By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
Since my childhood, I have been an avid reader. However, I do not read science fiction. I trace my distaste for science fiction to one of its common themes: the possible existence of a fourth dimension. Somehow, the three dimensions of our ordinary reality are quite enough for me. The possibility of a mysterious fourth, of a “black hole” in the universe, is one that I have always dismissed as unimaginable.
The three dimensions of our existence are not only part of our physical reality. Forward and backward, horizontal left and right, and vertical up and down all play a part in our religious experience as well. For example, when the Jew shakes the lulav on Sukkot, he moves it from left to right, up and down, and forwards and backwards. In doing this, he mimics the ritual in the ancient holy Temple of tenufah, waving, where various sacred objects were lifted and rotated in all of the three dimensions.
When the Shema is recited and the Jew declares that the Lord is one, echad, he is instructed to imagine that God’s dominion is over all the three dimensions of existence. He rules the horizontal plane, the vertical plane, and the dimension of inner/outer.
Our tradition knows too of an entirely different dimensional triad. Not merely three aspects of space, but three modes of human experience: time, space, and person. In Hebrew, this triad is known as olam-shana-nefesh; literally “world-year-soul.”
Part of our experience is temporal; we live in time. We also live spatially, bound by geographical parameters. And we have the inner experience of being, of consciousness, of personal awareness. Thus, three dimensions.
These three dimensions play a central role in this week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel. Three themes are intertwined in the chapters of Exodus 35:1-38:20 that comprise our parsha: the Sabbath, the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and the individuals to whom the words of this parsha are addressed and who contribute, both materially and creatively, to the construction of the Mishkan.
The portion begins as Moses assembles the entire congregation of the children of Israel. Moses and all the Jewish people constitute one dimension, one nefesh, one person. He shares with them the message of the Sabbath, of working for six days and resting on the seventh. He thereby introduces them to the second dimension: that of time. He initiates the concept of sacred time, of a time that stands separate from the mundane and the ordinary.
The rest of the parsha describes the construction of what is to become a sacred place. A demarcated space set off from the rest of the spatial environment.
And throughout Vayakhel, we read of those whose “hearts are stirred up and whose spirits are willing” (Exodus 35:21) to come forward with the gifts and contributions out of which this space will be constructed. We read of the “wise-hearted women…whose hearts stirred them up in wisdom” (Ibid. 35:26) and whose hands crafted the beautifully embroidered cloths that decorated this haven in space. We also read of two individuals, Bezalel and Oholiab, who are “filled with a Godly spirit, with wisdom, understanding, and knowledge in all manner of workmanship.” (Ibid. 35:31)
These three utterly different dimensions delineate the physical reality of horizontal and vertical space, but even more so accentuate the spiritual reality of man. The human condition is such that space can be sanctified, that time can be hallowed, and that humans have a transcendent spirit that distinguishes them from the rest of the animal world. The lessons inherent in these three dimensions are about as important as any in our Scripture.
First there is the lesson of shana, of the year, of time. We have the capability of setting aside special times for celebration, for introspection, for memory. And this capability has kept the Jewish people in good stead throughout their history. As the 19th-century Jewish thinker Ahad Ha’am expressed it so well, “More than the Jewish people have kept the Sabbath; the Sabbath has kept the Jewish people.”
Then there is the lesson of olam, of the world around us, of space. There are places in the world that are home, and there are places that are exile. In the national and religious sense, the Land of Israel is our place, and our synagogues and study halls are our sacred spaces in every corner of the world. Finally, there is the lesson of nefesh, of the personal soul. It is our spiritual potential that makes us able to sanctify time and place and thereby lend meaning and purpose to our existence.
For me, the three dimensions of olam, shana, and nefesh are more than sufficient to provide an agenda for religious life.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the executive vice president, Emeritus of the Orthodox Union.