Parshat Terumah: The Puppet Theater of God

Parshat Terumah opens with the verse “Speak to the people of Israel and take [for] Me a contribution from every person whose heart moves him…”

Sefer HaBahir, an ancient kabalistic work, offers a bold interpretation of this pasuk. On the simplest level, it is a command to contribute toward the building of the mishkan. But if so, why would the verse read “take [for] Me a contribution,” and not “give to Me a contribution.” The Bahir teaches that God does not ask of man to give, but rather to take. God says to man, “take [for] Me,” in other words, take Me, and make Me a “contribution,” lift Me up.(The Hebrew words for contribution and elevation share a root. (Terumah=contribution,  Teromemu=lift up, elevate) It is within man’s power to have an influence on God).

In the language of the Bahir:

R’ Berachya sat and taught, why is it written “and take [for] Me a contribution?” Thus said God to Bnei Yisrael: [Take] Me as a contribution. Lift Me up with your prayers. Who? … “every person whose heart moves him”… The righteous and kind among Israel who lift Me in the world through their merit. (Sefer HaBahir, chapter 97)

Humanity is responsible not only for the fixing of the world, but even for the fixing of the heavens. Professor Shalom Rosenberg explained the evolution of human faith though the metaphor of a puppet show. In the pagan world, the widespread notion was that Humanities life was manipulated by the gods, and he was like a puppet on strings, unable to control his own fate. Then came the monotheistic revolution, and with it, the idea that Man had free will. The strings are severed, and the “puppets” can move around of their own command. On the next level, the kabalistic view, the strings are back! But this time, it is the puppets who control the movement, pulling the puppet master after them. According to this view, it is Man who influences God.

Controlled PuppetsIt is important to briefly clarify what is meant by the above statement.  Our actions do not affect the essence of God – that which is infinite, unchanging, beyond every definition and above all names. The change is only in the “garments” of God, the way we see Him expressed in reality. Through our actions, we can elevate the manifestation of God in the world.

How can we understand that concept that mankind has the ability, even the responsibility, to elevate God? There are many approaches, but here I will offer an explanation touched by the existential, in which I will try to shed light on the two methods the Bahir offers for the elevation of God: Prayer and action.

Prayer and Tikkun Olam (Fixing the World)

Somebody once asked the Kotzker Rebbe, “Where is God found?” To which he famously replied, “God is found in every place you let Him enter.” Our consciousness shapes our reality. Frequently, the difference between the lives of two given people is caused not by a disparity between their material situations, but rather by their differing perceptions.

The author Yosef Chaim Brenner once said to Rav Kook, “Everywhere you look you see only light, whereas all I see is darkness.” We would be mistaken to conclude from that statement that one of them was right while the other lived in an illusion. Clearly, each one experienced reality in a different way.

This is one of the primary insights of postmodernism: reality can not be separated from our perception of it. The question, “is God part of Man’s existential reality and can his presence be felt?” depends greatly on the way the person asking the question perceives reality.

Prayer is the key to the shaping of this perception. By conversing with God, it is possible to meditate on the multi-faceted nature of reality, and to recognize God’s place within it. Through prayer, man reveals himself and his world to God. This in turn reveals to man the Godliness concealed just under the surface of reality. As we grow in our recognition of God in the world, we expand his presence within it.

Another way to elevate God is through actions. Our positive actions can fix the world and make it a better and more beautiful place. Raising up the world also raises up its Creator, and the Godly presence that resides therein.

These two methods for elevating God’s presence in the world bring us back to the two modalities of life we have discussed previously – “being” and “doing.” The elevation of God through prayer corresponds to being, and lifting Him through positive actions corresponds to doing.

Everyone Can Be One of the Thirty-Six Hidden Tzaddikim (Righteous People)

The Bahir makes a connection between our opening verse’s description of “every man who’s heart moves him,” and the famous legend of the thirty-six hidden tzaddikim.

According to tradition, in every generation there are thirty-six people, hidden tzaddikim, who through their actions and righteousness maintain the world. Many generations have venerated them for their humility, self-sacrifice and constant dedication to others. The author Chaim Ber relates that as a nine-year-old, he met with the renowned sage, Rebbe Arye Levine. In the awe of meeting such a great man, famous in his own lifetime for his piety, the nine-year-old Chaim asked Rebbe Arye if he was one of the thirty-six hidden tzaddikim. Rebbe Arye was slow to answer. Doubtless he wanted to deny it immediately, but held himself back, touched by the purity of the child’s faith, and fearful of hurting his innocence. Eventually he gave him an answer, one that distinguishes him as the pre-eminent educator that he was. “Sometimes for a few minutes. And you can be one too.” He thus allowed the child to preserve the admiration he felt toward the revered sage, and at the same time was able to strengthen the child’s own belief in himself.

An expansion of the concept of the thirty-six hidden tzaddikim can also be found in Arthur Koestler’s book, “The Invisible Writing.” In the thirties, Koestler was a communist in Russia who traveled throughout the Soviet Union assembling materials for a propaganda book to promote Soviet rule. However, on the course of that very journey his eyes were opened to the corruption, evil, and blind bureaucracy which was rampant in every aspect of the soviet system. He found it difficult to understand how, in spite of it all, the country even managed to hold itself together. Koestler was reminded of the legend of the thirty-six hidden tzaddikim. In every place he traveled, he found there was one secret “tzaddik” whose dedication and sacrifice, in spite of the crushing brutality of the Soviet system, enabled the local people to survive.

I personally feel that the continued existence of the State of Israel also depends on this definition of the thirty-six hidden tzaddikim. While the thought that our collective existence depends on our own personal dedication and self sacrifice might be overwhelming, it is also a tremendous privilege. In a small country with mighty challenges, everybody has the power to change something for the good. That was, in any case, the feeling that strongly accompanied me at the time when I moved to Israel from a large country with small challenges.

This article was translated from the Hebrew by Netzach Sapir.

Rav Dr. Yakov Nagen
Rav Dr. Yakov Nagen (Genack) is Rosh Kollel at the Hesder Yeshiva of Otniel and holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also published several books on Jewish philosophy, and numerous articles on the Talmud, the philosophy of Halacha, and Jewish spirituality. Rav Dr. Nagen is a member of Beit Hillel.

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