November 19, 2013

Cloaking Improves Vision

Readers of Moby Dick have long skimmed the whaling sections. Love-story followers generally hurry through the “war” part of War and Peace, while others skip through the boring relationship stuff to focus on land distribution. Likewise, many Bible readers’ eyes glaze over at the close of Exodus: Some 200+ Torah verses describe plans for the Tabernacle and its furnishings. Another 200+ verses describe the actual work. Four entire weekly Torah readings are dedicated to the details of the Tabernacle, with Ki Tisa’s story of the Golden Calf in between.

Some teachers focus on general messages extracted from these passages: the importance of working collaboratively, supporting community infrastructure, or honoring the arts, for example. But others take an allegorical view, mining details rather than glossing over them. Kedushat Levi (Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, 1740 – 1809) is one of the later. And some of those details surround the number 30.

Looking and Its Requirements

Kedushat Levi notices that the inside of the Tabernacle measures 30 cubits long, and 30 = 3 X 10 (yod):

These three [yod] symbolize 1) “looking” in the direction of G’d with faith, 2) looking in the direction of G’d with one’s intellect, 3) looking at G’d after divesting himself of all elements that connect one to one’s physical existence, to one’s body.
Kedushat Levi, p.473 (extended commentary on Exodus 25:40)

R. Levi Yitzchak explains that the letters yod and heh in God’s name “allude to looking at the overwhelming brilliance of light experienced when looking at the Creator” (p.470). The “Holy of Holies” comprises one-third of the Tabernacle length, corresponding to the third type of “looking.”

In this extended commentary on Exodus 25:40, he explores the idea of God’s “cloaking” actually assisting in human understanding: “…when the Jews tried to look at G’d, they were consumed by awe, as G’d had not draped sufficient protective ‘clothing’ around His essence to enable those who worship Him to entertain feelings other than awe and fear” (p.469).

This leads us back to the comment, included in yesterday’s post, about the goat-hair covering representing a “diluted” view of God’s light, compared with the 28-cubit carpets used for the inner tent covering:

Once a human being has been equipped with such a protective peel or skin, he is potentially capable of absorbing the most profound insights emanating from the eyn sof; this is symbolized by these coverings made of goats’ hair being 2 cubits longer than the ones made of blue wool, תכלת.
— p473-474


Beyond Those 30 Cubits

What does it mean to “look” at God:

  • with faith?
  • with intellect?
  • with a purely-spirit-sense?

Perhaps the details of the Tabernacle verses, which can seem like so much opaque irrelevance, can also point us to consider how we might exercise these ways of looking in our daily lives.

Much of Jewish teaching focuses on the need for fear/awe of God. But pre-modern thinkers also knew, long before cognitive research confirmed, that humans don’t learn well, simply do not take in or retain new information, when they’re scared. With this in mind, Kedushat Levi seems to be arguing that the details of the Tabernacle are meant to direct our attention in such a way that new learning — which he equates with fresh experiences of God — can reach us.

Contemplating the “extra 2 cubits” may not prompt some kind of mystical experience, but this commentary does suggest that the possibility of encountering luminescence is always right there, just under the goat’s hair. Maybe, Kedushat Levi insists, God’s “cloak” actually helps humans see what we need to see….


As part of NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month), a cousin of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), “A Song Every Day” plans thirty daily posts with some connection to the number 30.NaBloPoMo_November_blogroll_large
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God, Hasidism, NaBloPoMo, Shemot

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