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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Sanctity of Space and Sanctity of Time

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on January 28, 2011)
Topics: Torah, Sefer Shemot, Mishpatim, Machshava/Jewish Thought, God, Faith, Religiosity & Prayer

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There is barely a pause which separates the theophany of the Giving of the Torah at Sinai, in parshat Yitro, to the myriad of laws and the nuts-and-bolts mitzvot of parshat Mishpatim. How are we to understand this sudden transition? Where is the kedusha, the holiness, the human-divine encounter, that follows Sinai, that can be considered a continuation of the Revelation?

Now, the concept of kedusha is present in both parshat Yitro and in parshat Mishpatim. It is not the kedusha of Mt. Sinai, where the Revelation itself occurred. It is rather the kedusha of Shabbat: “Remember the day of Shabbat to keep it holy.” (Shemot 20:8); “Six days you shall do your work, and on the seventh day you shall rest…” (Shemot 23:12). It is only in Terumah, that the Children of Israel are finally commanded to build a Mishkan, a holy space for the Divine presence.

When we consider the two forms of kedusha, kedushat zman and kedushat makom, the holiness of time and the holiness of space, it is clear that the Torah gives priority to the holiness of time. The kedusha of Shabbat was introduced to the world from the very beginning of Creation – “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy…” (Breishit 2:3); the first reference to a holy place comes perhaps with Yaakov (cf. Breishit 28:16-17), but most clearly when Moshe encounters the burning bush (cf. Shemot 3:5). Shabbat is one of the first mitzvot given to Bnei Yisrael – it is commanded before Sinai, together with the giving of the manna at Marah (Shemot 16:23). It is then commanded again at Sinai, and yet a third time in Mishpatim. Only after all this are the people commanded to build a Mishkan. In fact, even when the Mishkan is built, it is a portable structure, and thus does not truly designate one space in particular as holy.

Not only does kedushat zman chronologically precede kedushat makom, it also takes precedence when the two are in competition. The Torah regularly juxtaposes the Mishkan with Shabbat (cf. Shemot 31:12-18; 35:1-4; Vayikra 19:30; 26:1), from which the Rabbis learn that the building of the Mishkan must take a backseat to the observance of Shabbat. The sanctity of time trumps the sanctity of space.

Why is it that the Torah gives more weight and prominence to the sanctity of time? A number of answers suggest themselves. On a philosophical level, time precedes a place (only matter, not a place, is required for time), and a place exists within time, whereas time does not exists within space (this latter reason suggested to me by Rabbi Yaakov Love). On a practical level, time is accessible to all; a particular space is only accessible to a limited number of people. And, indeed, over two millennia of exile, the Jewish People, without a Temple and without a homeland, every week experienced the kedusha of Shabbat. In addition, that the holiness of a place, because it is physical and concrete, can easily slide into a fetishism, and a form of idolatry. The place becomes an object of not only reverence, but worship. Time, as an abstraction, is free from such associations. It is thus that scholars point out that the Torah’s emphasis on the sanctity of time is in stark contrast to the pagan world, which gives pride of place to the sanctity of place.

In the context of our larger theme, I would like to suggest another explanation. When the experience of kedusha occurs in a specific place it can also be compartmentalized to that space, and it will not naturally spread to other places. Thus, one can – and there are those who do – limit their religious experience and behaviors to when they are in a synagogue, but when they are outside, they act in ways not reflecting Jewish values or practices. To borrow from Moses Mendelsohn, one can be a religious person at home, or in the synagogue, and an irreligious person on the street. Time, particularly cyclical time, is not like that. Because of its abstract nature, it is more likely that what one experiences, or how one behaves, at certain times will influence how one behaves at other times as well.

This is particularly true with Jewish time, which is cyclical time, thus a person will always be living in reference to those holy times. Shabbat, which occurs every week, is to some degree experienced throughout the week – a person is either about to enter Shabbat, experiencing Shabbat, or has just left Shabbat. Thus the belief that Shabbat spreads its kedusha into the entire week – from 3 days beforehand to 3 days afterwards. And the mitzvah of Shabbat in the Ten Commandments – “Remember the Shabbat day to keep it holy,” is understood by the Rabbis to mean – remember Shabbat already on Sunday, and be thinking of Shabbat from the beginning of the week.

This understanding of the significance of kedushat zman is, I believe, central to the understanding of the entire concept of kedusha. The purpose of kedusha, of a transcendent experience, an experience of the Divine, is not in the Torah an end in itself. Not only do we not find in the Torah a command to have such spiritual experiences, but that people who seek them out are often running a serious risk: Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s sons, bring an incense offering to God when God’s presence descends into the Mishkan, and they die as a result. And thus, to prevent future similar tragedies, the Torah commands soon afterwards that only Aharon can enter into the holy of holies, and only with an intricate ritual and on the Day of Atonement. (Vayikra 16:1-3).

