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Thursday
Jan302014

SOUTH OR NORTH

DO BEAMS HAVE RULES?

The most significant components of the Mishkan were arguably the gold plated krashim (vertical beams) which formed its walls. After describing the krashim, this week’s parsha sums up with: “You should erect the Mishkan in the proper manner (literally: “In accordance with its rules”) as you will have been shown on the mountain.”

What does the Torah mean when it says “in the proper manner?”

The Jerusalem Talmud (Shabbos 12:3) quotes Rabbi Imi, who poses this question and then answers it:

“Do beams have rules? However, it refers to the beams that merited to be placed on the north which should be placed in the north; [and beams that were placed] in the south should be placed in the south.”

Why the strong emphasis on not exchanging the beams situated on the north with the beams situated on the south, and vice versa?

A ONE WAY STREET: UP!

One approach to answering this question can be found in a principle in Jewish law that one must always ascend in matters of holiness and never descend. Since the north side of the Sanctuary was considered holier than the south, it would be improper to take a beam from that holier region and downgrade it to an inferior position along the south wall.

This law is echoed in an area of contemporary Jewish practice. It is customary to place a strip of silk on the front end of a tallis-prayer shawl so that the front tzitzis-fringes are not switched inadvertently and worn on the back of the tallis; the front being a more respectable and exalted position. Here too the guiding principle is: “We ascend in matters of holiness; we do not descend.”

Another example of this principle relates to the order in which we perform the commandments of tallis and t’fillin. We first wrap ourselves in our tallis and then we don the t’fillin. Wearing t’fillin imbues us with a holier state of consciousness than the tallis, so this is entirely consistent with the foregoing principle of ascending in holiness.

Another well-known example of this principle is the order in which we light the Chanukah lights. According to the School of Hillel—and this is the prevailing practice—we kindle one light the first night and increase the number each successive night. One of the reasons the Talmud offers for this system (as opposed to the School of Shammai which maintains that we must begin with eight lights and reduce the number by one each successive night) is: “We ascend in matters of holiness; we do not descend.”

On a personal note: On the occasion of my Bar Mitzvah in the year 5521/1961, I was privileged to have a private audience with the Rebbe (known as a Yechidus). The Rebbe tested me on the Talmudic dissertation it is customary for Bar Mitzvah boys to memorize and recite (in addition to a Chassidic discourse). One of his questions was: “Is this principle that we ascend in matters of holiness and not descend a Biblical or a rabbinical imperative?” When I responded that I had not learned that, the Rebbe smiled and stated: “The Alter Rebbe also leaves this matter unresolved.”

Whether it is a Biblical mandate or a rabbinical enactment, we are commanded never to stop our spiritual growth. One of the sources for this approach derives from this week’s parsha and the “rule” that we not exchange beams on the north for beams on the south and vice versa. It is appropriate for us to delve somewhat more deeply here into this specific example.

FROM-SHEKER-
TO-KERESH-TO-KESHER

The Hebrew word for a beam is keresh. The Previous Rebbe’s landmark discourse (issued to be studied on the day of his passing—Yud Shevat) explains that the letters of this word, when rearranged, can yield two words with diametrically opposite connotations: sheker-falsehood or kesher-a bond. The Rebbe declares that the objective of constructing the Mishkan with these beams was to take the sheker-falsehood that pervades our existence in this physical world and transform it into a kesher-an unshakable and eternal bond with G-d. This we achieve by taking the physical objects and using them for higher purposes. When, for example, we take the t’fillin, objects made from animal hides and place them on our arms and heads, we build a keresh-beam for our own Sanctuary and thereby transform ourselves and the world which we inhabit into a world that is connected to its Creator—from sheker to kesher.

However, there are multiple “beams” in our lives. Judaism is not a static, one-sided or monolithic way of life. It contains multiple directions and challenges. Judaism is a dynamic way of life, not just a religion. We are constantly being asked to go in different directions, and place our beams in both the north and south.

NORTH AND SOUTH BEAMS

North was the side of the Sanctuary that housed the Table upon which the special bread known as Lechem HaPanim was placed. The Talmud (Bava Basra 25b) sees this as a symbol of wealth. We must recognize that our material wealth is channeled to us through the Sanctuary. It is a blessing that comes from on High just like spiritual blessings.

This then is the lesson from the north beams:

When we: (a) acknowledge the Divine Source of our blessings, (b) harness our prosperity to perform more Mitzvos, and (c) share our good fortune with others by giving tz’daka (at least 10 percent of our net income, but preferably 20 percent), we will have erected a beam-keresh in the north. We will have removed the sheker-falsehood of those who believe that it is their business acumen, personal resources and individual hard work that made them materially successful and that all of what they earned is theirs to keep for themselves.

Indeed, the very word for world in Hebrew is olam, the root of which is helem, concealment. Our material existence is, by definition, a form of obfuscation-sheker.

The Menorah was situated in the south of the Sanctuary, with its focus on spiritual light and enlightenment. Situated near the Menorah on the south were the beams designed to transform the sheker-falsehood of the spiritual realms into connections-kesher with G-d and His ultimate purpose.

On the surface, the characterization of the spiritual realms—symbolized by the south—as false is somewhat surprising and counter-intuitive. Sadly, falsehood is not monopolized by the material and physical world. Spiritual levels are also referred to as olamos-worlds, with the suggestion that they too can conceal the ultimate true and Divine message.

SPIRITUALITY AND SHEKER

Chassidus teaches us that even the highest spiritual worlds and levels of consciousness possess a subtle ego that covers up the Divine within them. In the human plane, we often find people who are extremely spiritual and with whom mystical ideas resonate, but who will dance to their own spiritual tunes, even when they may be in conflict with the values and dictates of the Torah. Whereas simple people will recognize their shortcomings and not try to make excuses for their failures, some spiritual individuals try to rationalize their irregular behavior by couching it in lofty terms.

While spirituality is certainly a necessary component of our Jewish lives, it is of value only when subordinated to G-d’s will.

For example, when we perform a Mitzvah-a Divine commandment, we can do it mechanically, as an expression of our subservience to G-d. In these situations the Mitzvah is valid, but devoid of spirit and soul. When we instill a sense of passion and love for G-d in the performance of that same Mitzvah, it becomes enriched and enhanced, making for an ideal Mitzvah experience. However, when one experiences the spiritual feeling without the actual performance of the Mitzvah it becomes a sophisticated way of shirking one’s obligation and short-changing the person’s true purpose in life. Spirituality too can thus be sheker-false and must be transformed into a keresh-beam for the Sanctuary that solidifies the bond-kesher between us and G-d.

However, we must take care not to exchange the north beams with the south. This is a significant meditation that can guide us in our physical lives. The more we can narrow the gap between our perception of the material world and G-d, the closer we come to realizing the objective of Creation: to make this physical world a dwelling place for the Divine.

THE HIDDEN CHALLENGE

Whatever messages have been imparted to us in the past by the teachings of the Torah assume great urgency in these last days of exile, when we stand on the very threshold of Redemption.

The Hebrew world for north is tzafon, which also can mean hidden. If the preeminence of the north side of the Sanctuary was important in the past, it is so much more so in the present. As we inch closer to the Geula-Redemption, more and more of our hidden talents and energies—as well as our hidden foibles—are coming to the fore.

As important as it is for us to focus on the “south” challenge of knowing how to channel our spirituality in the right direction, the challenge from the “north” is even more crucial. We have to use our newly discovered talents to finish the task at hand and make the physical world the ultimate place for G-d’s existence. As Tanya declares, the creation of all the many spiritual realms was secondary to the creation of the physical world. G-d’s heretofore hidden Essence (tzafon) can only be revealed in our lowly world when we devote every aspect of our lives—especially in these last moments of Galus—to the fulfillment of G-d’s will.

 

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