From Mishkan to the Mind of God: VaYakheil/Shekalim 5779

What are you thinking? That is an interesting question, but perhaps more important is, how are you thinking? Consciousness is one of the most mysterious aspects of our existence. We know that we have brains, and that they have mechanisms for receiving stimuli, but how does one go from mechanical information processing to consciousness? And, is consciousness merely a product of input, or is it also a form of control that can direct thought, reshaping our internal state and guiding behavior?

Such questions belong to an area of overlapping concern between scientists of cognition and religious thinkers. An organization called Sinai and Synapses has been bringing the discourses of science and religion into conversation. I’ve been reading the work of Princeton neurologist Michael Graziano, with whom I’ve been asked to appear at the Princeton Jewish Center in May to discuss consciousness. I’d like to take a few minutes to share the theory outlined in his book, Consciousness and the Social Brain (Oxford UP, 2013) before turning to Jewish texts connected to VaYakheil. Let’s see if they can inform one another.

Right now, in this room we are all being bombarded by stimuli. Consider only the visual information. Signals of brightness, of contrast, of movement are all competing for our attention. But, chances are, since others are sitting still and peripheral to your gaze, and I am front and center and moving, that my image is for the moment winning the competition for your attention. Your attention is being directed by what neurologists call “bottom-up signals” from the environment. But try as I might, I won’t be able to dominate your attention for long. You also have top down signals that allow you to redirect your attention to other features in the room. Go ahead, look around…now look at me. We are in competition right now for your attention. This is called a biased competition; as one signal gains in strength it can also suppress competing signals, at least for a time. Graziano says, “Attention is not data encoded in the brain; it is a data-handling method. It is an act…As circumstances shift, a new winner emerges.” (25)

Now, while I still have your attention: There is no reason for the brain to have any explicit knowledge about how this works—any more than hot water knows why it bubbles, or a car knows why it moves. In truth, we are not aware of most of the signals that our brains are receiving and processing right now, but we do have some awareness. Why? How?

Graziano’s theory is that the brain “constructs a description of attention”—a quick sketch or schema, that represents something more complex. Awareness is an attention schema. It allows the brain to understand attention, its dynamics and consequences. But awareness is not only introspective. It is fundamentally a social phenomenon, because the brain simultaneously maintains a sense of self and of other, and of the relation between them.

Graziano says that there are two forms of awareness—of the self, and of others. Type A is, “the model we construct and attribute to ourselves.” Type B is, “the model we construct and attribute to something else.” As he says, “Consciousness is an attribution.” (202). Consciousness is real in the same way that color or beauty is real—not as an inherent state, but as an attribution.

There are many consequences to Graziano’s theory, among them the serious consideration of spirituality (even though he is a self-described atheist). This is because the attribution of consciousness to other people, to animals, to inanimate objects, and to the universe as a whole is  truly experienced by the mind, just as is the attribution of color, or beauty, or of consciousness itself.

But awareness is not only an informational model. “It has the capacity to shape the processing in the brain and to control behavior.” (202) In other words, neurology has developed a vocabulary to describe not only how we are aware, but also what to do with that awareness. For example, we can direct our awareness to cultivate thought and express it in action.

The cultivation of thought and its expression in action is a decent account of moral education and of religion. Judaism accepts consciousness (דעת) as both a gift and a responsibility. We can focus our attention, to cultivate intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth in ourselves, and to interact with others in either positive or negative ways. On a fundamental level, Judaism is a set of practices dedicated to focusing attention for the sake of סור מרע ועשה טוב, turning away from evil and embracing goodness (Psalms 34:15). Internal meditative states are expressed in action; and action, in the form of ritual or of gemilut hasadim, can lead back to meditative states. This is true not only for the self but for society—our minds interact with each other through actions, and together we can direct consciousness that transcends limited time and space—that is, we may direct our consciousness to contact God’s.

