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The Holy and the Holy of Holies

“They shall make for Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell among them.” This verse in our Torah presents a thinker with many questions. What does it mean to create a Sanctuary for God? God is not in need of any structure made by man. There is nothing we can do to benefit or harm God. Similarly, what is the meaning of the second half of the verse “and I will dwell among them.” Again, God is not physical so He cannot be located anywhere. To both halves of this verse we should apply the words of the “Kedusah prayer” said every Shabbat during the repetition of the musaf prayer. The angels ask, “Where is the place of His glory?” and they answer, “Blessed is the glory of Hashem from His place.” In other words, there is no place of God. Place connotes is a physical location to which God cannot be assigned. What then is the meaning and directive of this opening command in this week’s Torah portion?

Rashi in his commentary explains the verse, “and make for My name a holy house.” The term holy, “kodesh,” is used in the sense of “designated”, or “set aside” for special use. The term for the first stage of marriage is “kiddushin.” In this first step of the marriage ceremony, the couple are designated exclusively to each other. My “kiddush cup” is set aside for special use on Shabbat and Yom Tov. If I use it every day, there is nothing special or designated about it. The nation of Israel, according to Rashi, was commanded to construct a building exclusively designated “for the name of God.” Rashi, I believe, means to say that everything about this edifice was uniquely designed to convey concepts that reflect the knowledge mankind can have about God. 

Regarding this last point, the knowledge people can have about God, both this portable tabernacle discussed in our parsha, the Mishkan, and the Holy Temple later built in Jerusalem, there were two distinct chambers. One was called “the Holy,” and the other, “the Holy of Holies.” They were separated by a partition. Only the Kohen Gadol, Chief Priest, could enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. After entering, the Kohen Gadol had to light incense and produce a smoky cloud that filled this room. Then he was permitted go in and out as needed to perform the various sacrifices and service required for Yom Kippur. Without first causing the cloud of smoke within the Holy of Holies he could not go in and out. Why the cloud of smoke? What is the nature of this halachic permit? 

These two special rooms in the Mishkan and Temple, divided by a partition, were crucial structures for us. They serve to always remind us of the limitations man has attaining knowledge of God. Through dedicated study mankind can learn and know many esoteric concepts relating to God. This notion is represented by the chamber designated “Holy.” However, knowledge of the essence of God is completely unattainable for mankind, even for Moshe Rabbenu. “You will not be able to see My face, for no human can see Me and live.” (Shemot 33:20) The Holy of Holies represents this idea. When there is smoke in the environment, our visibility is impaired. The Kohen Gadol had to fill the Holy of Holies with smoke on this most important day, during this most important service. God is not physical so there is nothing to see; but the smoke-filled chamber reminds us that due to our nature our apprehension of God will always be incomplete. According to our tradition, the day of revelation was overcast, cloudy and misty. The Torah states, Moshe ascended into a cloud on Mt. Sinai when he received the Torah. (Shemot 19:16)

These two chambers of the Mishkan, and later the Temples in Jerusalem, teach us a very important yet humbling idea. Mankind can achieve great intellectual heights. However, in 5000 plus years of recorded human existence, we have but scratched the surface of knowledge concerning how our physical world works. As of this moment, the best immunologists in the world are trying to understand the coronavirus and figure out a vaccine that will defeat it. May the Almighty enlighten them quickly to a cure.

But we must not be defeated emotionally when we realize we will never fully comprehend God or His actions. That doesn’t mean we should end our pursuit or worse, never getting engaged in this study to begin with. It is in fact only through this pursuit that a person can fully develop into the human being we are created and designed to be. Each true idea gleaned about the workings of the physical and metaphysical worlds brings the person closer to God, the Creator. 

Commanding us to build a “house” designated to the pursuit of “the name of God” , notwithstanding our inherent limitations, is a gift and blessing from our Maker. Let us use this Shabbat to renew our personal pursuit of the knowledge of God.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan