Where Do We Find Holiness?
By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
This week we read parashat Pekudei, the last Torah section of the Book of Exodus. The first verse of this parasha says, “These are the records of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of the Testimony/Pact, which were drawn up at Moses’ bidding—the work of the Levites under the direction of Ithamar son of Aaron the priest (Exodus 38:21).
It is interesting here that the Tabernacle is called Mishkan Haedut, which literally translates to “the Tabernacle of the testimony,” although it can also be understood as “the Tabernacle of the Pact.” Why is the Tabernacle called this way?
Rashi (1040-1105, Troyes, France) explains that “the Tabernacle was a testimony to Israel that God had shown Himself indulgent to them in respect to the incident of the golden calf, for through the Temple He made His Shechinah dwell amongst them.”
Nachmanides (1194, Girona, Spain-1270, Acre, Israel) thinks that “Scripture uses this expression because the term “Tabernacle” means the curtains of fine-twined linen, which are so called both when the command was given and at the construction of the Tabernacle, while “the Tabernacle of the Testimony” includes the entire building, which is the Tabernacle made to house the Tablets of the Testimony.”
For Nachmanides, as for many other sages, the term “testimony” is related to the Tablets of the Law, also called Luchot Haedut, or “Tablets of the Testimony.” The opinion that the Tabernacle was called the Tabernacle of the Testimony only because the tablets of the law were hosted there, is further expanded in the midrash in different places as the idea that the holiness of the Tabernacle was not inherent, but depended on its content (the tablets).
This last idea, in turn, translates into a very general concept in the Jewish tradition: we don’t have sacred objects, and we don’t worship any object. This is a central tenet of the Jewish tradition.
A good example of this principle is the way we call the piece of furniture that hosts the most “important” object of the Jewish tradition, the Torah Scroll. Although in English we tend to use the expression “Holy Ark,” the original name in Hebrew is Aron Hakodesh, which literally means the ark of the holy, or the ark that contains what is holy or sacred. The ark is not inherently holy, but what it contains is. The holiness does not reside in the ark but in the teachings of the Torah.
There are many other examples that show this Jewish idea that holiness is not related to objects but to the messages or teachings. I purposely chose this example of the ark in our synagogues because the modern ark represents the ark that was placed in the Tabernacle in the desert and that contained the Tablets of the Law/Testimony. There is a direct connection between what happened at the “Tabernacle of the Testimony” and what we do today in the synagogue. A main idea that was born there and we still hold dear today: holiness is not linked to objects; holiness comes from the Torah, its stories, its laws, and its teachings. Holiness is something we aspire to, not something we can touch.