The Temple Institute: To Dwell with G-d

 

 


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To Dwell with G-d

February 7, 2003
2003 The Temple Institute, Rabbi Chaim Richman - All Rights Reserved

This letter is dedicated to the memory of Col. Ilan Ramon, Israel's astronaut who perished along with his six American colleagues last Saturday as the shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry.

Throughout this past week, the week of the Torah portion of Teruma (Ex. 25:1 - 27:19), the people of Israel have been as focused and united as one man, with all their hearts, on the unbearable loss of Israel Air Force Col. Ilan Ramon, of blessed memory. In this week's Torah portion we learn about the desert tabernacle. G-d commands Israel, "And you shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among you." The tabernacle, which eventually became the Holy Temple which is to stand permanently on Jerusalem's Temple Mount, represents the very essence of the Jewish experience and our people's Divinely appointed mission: to walk with G-d wherever we go. To live our lives centered around the undeniable reality of G-d in our midst. To constantly reflect upon our eternal connection with G-d, and to sanctify His name through everything we do.

The very idea of man establishing a place for G-d to dwell on earth seems strange. Aren't the heavens enough for Him? The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni) relates to this very question and states that the Tabernacle is the secret of the verse, "I have loved you, says the L-rd" (Malachi 1:1). But just how great is this love? "Says G-d: 'See how much I love you! From the earth until the first firmament is a distance of 500 years, and likewise through each of the seven firmaments... but look how much I cherish you! I have left them all and declared that if you erect a tabernacle of goatskins, and I will come and abide with you'."

Israel's relationship with G-d, a relationship of true love, is reciprocal. High above us, soaring through the firmaments at a distance of "500 years," Col. Ilan Ramon of blessed memory will forever be remembered for sanctifying G-d through everything he did. A man who did not profess to be religiously observant in his private life, but whose very nature exuded true goodness and humility, Ilan Ramon went out of his way to demonstrate Israel's love for G-d to the whole world, and he did so in a way that has never been done before.

The purpose of the tabernacle is to unify Israel around G-d, and for Israel to unify G-d. But high above us, Ilan Ramon taught us that a space shuttle can be a dwelling place for G-d, as well. The whole world learned that last Shabbat, as the Columbia sped over Jerusalem, Ilan recited the most sacred formula for unifying G-d's name that a Jew can utter, the sh'ma prayer: "Hear O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One." For thousands of years, Jews all over the world have recited the sh'ma and publicly declared that G-d, whose presence surrounds the whole world, is one. Now a Jew, looking back at the entire world, declared that unique oneness from the heavens, while circling above earth. The powerful significance of this gesture is beyond words.

Col. Ramon was a hero of Israel's wars, and as a pilot in the air force, he bombed Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 (at that time, Israel was politically isolated and castigated for such unprecedented bold action. Who knows what the world would look like today if Sadaam had not been set back by that noble blow?). Yet because of the high levels of secrecy and security that surround Israel's fighter pilots, that very fact remained unknown to most Israelis until very recently, when the notoriety of his space mission forced this humble hero out of anonymity.

On one level, the tabernacle is about symbols. Indeed, everything that happens in the tabernacle and in the Holy Temple works and exists on many levels of meaning. On the symbolic level, the tabernacle is a microcosm of the universe. The sacred vessels of the Divine service, which G-d commanded that the children of Israel should fashion and place inside, represent sublime and holy concepts. The golden seven-branched menorah, for example, alludes to the light of the Shechina glory, the presence of G-d which illuminates the world. The twelve special loaves of showbread that sit atop the golden table represent the abundance of G-d's blessing in our physical world.

Betzalel was the man who understood the language of these Divine symbols, and how to interpret G-d's word so as to fashion His commandments into tangible reality: "G-d has selected Betzalel, and has filled him with a divine spirit of wisdom, understanding, knowledge..." (Ex. 35:30).

Ilan Ramon, who unabashedly and deliberately chose to eat kosher food while on his mission so as to identify with all of Israel, was also a man who understood this language. On his space flight, he chose to take along a number of special symbols: A mezuzah, a tiny Torah scroll which had survived the Bergen-Belson concentration camp, an Israeli flag, a silver goblet for the recital of the Kiddush benediction over wine on the Sabbath, a drawing made by a young boy who was murdered by the Nazis in the Auschwitz death camp...

Ilan Ramon was on a mission for science, and together with his American colleagues he pursued that goal in the name of all mankind. But he was keenly aware of his identity, and with his "wisdom and understanding," he carried these timeless symbols of the Jewish people and transformed his personal space within the Columbia into a floating Tabernacle, hovering above the earth in the name of all of Israel. By doing so he transcended his personal mission and beckoned to all of Israel.

The Midrash states that "Three things did Moses hear directly from the mouth of the Al-mighty that alarmed him so much, he recoiled in shock and fell backwards. The first thing was when G-d commanded Israel, 'And you shall make Me a sanctuary.' (Ex. 25:8). Moses declared before the Holy One, blessed be He, 'Master of the Universe! Is it not written, Behold, the heavens and the heavens of heavens cannot contain You!' (Kings I - 8:27) And yet You say that they shall make a Sanctuary for You?! G-d responded to Moses and said, 'Moses, you are mistaken, it is not as you think. All that is needed is twenty beams on the north side, and twenty on the south side, and eight on the west side, and I will come down and abide My glory among them'."

Yes, all that G-d asks of us is that we make a small space for Him, and He will be with us. As one great rabbi said, "Where does G-d live? Wherever men let Him in."

This past week, as the Columbia shattered, the world recoiled in shock and fell backwards.

One of the last news items reported in Israel remains enigmatic. Prior to last Shabbat, well before the Columbia crew members had any inkling of the fate that awaited them, Col. Ilan Ramon sent a message to the rabbi of the congregation he attended in Houston. He asked that a certain verse be recited in the synagogue, and his wish was honored. But we will never know what moved him to make this request. The verse was from the book of Deuteronomy (4:33):

"Has any nation ever heard the voice of G-d speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have, and yet lived?"

The tabernacle, around which Israel was centered, was on a level of existence above the realms of ordinary time and space. As was the Columbia space shuttle, and as will forever be the memory of Col. Ilan Ramon.

Rabbi Chaim Richman
THE TEMPLE INSTITUTE
PO Box 31876
Jerusalem Israel 97276

 

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