ESSAY: The Model
In the Sinai Desert, the Children of Israel constructed a
three-dimensional prototype of the spiritual infrastructure
of time, space and man
A TELLING STORY: Looking at Heaven
The things that cannot be learned from a book
They shall make for Me a Sanctuary, and I shall dwell
And you shall make a curtain of blue, purple and scarlet
[wool], and fine twined linen ... and the curtain shall divide
for you between the Holy and the Holy of Holies...
And you shall make a courtyard for the Sanctuary ... one
hundred cubits in length and fifty cubits in breadth...
Exodus 25:8; 26:31-33; 27:9-18
Our sages tell us that G-d created the world because He
desired a dwelling for Himself in the lower realmsthat
the physical world should be made into a home for Him, an
environment receptive to and expressive of His truth.
The building of the Sanctuary (Mishkan) by the people
of Israel in the Sinai Desert marked the first such effort
to construct a home for G-d. Fifteen materials,
representing a cross-section of animal, vegetable and mineral
resources of the earth, were fashioned into an edifice dedicated
to the service of G-d. When the divine presence came to rest
in the Sanctuary, it became the prototype for the fulfillment
of the divine purpose in creationa dwelling for
Him in the lower realms.
The Sanctuary was an oblong structure whose inside area measured
thirty cubits from east to west, ten cubits from north to
south, and ten cubits in height (approx. 48' x 16' x 16').
Its northern, southern and western walls were fitted together
out of sectional panels of gold-plated acacia wood.
Its roof consisted of three layers of tent-coverings: an inner
tapestry spun of blue, purple and red-dyed wool and linen;
a second covering of woven goat hair; and a third, external
covering of animal skins.
Across the unwalled eastern side of the Sanctuary was a curtain
(the masach or screen), held up by five
posts. Ten cubits from its western wall, another curtain (the
parochet), suspended from four posts, divided the Sanctuary
into two chambers: an outer chamber, 20 x 10 cubits in size,
called The Holy, and an inner 10 x 10 cubit chamber,
called the Holy of Holies. The Holy contained
the golden altar upon which the incense (ketoret)
was burned; the table on which the showbread
(lechem hapanim) was arranged; and the menorah, whose
seven lamps were lit each afternoon to burn through the night.
The Holy of Holies, into which no man ventured except for
the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) on Yom Kippur, contained
only the ark holding the Tablets of the Covenant and topped
by two keruvim (cherubs) of solid gold.
Surrounding the Sanctuary was the Courtyard (chatzer),
an area 100 x 50 cubits in size enclosed by a partition of
woven linen. Within the courtyard, in front of the Sanctuary,
stood the outdoor altar upon which the korbanot
and menachot (animal and meal offerings) were offered
to G-d. Between the outdoor altar and the Sanctuary was the
laver (kiyor), at which the priests washed
their hands and feet before entering the Sanctuary or performing
any part of its service.
As the prototype for the divine purpose of creation, the
structure of Sanctuary, with its three primary areasthe
Courtyard, the Holy, and the Holy of Holiesreflects
three basic domains in the macro-universe, in time, in society
and in every individual life.
Degrees of Matter
For most of our waking hours, our attention is focused on
physical things and physical activities. Either were
eating, or were preparing a meal, or planning it, or
earning the money to buy it; or else we are attending to another
of the bodys physical needs, or to one of the numerous
physical objects with which we furnish our lives.
But every so often, the physicality of life takes on a deeper
significance. Suddenly, we find ourselves looking at all these
things and activities in a different light. We realize that
the person were talking to is not just a bodythat
theres a soul in that body thats seeking the attention
of our own soul. We realize that the food were eating
is not just foodits the energy that drives the
engine of our lives, energy that can be expended on useful,
constructive, even spiritual things. We realize that our home,
furniture and bank account are not just objects and statements
of material wealththey are tools that can be utilized
to achieve the deeper, more meaningful goals weve always
dreamt of achieving.
At such times, the physical things that surround us seem
to shed the skin of corporeality that encases them at all
other times. In our minds eye, they becomes lighter,
more porous, more refined, as if illuminated from within by
a spiritual light. We have caught a glimpse into the soul
of the physical world.
And then there is the rare moment, experienced perhaps once
in a lifetime, in which the veil of materiality not only becomes
more transparent, but lifts entirely. A moment in which we
completely transcend the physical trappings of life to encounter
its spiritual essence. A moment in which the physical body
and its physical needs become utterly insignificant in the
face of the infinity and eternity of the soul.
Domains in Time
These three visions of reality are imbedded in the time-cycles
that govern our lives. The Jewish calendar defines areas for
material involvement, elevations from which the physical world
is seen in a more refined state, and peaks of consummate spirituality.
Six days you shall labor, decrees the Torah,
and do all your work;
considers this divine command as much a mitzvah as the continuation
of the verse, ...and on the seventh day you shall rest.