Have I lost your attention? May I have it back now for just a few more moments? Let’s turn to Parashat VaYakheil, which is simultaneously one of the most materialistic and spiritual of Torah portions. It is materialistic in its attention to fabrics, woods and metals, to measurements, structures and shapes. Yet all of these physical arrangements have a patently spiritual purpose. The tabernacle exists to allow Israel to receive divine inspiration from above the Holy Ark, and to worship God at the altar. These two modes of interaction with God—sacrifice and revelation—are replicated in our own experiences of worship and study. The physical structures of the tabernacle, like the neural pathways of the brain, allow for the emergence of consciousness, both of the self and of the other.

This portion has a lot of heart. The word heart appears 12 times (לב/לבו/לבם/לבן), usually associated with “wise” or “generous” (חכם/נדיב). How to cultivate a wise and generous heart? Right at the beginning of the tabernacle narrative Moses shares God’s instruction:

Take from yourselves an elevation offering to the Lord; whoever’s generous heart moves him to [make] an elevation offering to the Lord: gold, silver and copper. (Ex. 35:5)

קְחוּ מֵאִתְּכֶם תְּרוּמָה לַיקֹוָק כֹּל נְדִיב לִבּוֹ יְבִיאֶהָ אֵת תְּרוּמַת יְקֹוָק זָהָב וָכֶסֶף וּנְחֹשֶׁת:

Listen closely to those words. The phrase “elevation offering to the Lord” (תְּרוּמָה לַיקֹוָק) repeats, with the generous heart placed in between. The heart inspires the person to raise material reality to the level of the Lord. Wisdom leads to revelation; generosity unleashes grace. The conscious cultivation of spiritual qualities leads to social connection, and from there to spiritual ascent.

In Bavli Hagiga three rabbis offer verses to refute the Mishnah’s statement that the annulment of vows has no [scriptural] basis. Rabbi Yitzhak cites our verse to mean, if a person’s heart is still willing, then the vow must be fulfilled, but if they regret their impulsive promise, then they may be released by a court (Rashi). That is, emotional internal states have social and legal consequences. From the inside out a person’s heart can lead him to join with others, to assemble structures designed to connect people to God.

This rabbinic drashah about intention accords well with the contextual reading of the Torah, the פשט. However, the theme of intention and awareness is greatly developed in mystical literature, especially in the Zohar. [As it happens, the most famous passage of Zohar, the only one that many of us have memorized and can sing, is found in VaYakheil: בריך שמיה. Modern scholars like Daniel Matt question whether this passage originally belonged to the Zohar since it does not appear in most manuscripts and is printed in small letters in the Cremona first edition. Also, it is included in a non-Zoharic 15C manuscript of mystical prayers attributed to Ramban. Still, it has been fully integrated in the Zohar since the Mantua edition, became part of the liturgy under the influence of Rabbi Isaac Luria, and in any event is in keeping with a main concern of the Zohar here, the opening of the heart, the enlightenment of the soul, and its ascent to unite with the sefirot.[1]]

The Zohar notes the opening words of this verse—take from yourselves קְחוּ מֵאִתְּכֶם. The gift comes from the very core of a person’s sense of self—from their consciousness, and it transports them toward God. Their soul becomes the offering, and as their own consciousness is elevated, it also stimulates an elevation within the divine consciousness, as Malkhut rises to join with Tifereth.

Here is Daniel Matt’s beautiful translation of an excerpt from Zohar to VaYakheil (Pritzker Zohar, vol. 6, p.131): “Come and see: When a person directs his will toward serving his Lord, that desire arises first in the heart, which is the foundation and vitality of the whole body. Then the fine desire reaches all members of the body. For all members of the body and the desire of the heart join as one, drawing upon themselves the radiance of Shekhinah to dwell with them, and that person becomes a portion of the blessed Holy One, as it is written: Take from yourselves an offering for YHVH—the flow is from yourselves, receiving the offering to become a portion for YHVH.”

Recalling Michael Graziano’s attention schema theory, we can say that the worshipper focuses first on Type A of attention which yields awareness of self and extends it to awareness of body—but then they become aware of another consciousness, Type B, in this case, of the spiritual realm. This expanded consciousness in turn rearranges their sense of self.

