On Kedusha (holiness) and Boundaries

Sefer Shemot & the Mishkan

After the dramas and miracles, the plagues and the signs, and the fascinating stories about the splitting of the Red Sea and the revelation at Mount Sinai, we come to the second half of Sefer Shemot, which contains a long and tedious description of the construction of the Mishkan (tabernacle). Details of the dimensions of the Mishkan and its shape, the table and the Menora, the priestly garments and more are spread over hundreds of verses. If this is not enough, the concluding Parshiot of Sefer Shemot – Vayakhel-Pekudei, which describe the actual construction of the Mishkan and its vessels, repeat in detail the very same details that appear in the commands in Parashiot Terumah-Tetzaveh. Why does the Torah, which is used to be concise and succinct, is so lengthy in describing seemingly unnecessary details regarding the Mishkan?

According to many Midrashim and commentators, the Mishkan is actually an atonement for the sin of the golden calf: ” The Holy One, blessed be He, declared: Let gold be placed within the Sanctuary to atone for the gold with which the golden calf was fashioned“. (Midrash Tanchuma). Before the sin of the golden calf, there wasn’t any need for a restricted location for the divine presence, as described in the verses following the Ten Commandments: ” Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you.” Following the sin of the Golden Calf, the Divine Presence that descended to the world at Mount Sinai, departed back to heaven. Hence, the Mishkan was designated to bring the Divine Presence back to the world, but in a bounded and restricted way.

The sin of the golden calf, described in the heart of the Parashiot of the Mishkan, deteriorates the people from the climax of Mount Sinai to the lowest place of idolatry, adultery and bloodshed: “Early next day, the people offered up burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to play (לצחק) .” The word “לצחק” is explained by Rashi in the following way: “There is implied in this term besides idolatry also sexual immorality…and blood-shed“. How did the people of Israel deteriorate to such a low place, only forty days after they heard the voice of God at Mount Sinai?

Which may explain the sin are repeated warnings of God to Moshe at Mount Sinai: ” You shall set bounds for the people round about, saying, ‘Beware of going up the mountain or touching the border of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death; no hand shall touch him, but he shall be either stoned or shot “. Moshe Rabbenu is requested to set clear boundaries for the people before they ascend to holiness at the top of the mountain. Even when Moshe begins to climb up, God asks Him to descend from the mountain and to warn Bnei Yisrael once again of the importance of the boundaries: “The LORD said to Moses, “Go down, warn the people not to break through to the LORD to gaze, lest many of them perish“. Moshe refuses to come down on the grounds that the people have already heard the warning about the boundaries: “But Moses said to the LORD, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for You warned us saying, ‘Set bounds about the mountain and sanctify it.’ ” Nevertheless, God forces Moshe to descend: ” So the LORD said to him, “Go down, and come back together with Aaron; but let not the priests or the people break through to come up to the LORD, lest He break out against them.

Without boundaries and limits, the most holy person may fall into a place of incest or bloodshed, using sanctity in favor of manipulations, justifications or rationalizations. This is the place from which the sin of the golden calf begins: after Moshe Rabbeinu disappeared, the people sought a connection to holiness and therefore asked for the golden calf. Their mistake was not so great; it was just a slight error, since even in the heart of the Mishkan there would be a golden statue – the cherubs, and from between them, God would speak to Moshe Rabbeinu: “There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two cherubim“. According to the Kuzari, the only difference between the Cherubs and the Golden Calf is the violation of the boundaries: “Their sin is consisted in the manufacture of an image of a forbidden thing, and in attributing divine power to a creation of their own, something chosen by themselves without the guidance of God

In order to correct the sin of disrespecting the boundaries, we were given the commandment to build the Mishkan. The Mishkan is a work of art, and an artist’s way is to channel his free and creative spirit into the work. However, the hands of the artists in the work of the Mishkan were tied. They had to build the Mishkan in complete obedience to the Divine command, without permission to extend or shorten any piece of it. The test of the Mishkan is the ability to build the Mishkan and its vessels exactly according to the commandment and within the boundaries. This is indeed what is described in Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei, as the Kuzari explains: “One cannot approach God except by His commands. For He knows their comprehensiveness, division, times, and places, and consequences in the fulfilment of which the pleasure of God and the connection with the Divine Influence are to be gained. Thus, it was in the building of the Mishkan, with every item it is said: …’Just as the Lord had commanded Moshe.’ This means neither too much nor too little”.

For this reason, the repetitions on the Mishkans’ commandments and details were important, in order to teach us the significance of placing boundaries in the path for holiness. For once, during the construction of the Mishkan, there was a major concern that the people are about to cross the boundaries: “All the artisans who were engaged in the tasks of the sanctuary came… and said to Moses, “The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the LORD has commanded to be done.” Moshe responded to the concern that the Israelites were contributing too much and issued an order to stop the donations: “Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp: “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!”. As soon as Moshe’s call was heard, the people stopped their donations: “So the people stopped bringing“. The verb used at the text “ויכלא” (=and they stopped) is very powerful; the root of the verb is “כלא” (=prison). The hands of the people were tied and hence they stopped contributing. The test that Moshe places before them is the test of boundaries, as Rabbi Charlap writes: “Yet this was the distinction, that immediately when the command to stop taking donations for the Mishkan came, the people were restrained from bringing”.

We live today in a culture that sanctifies the breach of boundaries. Many times, the heroes of culture are those who dare to violate boundaries and encourage life without restrictions and prohibitions. Maintaining boundaries is essential for the existence of every social unit – between spouses, family, community and work.

Above all, when it comes to holiness, respecting boundaries is crucial. People whose personalities are boundless and who have not worked to rectify their traits, may come from intentions of sanctity to the darkest places of idolatry, sexual-immorality or violence. On the way to the summit of Mount Sinai, we must set boundaries to the Kedusha. Without limits, the sin of the golden calf is an expected result. The Mishkan was intended to teach us an eternal message about the sanctity of boundaries, as Rabbi Yehuda Leib Eiger of Lublin, author of The Torah of Emet, writes: “The essence of the holiness of the Mishkan is the גודר פרץ (=repairer of fallen walls)”