For six days of the week, we are commanded to develop the
physical world, to deal with it on its terms, to grapple with
its material face. And though we foster an awareness of a
more spiritual reality, and endeavor to infuse this awareness
into our physical activities, on the whole, the world retains
its mask of corporeality. The higher purpose to what we do
resides in our own consciousness, but cannot be seen in the
real world in which we are immersed.
But on the seventh day, the physical world shows us a holier,
more refined face. Its not that our lives are less physical.
On the contrary, we are commanded to honor the Shabbat with
sumptuous food and drink, fine clothes, and the enjoyment
of other physical pleasures.
But on Shabbat, these physical activities are aglow with spiritual
content. We experience them not as material indulgences, but
as a celebration of G-ds creation.
For fifty-plus weeks a year, we follow this cycle: six days
of materiality, followed by a seventh day of refined physicalityphysicality
whose soul has been made visible. Then, once a year, comes
Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths.
On the Sabbath of Sabbaths, we forswear work,
food, drink, and a host of other material needs and comforts
to focus exclusively on matters of the spirit. On this day,
the bodily aspect of our existence recedes entirely and our
soul shines forth independently of its physical vessel.
On the national level, the people of Israel are divided into
three classes, to each of which is assigned another of these
three domainsmaterial involvement, refined physicality,
and total transcendenceas the focus of their lives.
Twelve of the thirteen tribes of Israel are designated as
Israelites: the farmers, merchants and statesmen
whose lives are taken up with the business of material life.
One tribe, the tribe of Levi, was chosen by G-d for a more
spiritual calling. The tribe of Levi includes the Kohanim
(priests), who conducted the service in the Sanctuary,
offering the korbanot, burning the incense, lighting
the menorah and performing a host of other rituals, and the
Levites, who assisted the Kohanim in their holy work.
The divine service performed by the Kohanim and the
Levites was not divorced from the physicality of human life.
Animals were slaughtered; certain portions were offered to
G-d, but the bulk of the meat was eaten by the Kohanim,
or by the one who brought the offering. The menorah shed physical
light, and the incense filled the Sanctuary with a physical
aroma. The showbread which was displayed all week
on the table was distributed among the Kohanim
each Shabbat for their consumption.
But these were sacred objects and activitiesphysical
in substance and form but with an aura of divinity about them.
The meat was holy meat, the light was holy light, and the
aroma was a sacred aroma. Even the most casual observer could
see that the Kohanim and Levites were not engaged in
ordinary activities, but in holy work, work whose manifest
purpose is the service of G-d.
Among the divine servants of Levi, a single individual was
designated as a holy of holiesas
one whose holiness transcends even the sacred physicality
practiced by his tribe. This was the Kohen Gadol (High
Priest), commanded to lead a life of total disassociation
from material life. The Kohen Gadol never leaves
the Sanctuary and does not partake in the
social and civic activities that are integral to a persons
life as an individual and a member of society.
His entire being is devoted to maintaining a state of perpetual,
self-obliterating attachment to G-d.
Man is a universe in miniature,
and the universe is a macrocosm of man. The entirety of creation is
reflected in our lives, and the structure of our lives is
mirrored by the cosmos.
Thus, the division of life into material, refined physical
and purely spiritual domains is reflected in the structure
of creation as a whole. In the words of Maimonides, All
things that G-d created in His world are divided into three
categories. The first category is the material world:
creations that are comprised of matter and form and
are constantly deteriorating, such as the bodies of humans
and animals, plants, and minerals. The second category
includes physical entities of a more refined nature, such
as the stars and other heavenly bodies; they, too, possess
matter and form, but they are not as ephemeral as the first
category. The third and highest sphere of creation embraces
the utterly spiritual creations, that are forms alone,
without matter. These are the angels, which are not physical
bodies, but various forms of divine energy.
Taste, Sight and Smell
The Sanctuary, G-ds first home on earth, was a model
of the universe, of time, of the nation of Israel, and of
every individual life.
The outermost domain of the Sanctuary, the Courtyard, was
also its most material part. Here the korbanotwhich
G-d refers to as My foodwere offered on the outdoor
altar. Many of the korbanot were cooked and eaten
in the courtyard by the Kohanim; some of the korbanot
offered here were even eaten by ordinary Israelites in their
Not only was the Courtyard the place for the food
element of the service, it also contained elements of another
signature feature of materialitywaste. (The defining
difference between the two types of physical creations described
by Maimonides is that the more material creations are
constantly deteriorating while the loftier ones are
not as ephemeral as the first category.) The ashes from
the daily cleaning of the two altars and the menorahs
lamps were deposited in a special place designated for them
in the Courtyard,
as were the crop and feathers (murah
vnotzah) from the bird offerings;
in the Courtyard were also deposited the shards of the broken
earthen pots in which the meat of sin-offerings were cooked. The Courtyard also contained the laver at which the Kohanim
washed when they came in from the outside world, in order
to cleanse themselves of the coarseness and materiality that
clung to them from their stay outside the Sanctuary walls.
On the other hand, the outer chamber of the Sanctuary proper,
the Holy, was the designated place for the more
refined elements of the servicethose involving sight
(the lighting of the menorah) and smell (the incense offered
on the golden altar). There was one component of the Holy
involving food and tastethe showbreadbut this,
too, emphasized the more subliminal nature of this inner world.
The showbread had the special quality that it did not spoil
or become stale even though it was arranged upon the table
for a full week; thus it represented the higher order of physicality,
described by Maimonides as the second stratum of creation,
which is immune to dissolution. Furthermore, the showbread
was distinctly a Shabbat food, and was eaten by the Kohanim
only, implying that its physicality is of the higher, more
All Israelites were allowed entrance into the Courtyard,
while only the Kohanim were admitted into the Holy.
But the Holy of Holies was off limits to all except the Kohen
Gadol, who entered it only on Yom Kippur, the holiest
day of the year.
The Holy of Holies was the Sabbath of Sabbaths
of the Sanctuary: a place that epitomized the utter suspension
of materiality and physicality. There was no food
element in the Holy of Holies (just as there is no eating
on Yom Kippur and no materiality in the Kohen Gadols
life), not even the Shabbat food of the Sanctuarys
Holy chamber. The only services performed in the
Holy of Holies were the offering of the incense
and the sprinkling of the blood of two burnt offerings
(korbanot of which no part is eaten and which are wholly
burnt on the altar) brought on Yom Kippur.
In commanding us to construct the Sanctuary, G-d said to
Moses: They shall make for Me a Sanctuary, and I shall
dwell within them.
Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, author of the classic philosophical-kabbalistic
work, Shaloh, points out that G-d does not say I
shall dwell within it, but within them,
referring to each and every one of them.
Each and every one of us is a Sanctuary, a virtual
universe embracing the various strata of time, space and humanity.
A Sanctuary in whose every component G-d can be made to feel
at home, be it the inner sanctum of unadulterated spirit,
the more external chamber of sanctified physicality, or the
outer courtyard of material life.
Based on the Rebbes notes for a treatise on the
menorah, written in Paris in the year 5699 (1938-1939)
Looking at Heaven
Two chassidim were talking.
Said one to the other: For years Ive been struggling
to achieve a proper understanding of the verse, Lift
your eyes heavenward and see Who created all this. I found thirty-six different interpretations
of this verse in the commentaries, and I studied and meditated
upon each one of them. But now I understand that the true
meaning of the verse is something else entirely.
And how do you understand the true meaning of the verse?
asked the second chassid.
The ultimate meaning of the verse is: lift your eyes
heavenward and see Who created all this!
So why is this meaning not written in the commentaries?
If this meaning were written, it would just be the
Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by
. Midrash Tanchuma, Nasso 16; Tanya, ch. 36.
. Gold, silver and copper; blue, purple and
red-dyed wool, linen, and goat hair; red-dyed rams
skins, tachash skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting,
and spices for the anointing oil and the incense; shoham
stones and gemstones for setting in the ephod and
in the breastplate (Exodus 25:3-7).
. The Sanctuary accompanied the Jewish people in
their travels through the desert. Whenever the Jews broke
camp, the Sanctuary was dismantled, loaded onto ox-carts,
and erected anew at their next encampment.
. The Beit HaMikdash, erected in Jerusalem
as a permanent home for G-d, was modeled after the Sanctuary,
and included these three domains as well: the azarah
(corresponding to the Sanctuarys chatzer),
the heichal (corresponding to the Holy),
and the Holy of Holies.
. Mechilta dRashbi on verse.
. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shabbat 30:3, 7 and
14; see also Likkutei Sichot, vol. XII, p. 254 and sources
. Leviticus 21:12. This is not an across-the-board
prohibition for the Kohen Gadol to ever leave the
Sanctuary, but the designation of the Sanctuary as his permanent
place (see Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Sanctuarys
Vessels and Those Who Serve In It 5:7).
. Mishneh Torah, ibid., 5:1-9.
. Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei 3; Tikkunei Zohar 469.
See also Avot dRabbi Natan, 31; Midrash Rabbah, Kohelet
1:4; Zohar, part I, 134b.
. Guide for the Perplexed, 1:72; see also
sources cited in previous note.
. Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Fundamentals of
. Leviticus 6:3; Mishneh Torah, Laws of the
Daily and Additional Offerings 2:12, 3:4 and 3:12.
. Cf. Leviticus 6:21; Talmud, Zevachim 93b.
. While smell is a physical phenomenon, it is devoid
of the tactility of taste and the visibility of light; thus
it is regarded as nourishment for the soul and
as representative of spirituality (Talmud, Berachot 43b).
. Shaloh, Shaar HaOtiot, Lamed.