Graziano talks of the social brain, since his model of consciousness is interpersonal. Yet it is also spiritual, as he acknowledges. Paradoxically, the cultivation of consciousness, its sharpening with sustained attention, leads eventually to an elevation and escape from the limitations of self. Graziano anticipates such a state when he discusses the idea of a transfer of consciousness from one person to another. When we spend sufficient time with other people, what he calls a “low resolution” version of our own consciousness is imprinted on their minds, allowing us to transfer part of ourselves beyond our bodies, to outlast them, to gain some form of immortality. This phenomenon is familiar to all of us when we summon the face, voice or ideas of people in our lives who are not present, whether they are currently alive or not.

A few centuries after the Zohar, in the 16th century spiritual renaissance in Safed, a remarkable scholar and poet named Elazar ben Moses Azikri flourished. He kept a spiritual diary which is part of the JTS rare book collection (Adler Ms. 74), and which contains his most famous poem, Yedid Nefesh.

Azikri dedicated 2/3 of his day to Torah study and writing, and the remaining third to meditation. He would sit in silence, not moving, with his “eyes focused on God.” He developed this practice with a small cohort called the attentive friends, חברים מקשיבים. In addition to meditating together, they composed love poems to God, four of which were published in his book, ספר חרדים. He writes that the lover should sing a song of desire, ישיר האוהב שיר ידידות לפניו.[2] Here is an excerpt from the poem, which may sound familiar to some of you:

Within my heart I will build a tabernacle for God’s glory

For a nearness-offering I will bring near—my only soul

בְּתוֹךְ לִבִּי מִשְׁכַּן אֶבְנֶה לְזִיווֹ, קָרְבַּן אַקְרִיב לוֹ נַפְשִׁי הַיְחִידָה,

This poem makes explicit what the Zohar intimated—that the heart is a home for God, and that the soul can be directed as a korban—a nearness offering—to link part to whole, heart to heart, human to heaven. In the 20th century Rabbi Yitzhok Hutner adapted these words into the famous song בלבבי משכן אבנה. Perhaps he meant it as a martyrdom song—after all, he was a Shoah survivor and a refugee, no doubt struggling to make meaning of loss. But I expect that he meant it as earlier mystics had, as an intentional direction of attention for the sake of divine union.

The Mishkan has always been a metaphor. Was it ever a physical reality? Was there ever a people of Israel wandering the desert schlepping these sacred objects? Perhaps so—I’m ready to give the Torah the benefit of the doubt, even though later books of the Bible hardly mention the tabernacle, and of course there is no external confirmation of this structure. We certainly know that this description of the Mishkan was important in the building of the Jerusalem temples, and of every synagogue which is adorned with a table, an ark and an eternal light.

Moreover, the building of the tabernacle served as a model for the rabbinic construction of Shabbat, which is almost a photo negative of the physical structure. The rabbis say in the Talmud Yerushalmi, “all the primary forms of labor forbidden on Shabbat were learned from the tabernacle.”[3] Shabbat is for them a type of anti-matter, an exercise in restraint that allows for the transfer of tabernacle from external reality to internal experience. For the mystics, this internal experience allows an individual to connect to the ultimate reality—take from yourselves to become a raised offering for the Lord.

The tabernacle is described as a physical structure, but that was never its primary purpose. Even in the original context it was always meant to be a technology for transcendence. Millennia have passed since it may or may not have physically existed, but no matter (literally). The tabernacle has functioned quite well as a tool for directing our attention and constructing a special form of awareness, of God.

There are many competing draws on our attention. We live in a world of cacophony, and lately, of moral chaos. On Shabbat Shekalim we ready to enter Adar Sheni fully aware of the venality and fecklessness of powerful politicians, whether in Shushan, or in Jerusalem or in DC. It is enough to drive us to distraction and dismay. But for a just few moments of Shabbat, with the Torah before us, as we stand to pray, we redirect our attention to create heightened awareness, to unite divisions and make room for love. We read in the maftir today, כי תשא את ראש בני ישראל, when you lift up the heads of all of Israel (Ex. 30:12). Each head may be raised high, and each person can connect to the great consciousness that transcends self, that gifts us with life, with meaning, with purpose and with joy.

[1] See Daniel Matt, The Zohar: Pritzker Edition (Stanford UP, 2011), Volume 6, p.175, n.200.

