others have pointed out that at Mount Sinai, Hashem did not give us the Ten Suggestions. But the Torah itself tells us otherwise – there are some commandments that depend on the individual’s preferences: When Hashem commands us to build the Mishkan, Hashem says to Moshe,

Speak to the people of Israel, that they bring me an offering; from every man that gives it willingly with his heart, you shall take my offering.[40]

And when we start talking about fuzzy things like relationships, the normal language of “do this” and “don’t do that” continue to govern most elements – but not all. We have plenty of rules within marriage, just as we have rules in our marriage with Hashem. But there is a key part of this relationship that is most definitely incompatible with strict legalities: the ability to open our heart to the other person.

And so Judaism tells us how to be married to our spouse, just as it tells us how to relate to Hashem in the Beis Hamikdosh. But it draws the line when it comes to telling us how much we have to emotionally commit to the relationship – how much we share our heart. We don’t criticize people who hold back their inner emotions in a marriage – that is what works for them. And Torah Jews don’t criticize people who go the other way, who dote on their spouses completely – that too is an option.

When the Torah tells us that the level of our contribution to building a home for Hashem in our hearts is up to us, we should learn that this is true when we build a home with our husband or wife as well. We are commanded to have a relationship – but we must freely make that decision, to make that choice. And even when we choose to connect, the emotional depth of that relationship is entirely up to us. When we build a home for Hashem or for ourselves, the relationship comes from whatever we freely give from our hearts. And so too, the contributions of intimate body jewelry from the married couples were freely given: the material investment in the Mishkan was given from the heart, and mirrors the material and spiritual investments that a married man and a woman make one to the other.

But the contribution of gold was not an imposed tax, nor did it come from any kind of national treasury. Instead, the people came: “vayavo ha-anashim al hanashim” which Rashi understands as “im hanashim” – when volunteering gold jewelry for the building of the Mishkan, men and women came with each other, as Simcha Baer says: as couples. The holiness of building the Mishkan was provided by married couples, volunteering their personal, even intimate jewelry of bracelets, nose-rings, rings, and body ornaments. These couples, by sharing their gold, were in effect sharing their personal connections to the Shechinah, to the holiness they nurture in their personal relationships with each other. Hashem’s home is built by the contribution from married Jewish couples. The link between the marriage of man and woman and between Hashem and mankind was explicit.

And so, marriage itself must also be unique, and entirely dependent on what the couple chooses to create. Similarly, we can freely choose the degree of our relationship with Hashem – everyone has a different level of investment and passion.[41]

For example, when we look at the marriage between Yaakov and Rachel, the Torah does not tell us that the relationship is, in any way, an equal one. At first glance, this might seem strange: after all Yaakov is often associated with love—he loves both Rachel and Leah (albeit the former more than the latter). He loves his son Yosef, and Benyamin.

But when we think about it, it becomes clearer. Yaakov falls in love with Rachel at first sight. She does nothing to earn it: she just has to be there, as the passive recipient.

After falling in love, Yaakov works for his wives—seven years for Leah, and seven more for Rachel. He invests many years of his life at back-breaking labor to gain their hands in marriage. Why does he have to work seven for both of them?

I would suggest that the Torah gives us a hint – that when it says that the seven years “seemed unto him but single days”, and then again, “Yaakov said unto Lavan: ‘Give me my wife, for my days are filled’” – that we are being told that it is not the years that matter, but the number “seven” itself. The years might as well be days, and that is how Yaakov feels them.

Hashem made the world in seven days. The Torah is telling us that a marriage, each marriage, is analogous to building the whole world. When a man marries a woman, they create their own world together, and then, just as with Adam and Chava, life begins anew, and together.

There is a very important corollary to this nugget. The two marriages are very different, and they yield different fruit. Leah bears six children directly (and more through her handmaid). She is also buried in the cave of Machpelah, in the ancestral family burial grounds.

But the marriage with Rachel is much less productive. Rachel has fewer sons, and is not buried at Machpelah, but is instead buried in a place along the side of the road, a spot that is not even marked.

The amazing thing is that Leah loves Yaakov profoundly and deeply, while the Torah never tells us that Rachel loved her husband at all!

The Torah is teaching us a lesson about marriage, work, and all of life. Our investments and their returns are connected. Things that are hard to achieve are worth far more than the things that come easily (compare the spending habits of a man who earned his bread versus one who wins it).

Yaakov’s investment for Rachel is easy—every year is like a day to him. He does not have to invest; it is painless. But the years Yaakov works for Leah are not called “like days.” They are full, hard years of labor.

And what is the return on his investment? With Leah, Yaakov enjoyed a richer and fuller marriage, and eternity spent together in Machpelah after their lives had passed. The marriage with Rachel is also commensurate with Yaakov’s investment: she is not similarly blessed with children nor even with a notable love for her husband.

The lesson is simple enough: the harder path may well be more fruitful. Our rewards, especially in relationships, are commensurate with the effort and energy that we pour into those relationships. Indeed, building a marriage is the way in which each of us creates the entire world.

In order to have a complete relationship with Hashem, one must first have a complete marriage with one’s spouse. Rachel’s marriage was incomplete in that she did not love Yaakov, and so her relationship to Hashem was also incomplete.

At the end of Rachel’s life, the loops all close. Her dying breath is to name her newborn son Ben-Oni, but Yaakov gives him the name Benyamin. This is the first child that Yaakov names, and he seems to do so as a way of separating from Rachel.

And then she is buried. But instead of being laid to rest at Machpelah, the burial place of all those who built the bridge between the worlds that enabled the Beis Hamikdosh, she is buried at the side of the road. Because she did not invest in her marriage (naming a son “the son of my sorrow” may have been about regrets), she did not build a house. Rachel did not love her husband, she wrestled with her sister, she retained a connection to her father’s idols, and even when she was blessed with children, Rachel connected it to herself, and not to her marriage. It was a life that ended in bitterness, perhaps all because Yaakov loved Rachel unconditionally, without any investment required on her part. In some sense, Yaakov’s abundant love may have enabled Rachel to not invest in the relationship!

Unlike Rachel, we must always be cognizant of the decisions we are making, and the fact that those decisions matter. There are no “happily ever after” stories in real relationships, whether with a spouse or with Hashem. Most people don’t realize this. Most of us think that we are somehow the exception: how come our marriage is not a fairy tale? Why does our relationship with Hashem not include the part where He showers us with infinite blessings? And why not? Is there something wrong with us?

But upon reflection, the surprising thing is not that we don’t have fairy tale relationships. It is that we are ever naïve enough to think that anyone does! In real relationships, the dynamic is always shifting, with opportunities for errors and corrections at every turn. But as long as there is a desire to be together – we can call it “love” – the relationship can grow and adapt, creating something extraordinarily beautiful.

The linchpin, of course, is love. And love is not something we can take for granted – after all, there is no shortage of people who claim they have never really experienced it! Love is rare enough, and often fleeting. And yet, we have an almost irrational desire to experience a vibrant love, to experience ongoing attraction and romance. How else can we explain why couples who have been married for decades still exchange gifts, have romantic dinners, and never want to be taken for granted by their opposite half?

We don’t want our spouses to stay with us because of simple inertia – we want them to want to spend time with us. How many times have we delighted in hearing people saying: “I would do it all over again”? We want to love, and be loved in return for who we are, and not because of some irrevocable decision that forced the other person’s hand.

In sum, it is all about choice. Not only do we want our spouse to have chosen to love us when they married us, but we also want them, even if we had somehow just met again for the first time, to still be crazy about us. Relationships are not just about the choice to get married in the first place; they are, just as much if not more, all about the ongoing choice to grow the relationship long after the wedding album has faded.

Building the Ongoing Relationship

Any relationship in which one party somehow compels the other to stay married is in some way crippled. Sure, two people may be technically married for some external reason (money, children, inertia, or fear), but those are not the kinds of marriages that anyone covets. The best marriages are those in which the man and woman happily married each other, and continue to choose that relationship.

But even once we commit to this relationship, there is no happily ever after. The decision to be married to Hashem does not end with the bar mitzvah ceremony. On the contrary! He wants us to choose to love Him every conscious moment of our lives. He desires a relationship that is as close and as intimate as we can handle. It is like a brand new and all-consuming infatuation: Hashem wants to be involved in every facet of our daily lives.

But there is a catch: Just as in human relationships, Hashem does not want us locked into the relationship, because if we are not free to walk away, are we really choosing to stay?

And here we find the prohibition in Judaism against making irrevocable decisions. We are forbidden, for example, to cut our flesh as idol worshippers do. A permanent mark on our bodies is the kind of thing that is difficult – if not impossible – to live down and reverse. And love must come with the freedom to walk away, or it is not the kind of love that Hashem cherishes.

