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      Judaism: Rabbi Kook on Terumah: Rising Above Ten Handbreadths

      Published: Thursday, February 10, 2005 9:11 PM
      What is so important about the Tabernacle that the Torah describes in such loving detail its measurements and furnishings? Was it not just an interim precursor to the Temple? What eternal message does this temporary structure have to impart?


      What is so important about the Tabernacle that the Torah describes in such loving detail its measurements and furnishings? Was it not just an interim precursor to the Temple? What eternal message does this temporary structure have to impart?

      Through the Tabernacle, the Jewish people could express their devotion and love of God. But the Tabernacle was more than just a hallowed place to serve God. If we examine its structure and parts, we may reveal the paths by which the human soul draws close to its Maker.

      The Mishkan, the Altar and the Ark

      The Talmud states (Shabbat 92a) that the Mishkan structure and the altar that stood in the courtyard shared the same height - ten cubits. These two parts of the Tabernacle correspond to the path of contemplation and reflection.

      The design of the Mishkan reflects the overall structure of the universe. Careful examination of its dimensions and details, like contemplation of the universe in which we live, leads us to recognize the world's spiritual foundations. Through His creative acts, we gain awareness of the Creator.

      The altar is a continuation of this path of reflection. The soul's meditation on the inner nature of the universe awakens within us love and awe for God, and the desire to serve Him. This is the function of the altar, the focal point for serving God in the realms of emotion and deed.

      Together, the Mishkan and the altar formed a complete framework of Divine service. Thus, Talmudic tradition connects them with a hekesh, teaching that both reached a full stature: "Just as the Mishkan was ten cubits tall, so too the altar was ten cubits tall."

      The third major furnishing of the Tabernacle was the aron, the gold-plated ark, encasing the Torah and the Tablets. The ark represents the path of Torah. This is the approach of enlightenment through God's word, beyond the limitations of the human intellect.

      Carrying with Poles

      The Levites carried the altar with poles. The altar could not be lifted directly, but via intermediary tools. So too, reflection on the inner nature of the universe does not come naturally, without effort. The service of God, as represented by the altar, is performed by using the analytic and contemplative faculties of the soul.

      Also, the ark was handled via poles. We approach the Torah with our physical senses and intellect. Yet, these paths go beyond the overt abilities of the soul. The Sages taught that "anything carried by poles, one third is above (the porter's height) and two thirds are below". Two thirds are within the realm of our natural faculties - the senses and the intellect. One third, however, rises above the human mind. It comes from the hidden recesses of the soul; we connect to it only through God's blessing.

      Above Ten Handbreadths

      The Sages taught that the furnishings of the Tabernacle were carried ten handbreadths (about 90 cm) above the ground. What is the significance of this height? Ten handbreadths designate an individual's place and legal domain (reshut). This measure signifies our binds to the physical realm. Our ties to the material world are so powerful that even Moses and Elijah were unable to escape the constraints of ten handbreadths (Sukkah 5a).

      Rabbi Elazar taught that people carry their loads above ten handbreadths, like the Levites who were charged with transporting the Tabernacle furnishings (Shabbat 92a). By extension, we may say that the calling of every individual is like the mission of the Levites. Our purpose in life is to carry our load above ten handbreadths. We must aspire to transcend the physical forces that bind us to the earth, going beyond our material needs. Just as the Levites carried the altar and the ark above ten handbreadths, we too should utilize these two paths - contemplation of the universe, with its resultant emotional and practical service, and the study of Torah, God's elevated word - to ascend above the material binds of our physical nature.

      [Adapted from Ein Aya vol. IV, pp. 232-233]