Simple Vessels and the Shame of Memory

Rav Dr noam samet • 2008

To what extent can man’s avodat Hashem be meaningful? the Midrash on parashat Behaalotcha teaches us to find meaning in our humble efforts.

The ending of Parashat Nasso is the inauguration of the Mishkan, while returning to the continual stories that had stopped at the end of Sefer Shemot, upon the completion of the Mishkan (Shemot 40:34-35,38):

The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the LORD filled the Tabernacle. Moshe could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the LORD filled the Tabernacle. […] For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the LORD rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the House of Israel throughout their journeys.

The disappointing ending of Sefer Shemot and the construction of the Mishkan seems to be because Moshe cannot enter it. The Shekhina’s presence upon the Mishkan, expressed by the presence of the cloud and fire, who are known to us as the manifestation of Hashem’s Glory upon Har Sinai, prevents Moshe - the very builder of the Mishkan - from entering the building he built with his own hands. It seems that this scene strongly expresses the impossible gap that the Mishkan is trying to bridge. Can man, small and human, build a house for God?
These very same feelings are also expressed by Shlomo through his prayer at the dedication of the Temple he himself built. There, too, the Priests cannot enter the cloud-filled house, and Shlomo expresses aloud the complexity and problematic nature of the Temple’s dedication (I Kings 8:27):

But will God really dwell on earth? Even the heavens to their uttermost reaches cannot contain You, how much less this House that I have built!

It seems that the construction’s problematic nature reflects a basic problem dwelling within the religious existence: to what extent can man’s avodat Hashem be meaningful? The presence of God within the Temple’s very walls, even when it appears to be confined to one place, does not allow a person to create a connection with it. The cloud covers, obscures and prevents the person from actual direct and concrete contact.

The crisis at the end of Sefer Shemot finds its solution through God’s resolution: He breaks through the cloud and calls upon Moshe to come to the Ohel Moed. This resolution is presented with the very opening verse of VaYikra. The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 15) sees the final verse of Parshat Nasso as continuing this precise moment:

When Moshe went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he would hear the Voice addressing him from above the cover that was on top of the Ark of the Pact between the two cherubim; thus He spoke to him. (Bamidbar 7:89) Since they had made (the Mishkan), the Shekhina came. What is stated there? “Moshe could not enter the Tent of Meeting“ (Shemot 40:35). Straight away he called Moshe. “When Moshe went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him” (Bamidbar 7:89). What did he discuss with Him? “When you mount the lamps” (Bamidbar 8:2).

The Midrash interprets the connection between the end of Parshat Nasso and the opening of Parashat Behaalotcha, and, thereby, sees the command to mount the lamps [upon the Menorah] as the opening commandment that opens God’s oration to Moshe. This implies that the solution lies with the fact that God not only calls upon Moshe to enter the cloud, but also in His explicit invitation to human worship - the mounting of the lamps. Mounting the lamps is an act in which the absurdity of human action in relation to God is revealed in its full force. Hazal continually ask: “And does He require its light?!”. The Menorah’s little light appears poor and miserable in the face of the light of the world. Such is the view taken by our Midrash, whom states:

It is said “darkness is not dark for You; night is as light as day; darkness and light are the same” (Tehilim 139:12), and yet to us he commands the lighting of the Menorah?! “When you mount the lamps”?!

Simply, then, what enables human worship is the Divine invitation. The fact that God turns to man and asks for His work, is what gives the place to religious action. God invites man to enter into the mist and illuminate by the acts of his own hands.

To what does this resemble? To a King who had a lover. The King said to the lover: “You should know that I am coming to dine with you, please prepare! His lover went and set a layman’s bed, a layman’s lamp and a layman’s table. When the King arrived, came along with him his aids who brought a golden lamp. The lover saw all the great respect and honor meant for the King and he was ashamed. Thereby, he hid everything he had prepared for the King, for it was all only for laymen.
The King said to the lover: “Did I not tell you that I am coming to dine at your residence? Why have you not prepared
The lover responded: “When I saw all the respect and honor meant for you, I was ashamed and, thereby, hid all my
preparations for they were meant only for laymen.”
The King said to him: “Know that I am disqualifying all the vessels I have brought, and for your love I use nothing but
So to with regards to the Holy one blessed be He. He is all light, as it says (Daniel 2): “And light dwells with Him”. And yet he told Israel to prepare him a Menorah and lamps, for it states (Shemont 25): “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” and it continues “You shall make a menorah of pure gold”.
Since they did so, the Shekhina came. What is stated there? “Moshe could not enter the Tent of Meeting“ (Shemot
40:35). Straight away he called Moshe. “When Moshe went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him” (Bamidbar 7:89). What did he discuss with Him? “When you mount the lamps” (Bamidbar 8:2).

So, too, in this Midrash the opening is at the initiative of the King. It is the King’s love that blurs and disturbs the clear separation line, and brings the king into the room of his layman lover. The layman, excited by the King’s imminent visit, prepares the King for everything he can - with the tools of a layman. But as soon as the king approaches, and the layman is impressed by the King’s wealth and honour, he is ashamed of himself and his meagre abilities, thereby hiding everything he has prepared. At first, the act of hiding makes the King grumble: “Did I not tell you that I am coming to dine at your residence? Why have you not prepared anything?” The layman’s answer, admitting his shame and weakness, reverses the position of the King, who chooses to rule out all his respectable vessels and rather to use the layman’s vessels.
We note that Moshe’s inability to enter the Ohel Moed is not interpreted here as objective prevention because of the cloud’s excessive sanctity, but rather deals with the fact that Moshe is ashamed after suddenly discovering his meager efforts when compared to the Divine Shekhina. But in the Midrash, it is precisely Moshe’s shame that ultimately enables the King to use the layman’s vessels. It is precisely the sense of inferiority in the face of the Divine that stimulates God’s love for His beloved and causes him to choose the vessels of the layman. . A person’s attempt to stand up and serve God outside of this framework will lead to a clash between the King and his lover.

It seems that this Midrash can be read in another way. The lover’s shame is revealed when he sees the king surrounded by his aids and before him “a menorah of pure gold”. The golden menorah in the Mishkan, ostensibly represented by the layman’s vessels, echoed in the gold lamp before the King which embarrasses the layman!
It is possible that this Midrash is already showing an expression of consciousness concerning the state of affairs after the Temple’s destruction - a consciousness in which the layman’s vessels are already just the very vessels of the layman, and they are compared to the memory of the King’s vessels in the Temple. This interpretation allows for a radical reading of the Midrash: After the destruction, the Jew in exile recalls the visible and imposing presence of God in the Temple, making him ashamed of his meagre possessions - simple vessels who do not have a golden lamp. The King’s choice to stay with his lover is the choice to give up even the glory of the Temple, to disqualify his foremost vessels, and to stay with the layman lover while using his lover’s vessels - the vessels of exile, who are the vessels of the laymen, sacred objects we can find in any Jewish home and shul. The lover’s original shame in the lack of his laymen vessels brings about the king’s concession to his very own vessles and thus generating the ability to create divine presence in every house and shul, allowing him to live and dwell within each and every Jew’s home.

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