The events with Aharon’s sons is closely paralleled in our parasha. The people have already been warned not to draw near Mt. Sinai, and only Moshe – like Aharon in the future- is allowed to enter into the space where God’s presence is most intensely felt (Shemot 24:1-2). But some of the people acted incorrectly, and – like Nadav and Avihu – were deserving of death: “And upon the nobles of the people of Israel God laid not his hand; also they saw God, and ate and drank.” (Shemot 24:10-11).

Attempting to recreate the experience of Mt.Sinai, to have an intense communion with God, as an ends in itself is a path strewn with dangers and pitfalls, and is not the point of the Torah and of the mitzvot. It may be the goal of other religions, but from the Torah’s perspective that is not what kedusha is about. That approach to kedusha is a self-serving one, it satisfies the religious longing of the individual, perhaps elevates the individual, but serves no greater purpose in the world. Perhaps this is why the Torah emphasizes that those “nobles” who were deserving punishment “ate and drank.” Unlike Moshe’s complete self-sacrifice of fasting for forty days when he encountered God onMt.Sinai, these people were engaged, as their eating and drinking indicates, in a self-serving pursuit of experiencing the Divine.

The kedusha that the Torah is concerned with is a kedusha that translates into the world. It is a transcendent experience which transforms the individual, heightens her awareness and sensitivity, so that she may then interact with the world in a different way. “Kedoshim ti’hyu, You shall be holy, because I the Lord your God am holy.” And what follows? “Each man must honor his mother and father, and keep my Shabbats, I am the Lord” (Vayikra 19:2-3).

This translation of kedusha into the world is the shift from the Revelation at Sinai to the laws of Mishpatim. In fact, the very mitzvah of Shabbat transforms from Yitro to Mishpatim. In Yitro, in the Ten Commandments, we are commanded to keep Shabbat holy, we are told that Shabbat is to commemorate God’s creation of the world, and we are told that the experience of Shabbat should extend to our entire household – children, slaves, and the stranger in your midst. In Mishpatim, we are first commanded to not oppress the stranger because we were strangers inEgypt. Immediately following this, we are commanded to keep the Shmitta year, and give its produce to the poor, and to not work on the seventh day so that our animals and slaves may rest. In short, Shabbat, and Shmitta are here being framed in the context of concern for the wellbeing of the poor and disadvantaged. It is the Shabbat which is a remembrance ofEgypt, not a remembrance of Creation. What is striking is that Shmitta is not called Shabbat (as it is in parshat Behar), and even Shabbat is not called Shabbat, but rather the seventh day. Moreover, there is no mention of the concept of sanctity, either of Shmitta or Shabbat. What is the focus here is not kedusha, but rather the way this observance betters society and helps us live our lives according to our ideals. Here, in the translation of Yitro into Mishpatim, we have the extending of kedusha beyond its bounds. The kedusha of Shabbat extends beyond the person who observes and experiences it, to benefit the entire society, and hence extends beyond Shabbat into the entire week.

These two commandments of Shabbat must be in regular conversation. We must, on the one hand, take the experience of Shabbat and translate it into the rest of the week, and into the very fabric of our lives. But we must, on the other hand, not just pursue social justice for its own sake. As religious people, the pursuit of these ethical goals have to be informed by our relationship to God, and have to be pursued because we believe that in so doing we are helping shape the world as God would want it to be. The seventh day which the poor and slaves rest, is also Shabbat, and also has kedusha. Hence, even in Mishpatim, the Torah, while not calling it Shabbat, uses the word in the verb form – “And on the seventh day tishbot, you shall rest.” At times one theme will dominate, and at times another, but the two must always be in conversation with one another.

Rav Soloveitchik explained prayer in a similar way. How, Rav Soloveitchik asked, could prayer be considered a religious experience, when it is so self-serving, asking – as it does – for so many things that we need – health, economic wellbeing, intelligence, and so on. He answers that one of the main purposes of prayer is to heighten our awareness and sensitivity to people in need, to what is wrong with the world and what needs fixing, in the context of connecting with God, so that when we step away from prayer, we can live our lives in partnership with God, doing all that we can to help those in need, and to make the world a better place, to make it a more Godly place.

Thus, the Mishkan, the kedushat makom of Israel, had defined as its goal that God reside among the Children of Israel. Its purpose was not to allow each person the opportunity to encounter the Divine. The people were not commanded to regularly visit the Mishkan. Rather, its purpose was to ensure that the camp was set up was with an orientation to the Mishkan in the center. Its purpose was that its kedusha spread out of its boundaries, so that way the people lived their lives day by day was always with an awareness that God was in their midst.

This type of kedusha is typified by kedushat zman. It is not the kedusha of space, that remains locked up in its space. It is a kedusha that spreads, that extends Shabbat into the rest of the week. That not only makes our Shabbat experience holy, and a day of communion with God, but also transforms our work of the week to become holy work as well.

It is a kedusha that transforms our personalities, so that we are imbued with a God sensitivity and bring this sensitivity into our interaction with the larger world. It is the kedusha that is the transition from Yitro to Mishpatim. How is the theophany, the Revelation at Sinai, the experience of the Divine, continued in the laws of Mishpatim? Not by being recreated, but by being extended and translated. By taking the experience of Sinai and ensuring that it will find its expression in the real world.