[2]  ספר חרדים מצוות לא תעשה פרק ז. וכתבנו שאחד מן הענפים היקרים שבהתלהבות החשק ישיר האוהב שיר ידידות לפניו לכן אשים לפניך קצת שירי אהבה אשר שרנו בשמחה בחברת חברים מקשיבים, בקשה לחן אגדל אלהי כל נשמה או לחן שעריך בדפקי יה והוא על סדר אלפנא ביתא: אוֹמֶר שִׁירָה לִפְנֵי יוֹצְרִי בְּאֵימָה. בְּכוֹבֶד רֹאשׁ וְאַלְבִּישׁ סוּת חֲרָדָּה, בְּתוֹךְ לִבִּי מִשְׁכַּן אֶבְנֶה לְזִיווֹ, קָרְבַּן אַקְרִיב לוֹ נַפְשִׁי הַיְחִידָה, וכו’

[3] תלמוד ירושלמי (ונציה) מסכת שבת פרק ז דף ט טור ד /ה”ב. כל אבות מלאכות מן המשכן למדו.

שמות פרק לה פסוק ה

קְחוּ מֵאִתְּכֶם תְּרוּמָה לַיקֹוָק כֹּל נְדִיב לִבּוֹ יְבִיאֶהָ אֵת תְּרוּמַת יְקֹוָק זָהָב וָכֶסֶף וּנְחֹשֶׁת:

משנה מסכת חגיגה פרק א משנה ח

היתר נדרים פורחין באויר ואין להם על מה שיסמכו הלכות שבת חגיגות והמעילות הרי הם כהררים התלויין בשערה שהן מקרא מועט והלכות מרובות הדינין והעבודות הטהרות והטומאות ועריות יש להן על מי שיסמכו הן הן גופי תורה:

בבלי חגיגה דף י עמוד א

גמרא. תניא, רבי אליעזר אומר: יש להם על מה שיסמכו, שנאמר כי יפלא כי יפלא שתי פעמים, אחת הפלאה לאיסור ואחת הפלאה להיתר. רבי יהושע אומר: יש להם על מה שיסמכו, שנאמר אשר נשבעתי באפי – באפי נשבעתי, וחזרתי בי. רבי יצחק אומר: יש להם על מה שיסמכו, שנאמר כל נדיב לבו.

רש”י מסכת חגיגה דף י עמוד א

כל נדיב לבו הביאו – אם עודנו לבו נודבו עליו – יביאו, ואם מתחרט – יתירו לו.

זוהר כרך ב (שמות) פרשת ויקהל דף קצח עמוד ב

פתח ואמר קחו מאתכם תרומה ליי’ כל נדיב לבו יביאה וגו’, תא חזי בשעתא דבר נש שוי רעותיה לגבי פולחנא דמאריה ההוא רעותא סליק בקדמיתא על לבא דאיהו קיומא ויסודא דכל גופא, לבתר סליק ההוא רעותא טבא על כל שייפי גופא, ורעותא דכל שייפי גופא ורעותא דלבא מתחבראן כחדא ואינון משכין עלייהו זיהרא דשכינתא לדיירא עמהון וההוא בר נש איהו חולקא דקודשא בריך הוא הוי הדא הוא דכתיב קחו מאתכם תרומה, מאתכם הוה אמשכותא לקבלא עלייכו ההיא תרומה למהוי חולקא ליי’, ואי תימא דלאו ברשותיה דב”נ קיימא מלה, ת”ח מה כתיב כל נדיב לבו יביאה את תרומת יי’, כל נדיב לבו ודאי מאן דיתרעי לביה ימשיך לה לשכינתא לגביה, הדא הוא דכתיב יביאה אף על גב דאיהי באסתלקותא לעילא יביאה מאתר עלאה לאמשכא לדיירא עמיה, וכד תיתי לאתראה עמיה כמה ברכאן וכמה עתרא תיתי עמה, הדא הוא דכתיב זהב וכסף ונחשת, לא יחסר ליה כל עתרא דעלמא, דא לשאר בני עלמא, אבל אתון קדישין עליונין קחו מאתכם תרומה ליי’, אמר רבי חייא מאן דשרי לארמא הוא ירים: