Our parsha (last week) describes the encampment of B’nei Yisrael in the wilderness. Not a detail goes by unaccounted for: the number of fighting men and the layout of the camp, tribe by tribe; the Levi’im, their roles and encampment. By the end of our parsha we have received a detailed blueprint of the plans for the Israelite settlement in the desert.
At the centre, of course, stands the jewel in the crown. The tent of meeting, the Mishkan. Home to the holy ark , where God talks to Moshe. A focal point of holiness, spirituality and Torah.
When the Torah instructs us as to the central positioning of the Mishkan, it uses a rather unusual and enigmatic phrase [2:2];
“ The Israelites shall encamp, each man by his tribal flag, by their ancestral insignia, they shall encamp; opposite, around (mi’neged saviv) the Mishkan”
The relationship between the camp and the Mishkan is described by two Hebrew words: mi’neged – usually translated as opposite or opposed to, and saviv – which generally translates as surrounding, encircling.
On closer examination we realise that these two phrases indicate dramatically different, contrasting, orientations vis a vis the Mishkan. The word mi’neged; opposite, indicates a pulling away, a clash, a repulsion. Being mi’neged indicates opposition, friction, tension. A distancing force. The word Saviv, however, means; surrounding, encircling, gathering round. If we still remember our high school physics and the laws of motion, we will remember that in a circular motion the pull is always to the centre. Saviv means an inwards magnetic pull, a centripetal force which attracts one to the centre of the circle.
Towards and against; attraction and repulsion. These are the feelings that describe Israel’s encampment around the Mishkan, the structure that stands at the centre of the circle, of the Jewish camp. Saviv tells us one story and mineged tells a us another. Mineged : that for some inexplicable reason, the Jewish nation might feel a desire to distance themselves from their spiritual nexus. They stand opposite, apart, keeping their distance; at variance with the Mishkan. On the other hand, the word saviv describing a more positive orientation. This word indicates an attraction, a desire for closeness towards the Mishkan, which draws Am Yisrael inwards to the epicentre of spiritual life, to Torah and to God. Am Yisrael are repelled by the Mishkan, yet they are mysteriously attracted by it too.
But why this dual relationship? How do we reconcile these opposing phrases? Why should we feel distanced from our holy Mishkan? and how should we decide between the two options … is our relationship to the Mishkan one of attraction or one of repulsion?
Maybe we might suggest that this description is indeed representative of the dialectical reality that animates us as individuals and indeed, as a nation too. What is true about religion in general is described by the Torah when it tells us about the Mishkan.
On the one hand we have a strong desire to draw near to God and religion. We feel attracted to it and it gives us meaning. We desire to envelope and totally immerse ourselves in the holiness of God and in the way of life that He has given to us. We want to be better Jews, to learn more, to avoid all lashon hara, keep Shabbat more punctiliously, to dive into our Judaism head first with all the enthusiasm that we can muster.
And yet, despite this positive pull and in direct contrast to it, there are times when we feel a need to escape, to break off “the yoke of the kingdom of heaven”. There are times when Judaism seems too much, too restrictive. We need our space , our freedom.
There are times that Judaism enchants and attracts us, when it seems like the potion of life. That is the saviv relationship drawing us inwards. At other times when we experience a need to flee from religion; when Judaism feels like a crushing load of 613 mitzvot controlling our every action, our every move. A neged relationship.
This dialectic goes back to the very origin of our religion. We are on the verge of celebrating the Chag of Shavuot, the anniversary of matan Torah. At Har Sinai, the people experienced a tremendous desire for God, for Torah. They demanded that God Himself speak to them rather than Moses, as Rashi puts it : We want to see God! (Rashi on Shemot 19:19) Am Yisrael desired the closeness to God that religion may offer. God even had to instruct Moses to build a restrictive fence be built to prevent the surging masses from breaking through to reach God, invading the mountain in their spiritual fervour. This enthusiasm, this force of attraction is the first side of matan Torah.
And yet, the Torah also records how the people reacted with fear to the intensity of the Divine presence by fleeing, running away from the intensity . “let not God speak to us lest we die” (20:16) and the Gemara in Shabbat talks about how Moshe delayed the revelation at Har Sinai because he was concerned that the people might recoil at the sight of the “great fire”. There is fear and resistance as well as attraction.
Apparently this oscillating dialectic of attraction and repulsion, religious enthusiasm and hesitancy, are part and parcel of the existential religious experience of every Jew.
But what message may we take from all this? Are we destined to experience this schizophrenic tension of the attraction and the repulsion all of our lives? Must we live like a yo-yo?
I think that the appropriate message is this. Our resolve as serious Jews must be that enthusiasm and sincerity dominate our approach to Torah and mitzvot. That we firmly commit ourselves to an ongoing effort at Talmud Torah (Jewish learning). That we uphold our halachik standards, our midot, our passion and willingness for self-sacrifice in the name of Torah.
But, we all have times of crisis. We all have the “downs” and not only the “ups”. The danger is that we will believe that the “down” is somehow irreversible, that it is a slippery slope, which we will be unable to climb again. We might get a grip on ourselves after a “bad patch” religiously, and just accept it.
But this is not the way. There is repulsion and distance; but there is also attraction, love and warmth; a magnetic pull inward. The encampment at the Mishkan should be a source of consolation and hope. Am Yisrael too experienced a pull to the other side. They too experienced a dip in their commitment, some spiritual wavering. But if we are talking about oscillation, then after the fall, we can rise again. After the crisis, we must swing back, even if it takes some effort. It’s not to late. We can renew our enthusiasm for Torah u’mitzvot.
Happy Matan Torah.