More Shabbat Features

What served to reconnect God with the world were the deeds of seven righteous individuals. Each one, from Abraham to Amram (Moses's father), brought God one firmament closer to human affairs till Moses with the construction of the Tabernacle created a sanctuary for God here on earth. The function of the righteous, then, is to restore God's faith in humanity, to offset the baleful consequences of human depravity, as suggested by the verse, "The righteous shall inherit the land and abide forever in it (Psalm 37:29)," where we should read the verb "ve-yishkenu" (abide) causatively, "And they will bring God's presence to dwell on earth (ve-yashkinu shekhinah b-aretz)." The righteous are the link between heaven and earth. (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, 1)

Originally, according to yet another midrash, God strode the earth when it was pristine. After their sin, Adam and Eve "heard the sound of God moving about in the garden at the breezy time of day" (Genesis 3:8) and they hid in terror. The Tabernacle recovers but a fraction of that presence, now restricted to the Tent of Meeting, where Moses alone "would hear the Voice addressing him" (Numbers 7:89). Rashi comments on the unusual reflexive form of the verb midaber--addressing--saying that God was actually speaking to God's self and Moses simply overheard. The divine-human encounter is still hampered by estrangement. God is wary of betrayal.

The theological core of this vivid language is that we live in an imperfect world. God's remove flows from our constant abuse of the gift of human free will. Ignorance and arrogance induce us to commit acts that wreak havoc. The function of Judaism is to temper the demons within us and attune us to the vistas beyond us. The grandeur of an incomprehensible universe is not intended to satisfy our appetites. By giving us a center of gravity, the ritual and sacred texts, the community and culture of Judaism enable us to live our lives from the perspective of eternity.

I dare say that in theory we could accomplish all that on our own, but only to the extent that we could also write immortal poetry or compose great music. Yet when we are moved to give expression to our aesthetic sensibility, we readily turn to the masters. And they do not yield their beauty or wisdom without painstaking effort. Nothing of lasting value is achieved overnight, and that includes making of Judaism a work of art that ennobles our lives. As sometime seekers, we can do no better than rely on the fallible and multi-vocal mediation of those who have come closer to God than we have.