Monthly Archives: February 2015

Parshat Terumah

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In parshat Terumah, the Torah presents us a difficult spiritual and intellectual challenge: the anthropomorphism related to God. This is neither the first nor the last time we find this difficulty in the text. We read of God’s “image and likeness”, He “appears” many times to our forefathers, the seventy elders saw like a pavement made of sapphire under God’s “feet”, and so on.

But at the beginning of parshat Terumah there is the commandment of building a sanctuary and He will dwell [“shokhen“, in Hebrew] among us. “They shall make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell [v’shakhanti] among them” (Exod. 25:8). It is as if He will live, He will be placed among the children of Israel like a human being dwelling with them.

This were not so difficult, we wouldn’t find in the Torah the negation of all anthropomorphism and embodiment of God. “You heard the sound of words but saw no shape… just a sound.” (Deut. 4:12), “you did not see any shape on the day God spoke to you in Horev from the fire” (idem, 15).

This negation of anthropomorphism continues in the words of King Solomon and of Isaiah. In his prayer at the dedication of the Temple he built, Solomon declares: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27). Isaiah asks in a sarcastic or surprised tone: “The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: which is the house that you build me? Which is the place of my rest?” (Isaiah 66:1).

Many Jewish interpreters and thinkers tried to explain the words “I will dwell among them” in ways that move away any thought of embodiment or anthropomorphism. Rabbi Moshe Alshich opens his exegesis to this verse stating: “Preserve my ears from hearing such a strange thing! How will the light of His presence dwell in this earth, in a sanctuary made by humans?” Rabbenu Bahaye and the Baal haTurim prefer to read the word “v’shakhanti” [I will dwell] in a different form. It does not speak of God, but of the Temple: “They shall build a sanctuary that will remain TI (410 in gematriyah), i.e. 410 years [v’shakhan – ti]”

Maimonides explains the verb “to dwell”, when related to God, as a metaphor: “It is known that the sense of this word is to remain in a place (…) and it is used figuratively regarding things that are not living creatures, but that are stable and remaining. (…) in this sense it is used figuratively regarding God, denoting the perseverance of His protection” (Guide for the Perplexed, Sec. I Ch. 25).

Why all this sophistication? If we are to understand from the Torah that God has no from, no image, no body parts, that He does neither dwell nor rest… why are there so many examples of anthropomorphism?

On the other hand, if God is depicted with human attributes (He has a hand, a finger, feet, He gets angry, He loves, He is jealous, He is merciful, He is seen and He speaks), why should we believe He is abstract?

The Torah not only speaks the language of humans, but also speaks in feelings, in doubts and in introspections of humans. God is abstract, but we cannot grasp Him like that. We need the translation into the concrete and the corporeal so as to understand Him in our minds and feelings.

However we must not fall in the temptation of transforming Him in a Human Being, in something physic, in a body. We must not get confused between our need to translate His essence into human categories and His real essence. The latter is beyond any human feeling and intellectual comprehension.

That is why the Torah expresses these two levels together: the abstract God together with the translation into a tangible state.

In this way, the Torah makes us face our spiritual tension produced by our will and our need to grasp God, to apprehend Him in a tangible way and His demand of us not to be tempted to believe that He is indeed physical. It is the tension between “I will dwell among them” and “which is the house that you build me”, because “you did not see a shape of any kind on the day God spoke to you”.


Parshat Yitro

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The ten expressions. Not the ten commandments. Words… expressions.

We are used to think that in the Revelation at Mount Sinai, God dictated commandments to be fulfilled.

But the Torah speaks of “words”: “And God spoke all these words, saying” (Exod. 20:1). If we still have doubts, some chapters later, in parshat Ki Tissa, the Torah explains that what is written in the Tables of the Covenant are indeed ten expressions [words], but not ten commandments: “And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten words [aseret ha-diberot]” (Exod. 34:28).

Why such a fundamental and important issue is not presented as a commandment, as a mitzvah? Moreover, we generally think of these expressions as commandments.

But they are not. Why so?

Is it possible that “Thou shalt not murder”, “Thou shalt not steal”, “Honour thy father and thy mother”, “Thou shalt not covet…” and all the other sentences are not commandments, indeed?

In this section they are not. Not at the Revelation encounter. Not at the first contact between God and the People.

The commandments related to these themes appear elsewhere in the Torah, but not in the list of the ten fundamental sentences.

A mitzvah, important as it may be, does not generally bring forth responsibility in the person. It is a very strong law. We have to obey it without reasoning. The matter of the mitzvah is important, but it is not the cause for its fulfillment. The mitzvah has a dimension of mechanic response.

The Human Being has free choice, of course. He or she can decide either to obey or not. But not fulfilling a mitzvah is a kind of rebellion or resistance against the Commander. In the mitzvah, in the commandment, there is a relationship of authority: there is One who says what to do and the other who either obeys or rebels.

On the contrary, in the words, in the expressions, in the sentences, there is a dimension of advice, of wish, of invitation. They call the person to put into practice his/her responsibility, reasoning, thought and desire concerning the contents of the sentence.

The ten expressions do not speak of the prohibition of murder or theft. They are rather an invitation to understand deeply in the soul why murdering or stealing is bad. They are an invitation to make of these fundamentals an inseparable part of the soul: so as no person should even think of a declaration like: “Wasn’t it forbidden, I would murder”.

It is about a deeper spiritual layer that demands of us the full commitment and involvement of our soul.

That is why they are called “words of the covenant”: in a covenant there are two parties standing at the same level. As if it were that God said: “You are My partners and I propose you to accept these fundamentals, since it is by them that you will build a sound spirit within a positive person”

The commandments will come, yes. But we should not become obeying machines who fulfill mitzvot for the sake of fulfilling. We should develop into Human Beings who understand the depth and the wisdom of the mitzvoth in the Torah.