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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  (rabbi@adathisraelsf.org) has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.


The Relationship between Creation, Holiness and Self-Limitation

I would like to consider the realtionship between creation, holiness, and self-limitation.  Below, I have introduced some thoughts on the matter and excerpted from an article by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, formerly Chief Rabbi of the U.K., the full text of which can be found here.     

The Torah describes two acts of creation. In Genesis, it describes G-d’s creation of the universe. In parashot Terumah – Pekudai (over five weeks) it desribes the Israelites’ creation of the mishkan, the temporary sanctuary that travelled with them in the desert, which was the prototype for the eventual temple in Jerusalem.

A number of commentators have noted, that the Torah invokes a series of verbal parallels between these two acts of creation. The effect is unmistakable. The latter mirrors the former. As G-d made the universe so He instructed the Israelites to make the mishkan. It is their first great constructive and collaborative act after crossing the Red Sea, leaving the domain of Egypt and entering their new domain as the people of G-d. Just as the universe began with an act of creation, so Jewish history begins with an act of creation.

The Tabernacle, small and fragile though it was, was an event of cosmic significance. It brought the Divine presence [Shekhinah, which comes from the same root as mishkan] down from heaven to earth. How, though, are we to understand this idea? It is contained in one of the key words of the Torah, namely kadosh, “holy”.

As the Jewish mystics noted, creation involves an act of self-limitation on the part of the Creator. The word olam, “universe” is directly related to the word ne-elam, meaning “hidden”. For there to be the possibility of a being with freewill, choice and moral responsibility, G-d cannot be a ubiquitously tangible presence. When the Israelites heard the voice of G-d at Sinai, they said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have G-d speak to us or we will die” (Ex. 20: 19). The direct, unmediated presence of G-d is overwhelming.

The infinite crowds out the finite. G-d is like a parent; and unless a parent lets go, the child will never learn to walk. Letting go means that the child will stumble and fall, but not for ever. Eventually it will learn to walk. So it is with other forms of learning-by-doing. At various stages a parent must progressively withdraw to leave space for the child to grow. So too G-d must withdraw if humanity – made in His image – is eventually to become His “partner in the work of creation”. Creation is an act of Divine self-limitation.

This, however, creates a paradox. If G-d is perceptible everywhere, there is no room for mankind. But if G-d is perceptible nowhere, how can humanity know Him, reach Him, or understand what He wants from us?

One of the answers is by man choosing to create the Tabernacle - a space that is kadosh, holy, set apart, G-d’s domain, where a separate set of rules are in force. As a result the holy is the metaphysical arena where heaven and earth meet.

That meeting has specific parameters. It is where G-d rules, not mankind. Therefore it is associated with the renunciation of the autonomous human will. There is no room for private initiative on the part of mankind. That is why later, Nadav and Avihu die because they bring a fire-offering that “was not commanded.” Just as chol (“the secular”) is where G-d practices self-limitation to create space for mankind, so kodesh is where human beings engage in chosen self-limitation to create space for G-d.

That is why the creation of the Tabernacle by the Israelites is the counterpart of the creation of the universe by G-d. Both were acts of self-renunciation whereby the one made space for the other. Chol is the space G-d makes for man. Kodesh is the space we make for G-d.

The idea of choosing to create a space for G-d in one’s life by self-limitation is the essence of Kedusha, holiness, which is the main reason G-d took the Jews out of Egypt. As G-d told Moshe to explain to the Jews before the revelation at Sinai - “You shall be to me a kingdom of kohanim and a holy nation”. Therefore, the more we lead a well-balanced life, where we engage in certain levels of self-limitation, the easier we will find it to connect with G-d.