Mixing with This World While Washing Your Hands of It
In one of its unusual passages, the Talmud (Eruvin 21b) reports that King Solomon instituted the laws concerning the eruv (mixing of the realms), which allows one to carry objects from one domain to another – private and public – otherwise forbidden on Shabbath. On another occasion King Solomon instituted the ritual washing of the hands. Both decrees gained divine favor, and a heavenly voice proclaimed: “My son, if your heart is wise, Mine will be glad, even Mine…” (Mishleh 23:15).
The renowned Chassidic sage Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk asks what is the great wisdom in these laws that the Heavenly Master approved of so joyfully. Characteristically, the Kotzker Rebbe responded that it shows one ought to be involved and “mixing” with the world while simultaneously “washing one’s hands” of it.
This observation is all the more remarkable since it was King Solomon who was deeply involved in the world and tasted its pleasures to the full. Yet he had the capacity, according to the Kotzker Rebbe’s words, to detach himself from it.
To eat, drink, be fully involved, and still remain somehow disconnected from the world indeed demands great wisdom. Only when one is able to bring divine flavor to one’s earthly condition is this possible. The art is to add a taste of Heaven.
When looking at the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) built in the days of Moshe, we find a possible reflection of this wisdom. As is well known, the Tabernacle was built in the desert and only afterwards brought to the Land of Israel to become the center of divine worship. From then on, the Jews would no longer live by open miracles as in the desert. Instead, they were commanded to build a society, which had to become both a political body and a deeply religious civilization.
To accomplish this, they would have to build a society in which not only the essentials would be permitted, but also the beautiful and finer elements of life. For a society to function properly it must permit, nay, encourage certain luxuries, such as art, music and other delights. They are the necessary poetry of the religious being. However, when they are unable to move beyond themselves, they can easily become an obstacle to the spiritual requirements of religious life. A society, then, needs to include them but simultaneously keep them out. One needs to find the infinite in the finite.
Upon carefully observing human existence, we can divide our needs into three categories:
Essential – elementary requirements for human existence, such as food, clothing and shelter.
Useful – tools and skills that make life easier, such as craftsmanship and architecture used in building roads and bridges.
Ornamental – the arts, which have no other purpose than to enhance our lives with beauty and joy.
All these elements can contribute towards the common weal and national good. In fact, they carry the potential for religious enrichment. However, when they get out of hand they can lead to indulgence and conspicuous consumption, to envy, social tension and ultimately to class struggle, corruption and national disaster.
When looking at the materials used to build the Tabernacle, we see that all three categories were represented. Some items, such as the outer structure, were absolutely essential; others, such as the ascent to the altar, were added to facilitate the Priests’ service; and ornamental fineries, such as embroidery and the display of colors, had no practical function but were added merely to enhance the beauty of the Tabernacle. In fact, Jewish tradition states that all the various types of work that men could ever perform were represented in the Tabernacle.
The message seems to be clear. Before the Jews would build their future state they were asked to construct a physical structure which would represent and include all the types of work they would ever get involved in later, when settling in the land. To ensure that they fully understood that nothing was ever to become an object of indulgence, envy or pure physical craving, they were asked to initially give the firstlings of their labor, as in the case of the first fruits of their harvest (Bikurim and Ma’aser), to a higher cause, the Tabernacle. They would thus dedicate to divine service their thoughts and talents, which would one day be used for their political and social improvement.
By modeling the Tabernacle and all its accessories, they would be mindful of God and their purpose as a holy nation. The Tabernacle was the portable homeland of the Jews before they would establish the first Jewish commonwealth. When they would use all these talents again, in their day-to-day lives while building their Jewish state, they would be reminded that their very first involvement in such work was for spiritual-religious purposes. They would then be encouraged to reenact the labor, once used for building the Tabernacle, and would again accompany it with lofty thoughts, even when busy with their daily occupations.*
Judaism is the theology of the physical, the commonplace and the mundane. It is concerned with the everydayness of our lives and struggles, with the devastating effect brought on by the curse of the multitude of trivialities that often keep us busy from morning till night. It struggles with the emptiness of our lives when we do not even have the time to focus on the higher meaning of our existence. Man’s paradox is that he is too much at home in this world yet needs to escape his worldliness in order to be consciously part of the universe. Since by now many of us have convinced ourselves that our higher aspirations have reached a dead end and that we are forever imprisoned in our day-to-day lives, we are no longer aware of our spiritual hunger strike. We are starving for God, while convincing ourselves that we exiled Him so that we no longer have to deal with the problem of His absence in our lives.
But man is not an innocent bystander. His life consists not of what he does with his time but what he does with God’s time. He can’t escape God since “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere” (Empedocles). So man always lives in the context of a religious experience even though he may be an atheist.
By giving man the opportunity to build the Tabernacle, God draws his attention to the fact that this limited structure symbolizes all of existence, since it indeed stands at the center which is everywhere. It is nowhere on the map of this world because it is everywhere. This is the reason why the Holy of Holies had no measurements (Megillah 10b). Wherever man works he is busy building the Tabernacle, even as he deals with his trivialities because they are the materials from which the Tabernacle is built. Indeed, in the so-called emptiness of man’s existence, his life is filled with God.
Mixing the realms of this world while washing one’s hands of it is the great art of living.
* See Moses Mendelssohn, Biur, Parshat Tetzaveh