Hashem wants us to be free, so that, on an ongoing basis, we can choose to have and develop a relationship with Him. That freedom means that we can – and many do – decide to exercise our freedom and walk away from Hashem. That is a price Hashem is willing to pay, because He would rather that everyone who serves Him does so willingly, rather than do so because they feel they have no choice.[42]

Our value to Hashem lies in the choices we freely make – not just once or twice, like at a pivotal coming-of-age ceremony, but every waking moment. There are no “happily ever after” marriages, because if both parties remain free to choose, then the relationship is always a challenge. Do we choose to serve Hashem, to grow our relationship? Or do we walk away?

Ours is not a religion of submission or appeasement. Hashem is not some remote force on a high mountain, or an impersonal and unknowable force like the sun. Ever since Adam was filled with the divine spirit, it has been necessary to discover Hashem in our very souls! The Torah wants us engaged with Hashem, with each other, and with ourselves – because, to a conscious mind, these are all facets of precisely the same thing!

But do we really need to go through all that work? To a simple or a lazy person, it would seem to make sense to shortcut the process. If the goal is ultimately to better ourselves, then all we have to do is to be mindful of being a good person. How hard could that be? By comparison, the rituals can seem silly, or a waste of time or energy.

But anyone in a good marriage knows otherwise. A man who marries a woman has not succeeded in marriage the moment the ring is on her finger. His success is a process, flowing through many years, as he has built a beautiful long-term relationship, one that weathers the impersonal forces of time and nature. Relationships require a never-ending stream of consideration and kindness and service, or they wither away. A husband and wife who are not constantly engaged with each other and continuing to improve each other, will fall apart as a marriage, as a relationship. Love that is not nurtured will die.

And so Hashem requires us to go through the motions – not, in the case of sacrifices, for the sake of the motions themselves, but because things like prayer and following commandments are both tokens of commitment, and required to keep the relationship fully engaging. Thus, visiting the sick, providing hospitality, and feeding the poor, all of which are commandments that connect us to other people, are, also, ways of serving Hashem directly. The audience for sacrifices is not a remote pagan deity demanding his cut, but the personal soul of the offeror, coming to grips with a connection between his actions and Hashem. When we invest in our relationship to Hashem by changing ourselves, we are acting in a way that is very different from the ways in which pagans serve their deities.

And Judaism is profoundly personal. The Torah tells us that Hashem put his soul in us.[43] And so our prayers, our services, our blessings, have an internal audience: Hashem does not need your sacrifices, or even your blessings for their own sakes. What He really wants is for sacrifices and blessings to lead us to a closer and more intimate relationship with our own spiritual souls, and Hashem on the elevated spiritual plane. Prayer is directed both outside and inside, which is why it is so similar to meditation. The Torah has entire chapters dedicated to the spiritual illness of tzaraat , which occurs to people who treat others poorly, as Kayin treated Hevel. Seen in this light, every single law of the Torah, from sacrifices to divine services to the laws of kosher food and caring for the orphan is given to us for the purpose of correcting and improving ourselves.

Jewish laws on marriage and sexual relations are quite specific for every Jew, priest or not. The Torah has a long and detailed list of forbidden relations – incest, homosexuality, and the like. Once upon a time, we did not even feel the need to explain these laws– after all, we felt a strong sense of the taboo, of what “feels” appropriate.

But in recent years, society has worked very hard to break down these barriers, these old-fashioned notions of limiting the sex or love lives of consenting adults or even children. What used to be “icky” is now mainstream. Traditional mores are in full retreat.

And, too soon, society will turn its attention to the rest of the relations that are forbidden in the Torah. “After all,” one might ask, “if there is no possibility of having children, then why cannot siblings or other close relations be ‘married’ to each other?”

It is hard to logically reject this argument, since, after all, if there are no genetic damages to a child, there is no victim if two people choose to be intimate with one another!

We must accept the logic: there is, indeed, no external victim of a childless love between close relatives or homosexuals. Why, then, does the Torah forbid these relations for Jews? And even more than this: why does it put these laws right in the middle of the Torah, as a centerpiece of the entire Jewish legal code? To answer this, we must recall that the word “Torah,” as used in the text itself, is both an evocation and a guidebook.[44] The Torah is the roadmap, the recipe, for holiness, for a relationship between Hashem and man.[45]

And this explains the reason for the forbidden relations in the Torah. Those relationships are not inappropriate because of taboo – not really.[46] They are inappropriate because they are too easy. It is not properly challenging to be married to a woman who is closely related, or to a member of the same sex. Not enough divides people who come from the same household, or who, because of their physiology, see the world largely the same way. To have the possibility to grow, we must be uncomfortable.

Thus, the Torah praises marriage and condemns promiscuity, because promiscuity cripples our ability to connect to our spouse. This fact matters, of course, because relationships between husband and wife are the model for the relationship between Hashem and the Jewish people. Failed human relationships lead to failed relationships with our Creator, in this generation and in future generations. We take the long view, and keep the big picture in mind.[47]

Marriage is meant to be the model for a relationship with Hashem. Marriage makes it possible for us to understand Hashem. If we can change ourselves enough to have a successful marriage with our spouse, then we have a chance to change ourselves enough to connect to Hashem! But if we marry someone who is too similar, with whom we have too much in common, then we are not challenged enough. Therefore, we do not grow. And so it means that we never have the opportunity to reach higher, to grow to a full relationship with our Creator.

And so, marriage itself must also be unique, and entirely dependent on what the couple chooses to create. Similarly, we can freely choose the degree of our relationship with Hashem – everyone has a different level of investment and passion.[48]

The problem with a relationship between Hashem and man is that it is hard. It is difficult to be close to Hashem because we are so different than He is. We are anchored in our physicality, hindered by our blinkered vision and finite lifespan. Our relationship with Hashem requires constant, off-balance change, never-ending nudges, encouragement, and disappointment.

Hashem’s love for us is like marital love: the Torah is full of this kind of imagery, with The Song of Songs, Shir Ha Shirim, the most explicitly intimate of these. Consider, for example, the explicit instruction from Hashem to the Jewish people to “return to your tents”[49] after the giving of the Torah. Rashi tells us that this is a commandment that husbands and wives shall once again build their own holy houses, to once again unite and make homes suitable for Hashem’s presence. The goal of returning to our tents, to our marriages, is to ensure that the attitude and mindset we experienced when we were with Hashem at Sinai remains with us as a people forever. In other words, these are connected events: we seal in the magic of the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the national marriage to Hashem, by building our personal marriages with our spouses.

This commandment to return to our tents is not the first time that Hashem says that we should be married. Indeed, the giving of the Torah at Sinai is an echo of the very first commandment Hashem ever gave mankind:

Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat, but of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, you must not eat thereof; for on the day you eat of it, you shall surely die.[50]

And then, right after this, the first of all commandments, which is, after all, Adam’s very mission statement, what does Hashem do? “Hashem said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone.’”[51]

It is a complete non-sequitur! One might think that having just received a command from the Source of all Existence, Adam would be very much un-alone: Hashem is standing right there with him!!!! Adam is the least alone being in creation! And yet, at the very moment Adam hears Hashem’s voice, Hashem determines that Adam simply cannot be allowed to live alone! Hashem is informing us as to Adam’s existential state: Adam is alone! Adam has heard Hashem’s voice, and he knows exactly what Hashem demands from him, with greater clarity than any human[52] since…. yet he is totally and utterly alone! That’s an amazing assertion! But Hashem states it:

And now, therefore, “Go back to your tents”![53]

Hashem is telling us that we must dive back into the personal! Our mission on this earth – just like Adam’s – will never be fulfilled if our family is not standing there with us. Just like Adam, at the moment of hearing Hashem’s voice, of experiencing a cosmic objectivity, so, too, Israel is only now required to dive into the murky oceans of relationships, interactions, emotions, interconnections and intimacy – the things that seem so prosaic and small, so difficult and so removed from an objective, sweeping Divine mission. Mitzvos do not exist in a vacuum; they are meant to be immediately applied to our marriages.

The unit of husband and wife are meant to be the atomic unit for all people, and especially for the Jewish people. The “tent” is the basic building block of a nation, representing the married couple, secure together. Judaism does not suggest that we abandon the self to a great mass of humanity, to a single cause. We suborn the self to the family unit, and then in turn we make up the nation of Israel.

Not for nothing does Bilaam use the poetic phrase “Ma Tovu Ohalecha,” “How Goodly are your Tents!”[54] Bilaam saw that the fundamental unit of the Jewish nation is found in its marriages, in its tents—and this is why he returns to advise Israel’s enemies to send their daughters into Israel’s camp as whores, to tear up the tents of Yaakov, to destroy the holy relationships between husbands and wives.

Our reliance on Hashem is discussed throughout the entire book of Bamidbar (Exodus), story after story of the Jewish people complaining: they complain about food, about water, about Israel, about leadership, about everything, seemingly, that they can think of. The pattern is a predictable one. There is a complaint. Hashem reacts. People die. Rinse and repeat.

And of course, we learn the obvious lessons – that Hashem is capable of taking care of us if we put our trust in Him. We learn that we must believe in our own capabilities to achieve the seemingly impossible, as long as Hashem is with us. And we learn a great deal about the kinds of repercussions which fall on us for our misdeeds.

Marriages are not very different from the “peace” Hashem created within each man, in the battle between body and soul. Marriages are not necessarily peaceful at all – many of the best marriages are highly dynamic and evolving, in a constant striving for coexistence between two people who are, at their very essence, opposites.

If Hashem’s creation of man was creating peace between heaven and earth within one person, then His subsequent acts of creation through each of us who tries to be married is the coexistence, peace, between man and woman. This is a dynamic peace, not necessarily easily distinguished from conflict and war. Just as our relationships with Hashem are meant to be challenging, so, too, are our relationships with our spouse.

How challenging is the relationship between man and Hashem? Are there any limits to how radically different we can be from our Creator? The Torah specifically includes even the most extreme case of a marriage, and connects that to our relationship with Hashem. It tells us of seeing a beautiful woman, and capturing her in battle. This woman shares no culture or language or faith: she is simply attractive to the conqueror – and the Torah allows the soldier to marry that unsuitable woman – with not even a word of criticism or warning.[55]

The Jewish people are the beautiful, but wholly inappropriate, wife for Hashem. When we lived in Egypt, we too were captives. As Ezekiel says (and as we read every Pesach), “[the Jewish people] became very beautiful, your bosom fashioned and your hair grown long, but you were naked and bare…. I pledged Myself to you, entered into a covenant with you, and you became Mine, declares the Lord G-d.…”[56] So Hashem, who was engaged in a war with the deities of Egypt, desired us in all our long-haired and raw beauty. We, the Jewish people, are that beautiful woman, the spoils of Hashem’s war on Egypt and her deities.

And so, on that Pesach night, as He passed over the Jewish homes, He was intimate with the Jewish people. That was the act in which we as a nation were taken by Hashem. Like the captive non-Jew, we did not deserve it because of our merits – on the contrary, we were saved from Egypt because Hashem wanted to save us, and not because we deserved it. Like the captive, we were uncouth and unready for a proper adult relationship.

And then, a most peculiar thing happens. Hashem takes us out of Egypt, and for the following month, the Torah does not tell us about anything that happens. It is a quiet period of adjustment, just as the beautiful captive adjusts to the loss of her parents. And at the end of that period, the Jewish people start to complain. We complain about water, and we complain about food. Our Sages tell us that our complaints begin when the matzos that we had baked in Egypt run out. And at that point, we have adjusted to the new reality of living in the wilderness, and started to interact once again with Hashem – just as the captive after a month can start her relationship with her husband.

And what does Hashem do to us, one month after he was first intimate with us? He gives us the commandments of the manna, and Shabbos. These are the building blocks of a Jewish home: sustenance and a connection to the holiness of Shabbos. It is at this point that Hashem starts to grow the relationship in earnest, about the six days we labor for our sustenance, and the one day we do not.

A Union of Holiness

Intimacy between husband and wife is a union of holiness. The mere act of coupling with love takes something performed by every animal, and joins it to heaven.

This can also explain how Rashi emphasizes that intimacy, physical enjoyment, between a man and his wife was particularly important on Shabbos.[57] Elsewhere, Rashi advocates that not only scholars, but lay people also should engage in this practice on Friday night.[58] Every Jewish marriage aims to invite Hashem into the relationship, and if Shabbos is a path to the unification of heaven and earth, then the unification of a couple on Shabbos is doubly so.

When effected with love and desire, both a marriage and the Mishkan invite the Shechinah inside. Of course, love and desire must be there, because without them, physical intimacy is merely earthy and animalistic. And the Ramban adds that without love and desire, then Hashem is not present.

The direct link between Hashem’s presence in a marriage and Hashem’s presence in the Mishkan is established when married Jewish couples contributed together to the building of Hashem’s home. Hashem understood this perfectly, sending the Jewish people right back to their tents to absorb and apply the Torah they have received, just as he gave Chavah to Adam so that Adam would follow Hashem’s sole commandment. Every marriage is unique, yet in a successful marriage, no matter how you practice Judaism, the differences are not found so much in the orthodoxy of our practice. The differences are found in the way we relate to Hashem.

There is a normative way of doing the holy deed, but there are many ways of hearing the holy voice, encountering the sacred presence, feeling at one and the same time how small we are yet how great the universe we inhabit, how insignificant we must seem when set against the vastness of space and the myriads of stars, yet how momentously significant we are, knowing that Hashem has set His image and likeness upon us and placed us here, in this place, at this time, with these gifts, in these circumstances, with a task to perform if we are able to discern it. We can find Hashem on the heights and in the depths, in loneliness and togetherness, in love and fear, in gratitude and need, in dazzling light and in the midst of deep darkness. We can find Hashem by seeking Him, but sometimes He finds us when we least expect it.

Working through Issues in a Marriage

No marriage is ever perfect, and it is not meant to be. For us to thrive and grow, we need to be fully engaged in our marriage, making sure that as issues arise, we deal with them promptly and honestly. When we try to ignore our problems, they rarely go away; rather, they fester and eat away at our loving relationships. We can choose to see working on our difficulties not as a fearsome task, but as an opportunity to take the relationship deeper. That is what Hashem calls us to do.

Facing Uncertainty

We can all benefit from letting go of the past and allowing ourselves and our spouses to move on. This is why gossip is so destructive: negative speech reinforces conclusions, making it hard for any of the parties to grow beyond their past.

But there are limits: there are certain kinds of problems in a marriage that we cannot, no matter how tolerant and forgiving we might be, simply accept and move on. These are not the kinds of problems that one can internalize, make adjustments, and keep living – these problems paralyze us, keeping us locked in a Hamlet-style morass of indecision and inaction. I speak, of course, of the same fundamental affliction that plagued Hamlet—indecision—caused by uncertainty, self-doubt, and soul-eating suspicion.

Is she faithful to me? That question, all by itself, makes it impossible for a marriage to grow. Without that kind of basic trust, two people cannot grow any further. If and when the basic fabric of our lives is in doubt, then people find themselves in a dangerous limbo. In Othello, Shakespeare explores the corrosive effects of suspicion within a marriage: Is my wife true? Asking that question, in Othello’s case, led to madness. And even in non-fictional characters, the mere suspicion that one’s partner in life is being unfaithful is paralyzing.

The crazy thing about this kind of problem is that it is not the knowledge that creates the impasse: it is the uncertainty. After all, if one is certain that their spouse is or is not faithful, then one can make plans, act accordingly, and move on. It is the doubt that gnaws at the soul, making people second-guess themselves and everything around them.

Suspicion of infidelity is entirely disabling – at least in the sense of being able to spiritually grow. Of course, Shakespeare did not invent the idea of the suspicious husband. The Torah deals with this issue.[59] The process for resolving this uncertainty is thick with symbolism, and designed to put the husband’s mind at ease: either his wife has been faithful, or she has not. Either way, the suspicion is put to rest.

The Torah tells us about a woman who is suspected of being unfaithful to her husband. She is called a sotah, and there is a ritual that involves drinking bitter waters, and the threat of a gruesome death if she has, in fact, been untrue. As with other incidences of bitterness, the issue is not unfaithfulness itself, but the dynamic between a husband and wife in the event that he suspects her of being untrue, but simply does not know for sure. The entire purpose of the ceremony is to reveal the truth, to end any lingering doubts either way.

One peculiar thing about the ritual is the timing of its description in the Torah: in the middle of the national story between the counts of the priests, the Levites, and the national dedication of the Mishkan and resumption of Hashem’s direct conversations with Moshe. And the lesson seems to be very interesting indeed: the Torah seems to be telling us that in order for Hashem to be among us, to have a deep and meaningful relationship with the Jewish people, we first must have no doubt that our spouse is faithful. In other words, removing fundamental doubts within our personal marriages is a precondition for a spiritual connection to Hashem.

As with so many other commandments, the origin of this commandment is also found earlier in the Torah, and in the relationship between the Jewish people and Hashem:

And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore, its name was called Marah.[60]

The waters were bitter because Hashem wanted to connect the Jewish people to the lack of fidelity to Him in their own past. The first time the word for “bitter” is found in the Torah is when Esav marries a Hittite woman. And they made life bitter for Yitzhak and for Rivkah.[61]

Bitterness is associated with infidelity – the act, like Esav’s marriages to non-Jews, that more than anything threatens the long-term survival of Judaism, the perpetuation and practice of the Torah. But bitterness is also associated with the mere suspicion of infidelity. And suspicion is acidic; as Shakespeare so ably shows, the mere suspicion of infidelity eats away at relationships and, if unchecked, destroys them.

And at Marah, where the waters were bitter, Hashem performs a very peculiar act:

‘. . . the Lord showed him a tree, which when he threw into the waters, and made the waters sweet;’[62]

A tree?! The first specific tree that Adam knew, of course, was the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It was the tree of certainty, the symbol of clear understanding. Hashem commands that the tree be cast into the water.

Why? Why is the water bitter, and the tree required to make it sweet again?

When the Jewish people were in Egypt, they were presented with other deities. They lived very similarly to Egyptians. Hashem wanted to make a clear point: one cannot be both a true Torah Jew, and an idol worshipper. Our relationship with Hashem is monogamous. We are to have no other gods before him! And so if there is even suspicion of infidelity between a man and wife, or man and Hashem, a relationship is poisoned.

Hashem makes the connection between the suspected wife and the Jewish people even more explicit, when he makes it about health:

And He said, ‘If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your Hashem, and will do that which is right in his sight, and will give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon you, which I have brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord that heals you.’[63]

The most relevant lesson for us to acknowledge is that relating to Hashem in Judaism is not merely a matter of obediently doing Hashem’s will. We are meant to be independent actors, freely choosing whether, and to what extent, we seek a connection with Hashem.

More than this: the Torah is telling us that when there are impediments to our relationship with our spouse and our Creator, we cannot merely wish them away, or ask Hashem to make them disappear on our behalf. We are the actors: in order to move on, the spouse has to tackle a suspicion head-on, discuss it and work to resolve it. Passive acceptance or wallowing in self-doubt doesn’t work, at least not if we want to make something of ourselves. When we are paralyzed, it is up to us to come back to the world, ready to move on and grow, partners with Hashem in improving the world in and around us.

Dealing with Life and Loss in Marriage

When we suffer the loss of trust or the loss of a relationship, it can be devastating to a relationship. We know that Sarah died when she heard the news that Yitzhak was offered up as a sacrifice; she was unprepared to continue to have a relationship with a man who would offer up their only son as a sacrifice.

Is the Holocaust so different? How many Jews ended their relationship with Hashem after He did not stop the Holocaust from occurring? We, as Jews, do not merely quietly sit and take what is given. Instead, we quarrel and argue – and when that fails, we certainly have been known to simply terminate the relationship, to refuse to have anything more to do with our spouse. Sarah’s death is analogous to the Jew who turned away from Hashem after the Holocaust. When we do not like what has happened, we leave the relationship.

The marriage of Avraham and Sarah is the national Jewish marriage with Hashem, and has been ever since the second tablets were given to us. Ours is a tumultuous and dynamic marriage which continues to yield unprecedented wonders.

Even death can be a trigger for growth. Sarah died, but Avraham then goes to very great pains to bury her with the highest honors. It is his act of redemption, one that heals the relationship for the Jewish people for all time going forward. Avraham establishes the cave, the foundational burial place, for all time.

In the same way that Avraham plants the foundation stone at Machpelah, Hashem does the same thing when he commands the creation of the Mishkan. Both exist to heal a profound rift between man and his spouse; the Beis Hamikdosh was a way to live in peace with the Jewish people after our actions of betrayal in the desert, just as Avraham’s burial of Sarah atoned for his offering of their only son.

Both the cave of Machpelah and the Beis Hamikdosh are eternal parts of the Jewish people and the land of Israel. They are, of course, necessarily separate. The cave of Machpelah is a place only for the dead, while the Beis Hamikdosh is only a place for the living. The two places are two sides of the same coin: the former unifies man and wife in death,[64] while the latter connects man and Hashem in life.

Death is inevitable, and is the final end to any relationship, but it is also a legacy for the living and a legacy for the world. From generation to generation – whether one pursues holiness through relationships or technology or spreading knowledge and wisdom… these are all ideals embodied in the Mishkan, goals and aspirations for every Jew’s life.

As Rabbi Tarfon taught, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.”[65]

Thus, the Ark in the Mishkan and eventually the Beis Hamikdosh represents one of the most rich and sacred aspects of Judaism. It reminds us of the importance of intimacy and marriage in our lives. It requires us to marry as a prelude to intimacy and marriage to Hashem. And calls to us to pursue this journey so that we may walk on the path of holiness.


As a modern reader, you may very well wonder about the purpose of the altar in the Mishkan for making offerings and sacrifices. You might allow your imagination to create all kinds of images of these rituals, because we are limited in knowing the reasons that sacrifices were made, what they actually looked like, who made them, and when they were offered. In this part of the book, we will offer an understanding of the origins of offerings in Judaism, and then bring a modern and reasonable understanding of the altar and the sacrifices and offerings.

Be Holy because I am Holy

When we make an altar, we are not supposed to use tools on it, as tools represent human ingenuity, and thus would contaminate the altar. Instead we are instructed to keep it as basic and unimproved as a heap of ground or stones can be. The ground under the altar should represent all ground, to stand in for the earth itself. A sacrifice has the explicit goal of connecting heaven and earth – both are things, nouns.

But the human addition to the altar is forbidden to be our physical substance: our part is one of action. Hashem tells the Jewish people that the altar should have a ramp, not steps, so that “you should not expose your nakedness,” suggesting that climbing steps requires another kind of separation between the legs.[66]

The altar and the offerings that were made were primarily about our connecting intimately with Hashem. We brought offerings and made sacrifices, because we either had acted in a way that distanced us from Hashem, or to express our gratitude to Him, or we were choosing to become ever closer to Him. But the earliest offerings may suggest the reasons for the commandments about offerings and how they ultimately were intended to support a relationship between people and Hashem.

The Sacrifices of Kayin and Abel

The story of the sacrifices offered by Kayen and Abel creates an intriguing framework for understanding the sacrifices. By looking at how Hashem responded to their sacrifices, particularly His rejection of Kayin’s sacrifice, we can begin to understand not only the role of sacrifices, but their purpose and relevance in our relationship with Hashem.

What Did Kayin do Wrong?

After Kayin and Abel made their offerings to Hashem, many people have speculated on Hashem’s reasons for accepting Abel’s offerings and rejecting Kayin’s: maybe Abel’s was acceptable because it was firstlings and Kayin’s was not the first fruits; maybe Hashem rejected Kayin’s offering on a whim. But what if the reason can be explained by recognizing the role of Kayin’s anger toward Abel, his misguided purpose of his offering, and Hashem’s goal in lecturing him after the fact? In fact, Hashem may have ensured through the mitzvah of offering bikkurim (first fruits) a way that we would understand the purpose of our offerings and how they would generate joy, intimacy, celebration between ourselves, our community and Hashem. Let’s pursue this line of thinking by studying the story of Kayin and Abel more carefully.

During the time of Kayin and Abel, it was still common among other peoples to make offerings to pagan gods. In spite of the teachings of Hashem, Kayin may still have believed that the gods needed to be bribed for them to provide wellbeing and productivity to the land and its people. In fact, Abel was the first of the brothers to make an offering, and Kayin followed his example—but Kayin may not have had a close relationship with Hashem or failed to understand the purpose of the offering: it was not meant to be a bribe to the pagan gods, but a symbol of gratitude to Hashem for the bounteous fields and trees, as well as a way to acknowledge Hashem for being inextricably involved with the fertile land and its fruits.

So Hashem may have realized that the purpose underlying Kayin’s offering was not proper, and He rejected it, and Kayin became angry[67]:

Why are you angry, said Hashem to Kayin, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you refuse to do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; you are its object of desire, but you must master it.

Hashem was deeply concerned, not just because Kayin misunderstood the purpose of a sacrifice and may have only been imitating Abel, but because Kayin was enraged at Hashem’s response.; He saw that Kayin might not choose to control his rage at Abel’s offering being accepted and his own being rejected. Hashem is telling him that if he doesn’t control his rage, “sin is crouching at your door”; Hashem knew that Kayin might do something terrible out of his anger. More than this fact, Kayin may not have understood Hashem’s instruction, and he acted rashly. As we know, Kayin funneled his rage into a pre-meditated murder of his own brother. This incident was not only the first time that an act was called “sin,” but it was the first fratricide in the Torah.

Did Kayin misunderstand Hashem’s cautionary words? Or had his rage grown too great to master it? We don’t know. We can surmise, however, that Hashem was distressed at Kayin’s murder of his brother, and that He was determined to make certain that in the future, the Jewish people would understand the purpose of sacrifices and offer them according to His commandments. The bikkurim were the epitome of how and why we make sacrifices to Hashem.

As we mentioned earlier, the bikkurim were the offering of the first fruits. The process of collecting first fruits demanded that the farmer examine his crop or fruit trees carefully, even daily, to be able to identify when the flower of the first fruit appeared, and he would tie a bow next to the blossom. Unlike Kayin who did not offer first fruits, and may have gathered his offering in haste to keep up with his brother, farmers would take the necessary time to examine their first fruits. We learn that there are reasons for us to take our time in following a process dedicated to Hashem.

Other reasons for the intense attention of the farmer to his crops was that the first fruits were not necessarily the most beautiful, or ripest, or largest; they only needed to be the first. The purpose of the offering was to acknowledge that Hashem, with the land, rains, sun and His blessings, had worked with the farmer to produce the crop, and the farmer wanted Hashem to know how very happy and grateful he was for the results of their shared work. The farmer would place the first fruits in a basket, present them to the priest at the Mishkan and make the following declaration:

So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.[68]

In addition, if the farmer had to sell his produce before reaching Jerusalem, Hashem instructed him to use the funds (as he would also do once he sold his produce in Jerusalem), to join with the community in celebration with food and drink.

Therefore, Hashem’s providing this mitzvah of the bikkurim ensured that His instructions would be clear, and we would understand a number of important premises of this offering: (1) that the offering was an expression of heartfelt gratitude to Hashem for his help in producing the crops; (2) that the bikkurim were not a payoff to Hashem for their good fortune; and (3) that the declaration they made when they arrived to give the offering to the priest reinforced their ownership of the process. Finally, we are reminded that all offerings were not for Hashem’s benefit, but for our own. We grow closer to Hashem when we acknowledge our love and gratitude to Him, and to those in the community who are also offering bikkurim and celebrating with us.

Prayer v. Sacrifices

Since we can no longer offer sacrifices without the Temple, some say that our prayers are a substitution for them. Although our prayers are significant, we have to wonder if they provide a direct substitution for them?

When we offer prayers, we are making a spiritual connection to Hashem. In a sense, it doesn’t require us to carry out a process; we can often do it “in place,” without having to necessarily travel anywhere. Our prayers are very important and can frame and our lives in a holy manner.

But sacrifices required something extra. We were reminded that our lives were connected to the seasons, and our food was not only connected to the earth, but to our work with Hashem. We were responsible for planting, raising and harvesting our crop and not to just rely on Hashem’s blessings, but in fact to work with him for our own survival. We must watch the crops and for the appearance of first fruits, which reminded us that the work we do to raise the crops is done in partnership with Hashem. And we must carry our first fruits (or the money from them) to Jerusalem.

So although prayer engages us as we stand facing Hashem, sacrifice called us to actively pursue through our actions a relationship with Hashem. Every step we took, every seed we planted, every fruit we picked, every trip we made to the Mishkan to offer sacrifices reminded us of our relationship with, and gratitude to Hashem. They engaged us in the physical, not just the intellectual. In fact, sacrifice, including the burning of the sacrifice, engaged all our senses, every part of us, in a way that prayer may not.

These observations in no way discount the significance of prayer. It’s difficult, however, to assume that prayer is a direct substitute for sacrifice. Still, until the Temple is rebuilt, we can pray as a way to ensure our closeness to Hashem, to become ever more holy, and the best opportunity to express our gratitude.

Since the idea of sacrifices or korbanot (which means “coming close”) seem foreign to us today, we’ll identify some of the sacrifices and offerings that were made and their purposes; provide a short vignette to provide an example that people might relate to in this day and age, and then summarize the reasons sacrifices were done but are no longer done.

Due to the number of korbanot that could be offered, we’re going to focus on six types: the bikkurim, or first fruits; the olah, or burnt offering; the zevach sh’lamin, or peace offering; the chatat, sin offering; the asham, or guilt offering; and tithing. Let’s begin with an example of offering the bikkurim.

* * *

Benjamin wiped the sweat from his brow, as he looked out over his field. He and his wife had toiled through blood, sweat and tears to come to this day; fortunately, Hashem had provided everything they needed to have a successful crop. Through hailstorms, flooding and cold they had worked the soil, and now the wheat was beginning to ripen. It felt like a miracle, just like bitter water being made pure by Moshe on the journey from Egypt. He was going to take the first ripe wheat to the Mishkan, to celebrate joyously all the blessings he and his family had experienced as they arrived at this day of reaping. He closed his eyes and said a prayer of thanks to Hashem for all His help, for the seeds, the rain and the ripening of the crops, and then set out to collect the bikkurim. He waved at his wife who was approaching with a knowing smile on her face. It was a good day.

* * *

The olah comes from the word, aliyah, the word that means “ascension”; it is a sacrifice that suggests that we are not only submitting to Hashem, but we are rising to meet and to become more intimate with Him, and in so doing, achieving holiness. This offering could be made for many different reasons. Depending on what the offeror could afford, the olah could be selected from cattle, sheep, goats, or birds. The offering would be burnt completely by the priest, as it was completely dedicated to Hashem.

* * *

I feel so blessed to have a hardworking husband and good children. But I feel alone and distant. I believe it is a good time to seek out Hashem wholeheartedly and completely. I want Him to know that even when life is hard, I am devoted to Him and want to experience him more deeply in my life. I will take an unblemished sheep to the Mishkan and ask the priest to make an olah, burning the offering as a full devotional act to Hashem. I will immerse myself in prayer and commitment through this holy act.

* * *

The zevach sh’lamim was a peace offering or one of expressing thanks or gratitude. The word sh’lamim has the same root as shalom: peace or wholeness. A part of the offering is burnt on the altar; a portion is given to the priests and the rest is eaten by the offeror and his or her family. Everyone has the opportunity to participate in this act of holiness and gratitude to Hashem.

* * *

He was still shaking his head in wonderment and appreciation, as he sat on the ground. His four-year old son had fallen from his cart and suffered what appeared to be a severe gash on his head. When he saw the boy fall, he rushed to his side, held him in his arms and put pressure on the wound. Although it had seemed serious at first, he realized that it was not as dangerous as it seemed. Once the boy opened his eyes, his father continued holding him in his arms, resolving that he would go to the Mishkan tomorrow with his family to make an offering, to express his gratitude that his son was saved from a catastrophic outcome.

* * *

The chatat is a sin offering, to ask for forgiveness for a sin a person has committed. The offering must be given in wholehearted sincerity to be acceptable; the sin must be one that is committed unintentionally, not maliciously. The sacrificial animal is to be commensurate with the sin committed, as well as the means of the one who has sinned.

* * *

Joseph paced the floor, angry at himself. He had just finished telling a neighbor that he had spent Shabbos afternoon taking a long walk; he had been pre-occupied with money problems and just needed to clear his head. As he was about to re-enter his house, he told his neighbor, Calev, where he had been. Calev looked surprised since, he explained in a kind voice, there is a mitzvah that states we are not supposed to walk long distances on Shabbat, and he had walked much more than the distance permitted; Calev assured him that as a new convert, it was understandable that he didn’t know. He suggested that Joseph take a chatat offering to the Mishkan, since he sincerely regretted breaking the mitzvah and was committed to not violating it again.

Joseph slowed his pacing, and suddenly realized that he had not only made a mistake that day, but might make many more as he strove to understand and embrace his new faith; he had also learned something new, and learning is a special blessing on Shabbat. He would choose an offering the next day and make his way to the Mishkan. He wanted Hashem to know that he was sincere in his devotion to Judaism, and would work even harder to keep the mitzvot.

* * *

The guilt offering, called asham, is offered when a person isn’t sure whether he or she has committed a sin, or for a breach of trust. The offering is eaten by the priests.

* * *

Rebecca’s friend Miriam confided in her that she was having troubles in her marriage. Miriam wasn’t sure what to do about it, and thought Rebecca might have a suggestion. The situation, as marriages often are, was complicated. Rebecca spent most of their time together just listening, but struggled about whether she could be helpful to Miriam or not. Since her friend asked her again what she thought she should do, she asked if she could think about the situation and talk to her tomorrow.

When Rebecca arrived home, her husband asked her about her visit, and Rebecca told him what she’d learned, and how she hoped she could be helpful to her friend; perhaps he could offer some suggestions. Later that night, however, she wondered if Miriam’s sharing was supposed to be confidential, at least meant to be limited in details shared, and whether she had betrayed her friend. At that point, she asked her husband not to share the information with anyone else; she also resolved to take an asham to the Mishkan, since she believed she may not only have disappointed Miriam by confiding the details of her situation, but disappointed and created a rift between herself and Hashem. Meanwhile, she would also be as good a friend as possible to Miriam, and pray for Hashem to forgive her for her own possible error.

* * *

You might be surprised to see “tithing” included in a section on sacrifices and offerings. But tithings were precisely those actions commanded by Hashem to the Jews.

Since the Levites were committed directly to Hashem, they were not included in the census to identify the people who could be in the military, nor were they assigned land; the Levites were tasked with caring for everything connected to the Mishkan and with moving the Mishkan and everything associated with it when it was time to travel. To compensate the Levites for their work and devotion, the Israelites were told to tithe one-tenth of their crops or income for the Levites’ service.

So these tithes were donated to Hashem and allocated to the Levites as the compensation for the service. Tithes were a portion of those efforts that connected the people to the Mishkan, to those who were dedicated to Hashem, and to Hashem himself. This interconnectedness allowed the people through their donations of oil, corn and wine to experience the holiness of giving and donating.

Hashem presents many different ways for us to recognize our sins and to atone for them, too. Each sacrifice is intended to be commensurate with the sin; each sin we commit can burden us in regret and guilt, and when we are pre-occupied with our own feelings, we have difficulty reaching out to Hashem. In every case, Hashem wants us to take responsibility for our actions, recognize the impact not only on ourselves but on those in our lives, and in our relationship with Him.

Transcending our Physical Selves

Mankind’s role in holiness is not to contribute our own bodies, nor to add our own physicality: we are not the sacrificial animal. Our role is to be the catalyst, the kinetic force that brings the nouns together. And when we do this, we have to make our entire bodies into verbs – climbing a ramp requires us to bow, engaging our entire bodies; when we climb steps, our upper bodies can remain erect and distinct from our legs. To create holiness, we have to be the motive force, while the earth and heaven are the static bodies that are connected through us.

The lesson is clear enough: when we define ourselves by our physical attributes, then we are limiting who we are. The Torah almost never tells us of a person’s physical appearances unless the person himself thinks it makes him limited in some way (such as Moshe’s speech impediment). Our lives are supposed to be lived and defined by what we choose to do, not by how we are born or raised, or even how others define us. While we live, we are supposed to be verbs, not nouns. Through our actions, we close the gap between heaven and earth, bringing them together. There will be plenty of time to be a mere hunk of matter when we are six feet under. We are not to be a part of the altar, but we use it to unify heaven and earth with holiness.

Sweet Aroma and Moving in the Right Direction

What is the substance of a smell? The scent of a delicious food does not provide any material comfort. Instead of satisfying our hunger, the smell of roasted coffee or baking bread has the opposite effect: it whets our appetite, adding to our cravings. Indeed, a sweet savor is not filling: it is something that makes us excited and anticipatory for the meal to come.

The very first time that Hashem refers to a “sweet savor” is when Noach offers an elevation-offering from the animals on the Ark. The aroma must have been sweet, indeed, because Hashem follows the offering with no less than 19 verses of promises and blessings for mankind.

Those blessings do not come because mankind inherently deserved them. (If we had, there would have been no need for the Flood in the first place.) The blessings come as a direct result of Noach’s sacrifices: of connecting the earth to the heavens by sacrificing kosher animals. It is that act of sacrifice (which seems to be Noach’s own invention) which shows that at least one member of the human race understood that the purpose of mankind is to seek a connection between man and Hashem, to elevate the natural world into the spiritual plane.

The sacrifices are not the purpose of mankind’s existence, which is why Hashem is not satisfied by Noach’s offerings, just as our hunger is not sated by the scent of tantalizing food. A sacrifice—any Torah sacrifice—does not complete our lives. The fact that Hashem finds our sacrifices to be “a pleasing aroma” tells us that Hashem views our offerings not as the meal, but as the anticipatory scent that promises wonderful things to come. It means that we are on the right track, not that we have reached the destination.

So when we make an offering because we have sinned, the offering does not make the sin “go away” – but it shows Hashem that we are contrite, and that we aim to do better in the future. The only part of the offering that goes “up” to the heavens is the smell, after all, and that is all that Hashem desires from it. Hashem benefits from knowing that we are seeking the relationship, that we are craving the connection, and that we understand that a fundamental purpose of our existences in this world is to dedicate ourselves toward spiritual ends. When Noach built the ark, he was saving life. But when he made elevation-offerings afterwards, Noach showed that the value of life is not inherent: life exists so that we can choose to connect with Hashem, to complete the creation of the world by connecting heaven and earth.

This point is hardly a side-note in the Torah: the phrase reiach nichoach, or “pleasing aroma” to Hashem appears 39 times in the Torah. And it is there to remind us that Hashem wants us, above all, to be moving in the right direction. An offering, like a pleasing aroma, is not a product in itself; it is a step in the process, a promise of even better things to come.

Thus, the altar gives us the opportunity to make offerings to unite heaven and earth, and to express our love and connection to Hashem.

Altar and Elevation to Holiness

The mission of the Jewish people is to be a light unto the nations, to elevate the physical world into the spiritual plane. And to do that, it was essential that the physical home of the Jewish people had to be capable of that elevation.

One might ask, however: is it not problematic that the Land that is promised is named Canaan? After all, Canaan was the name of Ham’s son, and he was cursed by Noach for Ham’s sexual crime[69]. The Torah tells us that the Canaanites, guilty of sexual perversion, could not achieve holiness.

Ham’s sin explains why Avraham forbids his servant from finding a wife who is a Canaanite, why Esav earns the displeasure of his parents for marrying a local Canaanite. It is why the Torah tells us explicitly, “after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do; neither shall ye walk in their statutes.”[70]

But even though the word “Canaan” (in one form or another) occurs ninety-three times in the Torah, the Torah does not use the name “Canaan” when referring to acts of holiness. The land itself, while named for its inhabitants, is not called “Canaan” by the Torah whenever we are charged with holiness, with doing Hashem’s will. Instead, the Torah goes to great lengths to avoid using the name “Canaan” when referring to the purpose of the land as the place where man is meant to connect with Hashem, to create holiness. Avraham is not told “Go to Canaan,” but instead, “Go to the land that I will show you.” When commanded to bring offerings, the Torah does not tell us to go to the Land of Canaan. Instead, the Torah phrases it otherwise: “. . . in the place which he shall choose to cause His name to dwell there.”[71] or “the Lord thy Hashem shall choose to set his name there.”[72].

There is no real suspense – Avraham knows where to go, and he proceeds directly to Canaan. The Jews know that they will be offering sacrifices to Hashem in the land of Canaan. But the Torah avoids naming the place “Canaan.”

Names are important. Some names (such as Adam’s names for animals or the “Land of Canaan” are merely descriptive). They tell us the nature of the thing, or the names of its inhabitants. But when Avraham calls out in Hashem’s name, he is doing something very different: he is prescribing. The land may have been called Canaan in the past and present – but the future land will be the place where Hashem sets His name, the place which Hashem showed Avraham. The place of holiness.

Offering sacrifices is also a way of elevating the world and closing the separation between Hashem and man and making things holy. And even within the “most holy” category, the Torah plays favorites: the guilt offering, the sin offering, and the meal offering are called “most holy” more than anything else in the entire Torah. What makes these specific items worthy of such attention?

I would argue that the difference is that these are all voluntary offerings, in the sense that for someone to bring such an offering, they must be taking the initiative. A person who brings a sin offering is looking for an opportunity to bring an offering, above and beyond supporting the routine “housekeeping” offerings in the Temple. When one of those offerings is brought, it is as a result of the exercise of free will: we choose to do an action, and that choice gives the act more potency.

But there is more than this. While Shabbos and the burning bush were combinations of heaven and earth, physical and spiritual, they were really admixed in this way, directly by Hashem. Hashem creates mankind to reunify the split parts—it is our job—so that when Hashem reunifies heaven and earth, He does not do it “for keeps”; He only does it as a teacher would show a student how to solve a math problem: the burning bush is an example of holiness, teaching Moshe the definition. Hashem wants us to learn from Him, to choose to follow His lead and create holiness ourselves.

But a sacrifice, by contrast, is not a static thing, but a dynamic event. It is not merely the combination of two disparate elements. A sacrifice is an active event, elevating the physical toward the spiritual.

Consider the sacrifices: the guilt and sin offerings involve an animal. When the animal is sacrificed, the soul, nefesh, of the animal is released upward in fire. An animal is given an elevation, Aliyah, toward the divine. This is precisely what we want our own souls to do – to elevate toward Hashem. And the flesh of the sacrifices becomes most holy – to be eaten by the priests, elevating them in turn. Like kosher food, whose purpose is to allow us to elevate our bodies through consuming the kosher animal, so too the sacrifices to Hashem create a foodstuff that is most holy, elevating the priests as they consume the meat.

Animals, of course, have spirits, and the contribution of their spirits to the offering makes it most holy. But the meal offering is of flour and oil, not of an animal! Why is an offering that does not include an animal also repeatedly identified as being “most holy”?

The answer is that the meal offering was brought by those who could not afford to purchase an animal. For such a person, even financing the meal offering was a substantial investment (and sacrifice) of his or her own meager possessions. The reason the Torah says, “And when any will offer a meal offering to the Lord,”[73] the Hebrew word used for “any” is nefesh or spirit. The Talmud tells us that a meal offering was not the spirit of the animal but represented the spirit of the person making the offering itself! Which might explain why the meal offering is given pride of place when the Torah lists the offerings:

This shall be yours of the most holy things, reserved from the fire; every offering of theirs, every meal offering of theirs and every sin offering of theirs, and every guilt offering of theirs, which they shall render to me, shall be most holy for you and for your sons.[74]

It is the meal offering that comes first, because the people bringing the offerings put more of their spirit into their sacrifice—and the offering is meant to elevate people most of all: the offering is a human proxy.

The Torah’s words are telling us that Hashem values mankind’s contributions to this world above His own.

And among all of these contributions, it is when we actively choose to find ways to elevate the physical into the spiritual plane, that we are fulfilling the purpose of our existence in this world: Hashem wants us to be holy, and the greatest holiness is achieved when we serve Hashem by connecting the disparate worlds that He formed in the beginning of creation.

One beautiful and creative explanation of the sacrifices was made by Joseph Cox in a video he produced.[75]

Our acts through offerings, then, are of key importance.

Seven, Two and the Animals

Many parts of Judaism and the Torah are connected to the number seven, and the altar and sacrifices are no exception. The seven-day week is a Jewish creation, and we Jews trace this number (which does not work well with either the moon or the sun) to the Torah itself, and the description of creation over a period of seven days. The number is thus quite meaningful to Jews – seven is the number of Hashem’s creative acts, the number that culminates in the day we make holy, Shabbos.

It is not enough that we bring the physical and spiritual together in a cause. While there is an inherent potency in the combination, if we, Hashem forbid, are doing it for our own glory instead of Hashem’s, then we have misunderstood the entire purpose of the creation of the world.

In addition, Noach is commanded to bring seven pairs of the spiritually ready (King James translates as “clean”) animals into the ark. Why? I think it is because these animals, like Shabbos, are capable of spiritual growth: people can use them as kosher food or sacrifices, spiritually elevating both the animals and the people, and the world around us.

So why is Noach told to only bring two of each of the spiritually unfit animals into the ark? I think the number in this case refers to the second day of creation – the only day that Hashem does not call “good.” It is not a day of elevation (one form of holiness), but a day of separation and division of the waters above and below. The second day of creation was, essentially a stutter-step in the creative process. Thus, the animals that are brought on, in the words of the song, “by twosies, twosies,” are the animals that, like the second day itself, do not contribute to the spiritual growth and completion of the world.

One example of a distinction between the holy and the unholy animals comes from the story of the snake in the Garden of Eden:

And if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbor, to slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from Mine altar, that he may die.[76]

What a strange formulation! If you want to kill a murderer that is one thing: but what does Hashem’s altar have to do with it?

The answer lies in the word “arum,” which is translated here as “guile” – but also equally means being potentially self-aware. The kind of forbidden killing is not accidental manslaughter; it is premeditated and evil. Killing with “arum” is not a crime of passion, but one of design.

And the amazing thing is that this word, which is not very common in the Torah, is first found to describe the snake in the Garden of Eden –

Now the serpent was more arum than any beast of the field which the Lord Hashem had made.[77]

The snake sought to kill Chavah (and Adam) by persuading Chavah to eat the fruit, since Hashem had pledged that if they ate the fruit, then they would die. The snake, with premeditation, succeeds in his mission – once they ate the fruit, their consciousnesses were transformed, meaning that the “old” Adam and Chavah were no longer. So the snake in Genesis, with arum, kills.

In Exodus, Hashem tells us that if anyone kills with arum, then they should also be killed. But not simply killed. They must be “taken from the altar.” Why?

The answer is simple: it was the snake’s punishment. Because it killed with arum, the snake lost its legs, and was forced to eat only dust – to wallow in physical depths with no potential for spiritual growth. The example of the snake teaches us (among other things) that the purpose of the altar is to achieve growth and spiritual connection.

Oil and Man’s Relationship with Hashem

Hebrew is a language with relatively few words, and so different words often share a common root. In the case of “eight” the word is composed of three letters: shin, mem, and nun, which spell shemen, or oil. And what is very cool (at least for a Torah geek like me) is that the very first time oil is mentioned in the Torah is when Yaakov, after awakening from the dream in which he sees angels ascending and descending from heaven, announces his realization that the place is the “gate of heaven.”[78] Yaakov takes the stone that he had used as a pillow, the resting place for his soul the night before, and sets it up as a pillar, a kind of altar. Then, to seal the deal, Yaakov pours oil on top of it.

This is not the first time that oil is mentioned in the Torah; it was also the first time anything is poured on any head. But it was not the last! Yaakov actually seems to set the trend. Hashem commands Moshe to pour oil on Aaron’s head[79], which he does.[80] (The language is the same in all three cases.)

There is reciprocity here. Yaakov connected heaven and earth in the place where he experienced his dream, and he used the pouring of oil on the head of his pillar to seal the connection. So when it was time for the priests to be consecrated as the intermediaries between the Children of Israel and Hashem, then they were anointed with oil. Why oil? Perhaps we can say that oil was the embodiment of the relationship between man and Hashem, the meaning of the number eight, with which it shares the letters.

The natural world can be represented by a vegetable, but the creation of oil requires both nature and man’s effort to extract the essence of that vegetable. Oil is thus an amalgam of both divine creation and mankind’s investment of time and energy. The end product is highly nutritious and energy rich, usable as a food and fuel. In the Mishkan and Beis Hamikdosh it was used for both: an ingredient in edible offerings, as well as to light the menorah (the Chanukah version of which has eight lights). Food offerings could also be made from oil and flour; flour, also, is made from a combination of Hashem’s and man’s work.

So for Yaakov to pour oil on the altar was to both acknowledge the natural bounty that made oil possible, as well as to expressly connect mankind’s refinement of that bounty and its investment into the relationship between man and Hashem.

Man’s job in completing the creation of the world, is in fact to unify that which has been divided! We are meant to unify the dualisms in the world, and to do so in a holy manner: heaven and earth, man and woman, the waters above and the waters below (and countless others). But why, if Hashem merges that which is divided, is it destructive of life; whereas, if we succeed in our mission of doing the same thing, it is the ultimate act of holiness? Perhaps we could suggest an answer: If Hashem merges heaven and earth, we cease to exist (as seen with the giving of the first two commandments, as well, in a different form, is demonstrated by the Flood). But if we succeed in merging heaven and earth, then, it would appear, we are fulfilling our destiny!

The Mysteries of the Sacrifices

In all our explorations of the sacrifices and the altar, there are aspects that we haven’t yet discussed, in part because they challenge modern sensibilities, and in part, because we simply do not know the specific reasons for Hashem’s requiring them. For those who prefer to have a reason for everything, this situation can be very frustrating.

In particular, the priests are asked to drain the blood from the sacrificial animal after it is ritually killed. We know that blood is the fuel of life; that is why we are commanded to drain the blood from animals before we eat them. There is also the point that we are called to identify closely with this animal that represents us and who, like us, has blood flowing through its veins and whose blood represents its soul. The priests also sprinkled the blood on and around the altar, reminding us of the life-giving force of the blood, which represents our soul and the soul of the animal, which connects with Hashem. In a sense, however, this is all speculation.

There is another way to look at sacrifices and the altar. The other day I heard a story that I think demonstrates that when we are sometimes called to do something we don’t understand, it is a worthy and holy act:

A woman told her husband that she wanted flowers for her birthday. He was perplexed at her request, but he assumed it was important to her. So on her birthday, he brought her a beautiful bouquet of flowers. As he handed the bouquet to her, she looked into his eyes, tears welling up in her own eyes, and said simply, “Thank you.” Now he understood.

Hashem asked us to perform sacrifices in particular ways that we cannot explain. Can we offer up our lives to serve Hashem, in the absence of detailed explanation, because Hashem wants us to do so? Can we offer up sacrifices because it is a way for us to be intimate with Him?

The Absence of Sacrifices Today

Once the Second Temple was destroyed, there was nowhere that sacrifices and offerings could be made. Jews believe that when the Messiah comes, a third Temple will be built. Whether sacrifices will be offered once again, we can only speculate.

Some of our sages say that our prayers are a replacement for the sacrifices; that is one reason that prayer is still central to Jewish life. Again, not everyone agrees that prayer is a substitute for sacrifices.

The key to understanding the altar and sacrifices is that Hashem has always wanted us to aspire to be intimate with Him, to serve Him, and to actively continue his creation. When we understand that we are called to be active, to be verbs, we fulfill our desire to be holy.


Throughout this book we have discussed the Mishkan, what it represents, why it demonstrates Hashem’s desire to be close to us and the ways that we can experience that closeness, and the meaning of the symbols of the Mishkan and how we can practice with them. Dwelling in the background of these ideas, however, is an especially significant question that connects to the Mishkan and the 1st and 2nd Temples: why wasn’t the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, twice destroyed by our enemies, rebuilt in the last 2,000 years?  We have had all those years to pray, to yearn. And yet we are somehow no closer to the rebuilding of the Temple than we were after the destruction of the Second Temple by Titus.

The question is especially pertinent when we accept that, for the first time during this period, the Jewish people are now in control of the land on which the Temple, the “Home of the Tabernacle,” stood. And so I used to think as many others do: that we simply lack the courage to do what needs to be done. If this is so, we could say that our medieval, ghetto mindset has not been updated by the existence of the State of Israel. I think this is part of the answer. But it is not a complete explanation.

Until we understand why the Temple was destroyed in the first place, there is no reason why Hashem should give us another chance. After all, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” (Rita Mae Brown). We had the first two temples. And we lost them both, which means that thinking that if we restore what we had in the past we would get a better result would be, in a word: insanity.

If we were “doing” the temple wrong the first two times, then perhaps we are not supposed to build the third Temple until after we understand why Hashem commanded the tabernacle to be built in the first place! Perhaps this elevates the significance of the why question to a whole new level.

The serious gap in our understanding rests with a major purpose of the Temple: to offer sacrifices. Yet, the prophets and psalms have no shortage of exhortations about Hashem NOT wanting the sacrifices that He told us to bring! Here is but a short sample:

For I desired mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of Hashem more than sacrifices. (Hosea 6:6)


   Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats? (Psalms 50:13)

Yet the Torah commands us to bring sacrifices! What were the prophets and the psalms trying to tell us? Why did they seem to contradict Hashem’s expectations for sacrifices? Does Hashem want sacrifices, or not?

I think the prophets were making a more subtle, but profound argument: Hashem wants us to understand that the commandments are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.  And what is that end? God wants us to behave and live in a holy manner: Mercy. Love. Justice. Growth, both personal and societal.

So, too, the Temple, the house of the Tabernacle where we bring our sacrifices, is also a means to an end. Each of the parts of the tabernacle is rich with symbolism and meaning, capable of guiding us through the ages – but only if we appreciate the importance of seeking understanding, as opposed to merely ticking the boxes.

The problem is that throughout history, the Jewish people have forgotten Hashem’s expectations and slipped back into mindset of Kayin (Hashem as a powerful entity requiring a payoff), Korach (Hashem as pagan deity who is ultimately uninterested in the affairs of men as long as He gets His own offerings), and countless Jews who see Hashem as nature and nature as Hashem. For all these deities, man merely has to go through the motions, and the god is assuaged. None of these gods requires the worshipper to seek personal spiritual growth, to find ways to love the widow, the orphan and the stranger – let alone one’s own neighbor.

But the Hashem of the Torah stands qualitatively apart from all pagan (and for that matter Greco-Roman, Norse and other) deities. Hashem is not nature or one of its forces. Nor does He want us to serve because we acknowledge His power: He wants us instead to acknowledge and emulate his mercy and justice.

Hashem also wants and craves a relationship with us, one in which we seek to understand and perceive His thoughts. He commands us to bring sacrifices not because He is hungry, but because sacrifices, given properly, can help us grow and move on in our personal development and deepen our connection to and our relationship with Him.

When we instead practice what I term “Rain Dance Judaism,” we are reverting to a kind of “fill in the blanks” service to Hashem that is much more pagan than Jewish. Instead of understanding why we have commandments, we think all we really need to do is follow the commandments, with slavish attention to detail. If we do things just right, then the Celestial Slot Machine will come up bells, and we’ll be rewarded with a cascade of quarters. This is precisely the same trap into which the Judaism of the Temple periods fell!

Instead of understanding why we brought sacrifices, people assumed that as long as they followed the letter of the law, Hashem would be happy. Instead of understanding why the Mishkan was commanded, we instead assumed that we didn’t need to know the reasons; we were only to show our devotion by doing precisely as we were told. And instead of understanding and internalizing the lessons contained within sacrifices, we mailed it in: give Hashem lunch, and He’ll bless us – or at least leave us alone! We have forgotten that all of these actions, these commandments were intended to bring us closer to Hashem and to emulate Him in our actions, words and deeds.

Until we come to understand what the commandments are for, we will not have the opportunity to practice them fully, to use them as a way to learn and understand Hashem. As we read on the day commemorating the destruction of the Temples:

Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches. But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the LORD. [81]

And it is in these things, lovingkindness, judgment and righteousness, that we have been given the Torah and all its commandments. The challenge for us is to try to understand how and why the commandments in the Torah, including all of those of the Mishkan, lead us to making ourselves and our societies more loving, just and righteous. As we do that, we grow in our understanding and knowledge of Hashem Himself.

When we meet that mental challenge, then we will no longer be doing the same thing over and over again, and we will be able to reasonably expect a different result. At that time, we will be ready for the Third Temple.

  1. Deuteronomy 30:9-14
  2. Deuteronomy, 30:14
  3. Exodus, 25:8
  4. Exodus, 25:10
  5. Exodus, 25:29-38
  6. Exodus, 27:20
  7. Leviticus, 24:2
  8. Exodus, 25:30
  9. Leviticus, 6:6
  10. Exodus, 25:31-40
  11. Genesis, 41:5
  12. Genesis, 14:19
  13. Deut. 16:9
  14. Lev. 25:8
  15. Deuteronomy, 16:20
  16. Leviticus 24:1-4
  17. Micah, 6:8;
  18. Deuteronomy, 6:17
  19. Exodus, 4:11
  20. Deuteronomy, 4:15-18
  21. David Nye, author of America’s Assembly Line (MIT Press). Quoted in Assembly Magazine, October 2013.
  22. 4 Exodus, 20:4
  23. Leviticus, 2:3
  24. Exodus, 22:29
  25. Deuteronomy, 22:8
  26. Exodus 38:8.
  27. As opposed to modesty, which is entirely appropriate.
  28. Which is also not surprising for Moshe, as his earthly marriage, alone among all the Jewish people, was entirely celibate from the time of his first encounter with Hashem, at the burning bush. Moshe’s was the only marriage that was not the model for a relationship with Hashem.
  29. This idea is from Rabbi Simcha Baer.
  30. Deuteronomy, 30
  31. There is a lesson here as well for those who are not, for whatever reason, blessed with children: marriage is holy in itself, a worthy endeavor even in the absence of progeny. Indeed, the fact that Rivkah was born after the Akeidah (and the Torah tells us this in the verses immediately following the Akeidah, suggesting causality) might tell us that a certain distance between father and son was necessary in order for Yitzhak to be ready to be married. The Akeidah divided Avraham and his son, as shown by their decision to live separately from then on.
  32. Leviticus, 23:24
  33. Every individual marriage is unique, and so, too, our individual relationships with Hashem. But it can help to identify the national trend line.
  34. Exodus, 3:21
  35. Exodus, 11:2
  36. Breishis, 24:53
  37. Exodus, 32:2
  38. Genesis, 27:40
  39. Exodus, 34
  40. Exodus, 25:2
  41. But whether or not we choose to be fully “invested” in a relationship with Hashem, it would be a mistake, as already discussed above, to suggest that marriage is supposed to be “balanced.” Of necessity, the relationship is unequal.
  42. Tattoos in the Torah do not, of course, only refer to forms of worship. They also apply to mourning rituals. Unlike other ancient peoples, the Jews were forbidden to cut ourselves in grief, or engage in the kinds of mourning activities that could be embarrassing after the fact. Mourning in Judaism is intensely private: shiva happens at home, and mourners do not broadcast their grief for the whole world to see. There is a connection between mourning and worship – they both have to do with the beginning or ending of a relationship. In both cases, the Torah forbids us from cutting ourselves to commemorate the relationship: we must retain our freedom to make new choices, and to do that, old choices cannot be so irrevocably public that we cannot select another path.
  43. Maya Angelou summarized this perfectly in her final communication: “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”
  44. “And it shall be for a sign to you upon your hand, and for a memorial between your eyes, that the Lord’s Torah may be in your mouth; for with a strong hand has the Lord brought you out of Egypt. “ Exodus 13:9; and “I may test them, whether they will walk in my Torah, or not.” Exodus 16:4.
  45. For linguistic elegance, “man” in this kind of usage refers to both men and women.
  46. Taboo, after all, is not the same the world over. Taboo is, at least partly, an invented social construct, which means that it is not purely instinctive.
  47. The story of Yehudah and Tamar exemplifies this perfectly. Yehudah falls victim to his own short-term sexual desires, in contrast to the long-sighted Tamar who was trying to perpetuate her deceased husband’s name. Yehudah accepts the reproof on both counts: Tamar’s time horizon is correct, and he had been in error both in delaying Tamar’s marriage, and in falling prey to his desires.
  48. But whether or not we choose to be fully “invested” in a relationship with Hashem, it would be a mistake, as already discussed above, to suggest that marriage is supposed to be “balanced.” Of necessity, the relationship is unequal.
  49. Deuteronomy 5:27
  50. Genesis 2:16–17
  51. Genesis 2:18
  52. The direct instruction Adam receives from Hashem eliminates any doubt or ambiguity about what he is, and is not, supposed to do. Today every person experiences that kind of uncertainty on a daily basis.
  53. Deuteronomy 5:30
  54. Numbers, 24:5
  55. Deuteronomy, 21:10-15 
  56. Ezekial, 16:7-8
  57. Rashi – Ketubot 62b
  58. Rashi – Niddah 17a
  59. Numbers 5:11–31
  60. Exodus 15:23.
  61. Genesis 26:35.
  62. Exodus 15:24
  63. Exodus 15:26.
  64. Which also explains why they are in different places, and why, even after the Jews came back to the land and the Mishkan, the tabernacle that was the predecessor to the fixed temple in Jerusalem, traveled, it never resided in Hebron.
  65. Pirke Avot 2:21
  66. Exodus, 20:23
  67. Genesis, 4:6-7
  68. Deuteronomy, 26:5
  69. Genesis, 9:25-27
  70. Leviticus, 18:3
  71. Deuteronomy, 14:23
  72. Deuteronomy, 14:24
  73. Leviticus 2:1.
  74. Exodus 18:9.
  75. He offers a comprehensive and concise explanation of all the of the symbolism involved in a sacrifice.
  76. Exodus, 21:14
  77. Genesis, 3:1
  78. Genesis, 28:18
  79. Exodus, 29:7
  80. Leviticus, 8:12
  81. Jeremiah, 9:23,24

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