God Refutes Mysticism

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

What was the sin of the Jews in creating the gold calf? Torah teaches the Jews feared that the “man” Moses who took them out of Egypt had perished [1]. This expressed the Jews’ inability to abandon their need for a physical leader, driving them to create the Gold Calf. The Rabbis teach that God's command to create the Tabernacle was a concessionary response to the Jews’ mindset. Meaning, as the Jews were overly attached to physicality in the religious life, God created a controlled and highly detailed mechanism (Temple worship) through which their physical needs would be properly controlled and directed towards God. This included restrictions on creating any additional figurines. 

At the center of Tabernacle and Temple, was the room called the Holy of Holies. This room was off-limits, except for Yom Kippur, when the high priest would enter twice. In this room the ark was placed, which contained the two sets of tablets from Sinai. And from this room is where Moses perceived God’s communications [2]. In other words, God cannot be approached physically. In fact, when Moses commenced construction of the Tabernacle, his first act was to suspend the curtain. This was to indicate that there is a “veil” between man and God. Maimonides teaches that on the day of Revelation at Sinai, there was clouds and rain, again to indicate this veil. God said that He would come to the people in the “thick cloud” [3].

The message of veils and the Holy of Holies being unapproachable, is that the human mind has limits. The Jews sinned when they imagined they could create a deity out of gold. They felt their minds accurately perceived religious practice. Many years later, when the Philistines returned the ark to the Jews, the Jews opened the ark to look inside of it [4]. They thought they could see something in connection with God. They were killed, and so were Aaron's sons, who approached the Holy of Holies [5]. And again at Sinai, God commanded Moses to rope-off the mountain [6], for anybody who would try to approach God through physical proximity would be killed. All these cases warn man against feeling secure in his knowledge, and assuming any physicality in connection with God, that means substance or location. Such imagination of God meets with death as one's life is worthless when his concept of God is wrong. Torah teaches that at Sinai there were men who imagined they saw God [7], and Rashi says God delayed punishing them in order not to mix sadness with the day of Revelation.

Tabernacle is constructed with a room that is off-limits, and this is the Tabernacle’s focus. This corrects the Jews’ imagination that they could determine religious practice, and what a deity is. Although from youth, we become so ingrained in our dependency upon our parents—physical authority figures—we must ultimately recognize that they are not special. We must abandon the need for security in humans and transpose that onto God, who is the only one who can offer security. We cannot know what God is, God told this to the greatest person who ever lived, “[Moses] you cannot know Me while alive” [8].

But Tabernacle and Temple also have a room that is approachable, the Holies. Placed in this room is the menorah, the table, and the incense altar. These represent areas of knowledge that man can perceive. Menorah has seven branches, which reminds us that the God we relate to is the Creator who rested on the seventh day. The table has 12 loaves of bread which teaches God's ability to sustain the 12 tribes. And the incense altar—sacrifice—teaches that our actions are recognized by God. The three fundamentals which this room teaches are: who God is (the Creator), that God is omnipotent (sustains with bread), and omniscient (recognizes man’s sacrifice). God’s omniscience, and His omnipotence are also the two themes of the High Holidays.

We are born deficient of all knowledge. We must not imagine what is real, but learn reality from our senses, our minds and from Torah. Otherwise, we are wrong. 

[1] Exod. 32:1

[2] Exod. 25:22

[3] Exod. 19:9

[4] Samuel I, 6:19

[5] Lev. 10:1

[6] Exod. 19:12

[7] Exod. 24:10,11

[8] Exod. 33:20