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From a discourse by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi published in 1807

[The Israelites spent forty years in a desert. From place to place they traveled along with a portable temple, the tabernacle. What was the purpose of all this? What did it achieve?]

The desert is a desolate place, where plants or grass cannot grow. Such an environment is antithetical to the spirit of holiness, where beneficence is the rule. Life and vitality comes from G-d. He is called a tzadik, from the word tzedakah, “charity,” since He is a benefactor and a “baal tzedakah,” a “philanthropist.”

Indeed the entire realm of holiness shares the attribute of kindness. But whereas G-d’s kindness stems from His attribute of greatness, the kindness of the realm of holiness stems from humility. The holy creature is nullified to G-d and sees himself as nothing. He therefore considers the other to be more worthy.

Abraham, for example, considered himself dust and ashes and was therefore kind and giving to all people.

On the other hand, a person who sees himself as a “something,” and is not nullified, needs everything for himself and does not give to others.[1]

The desert is therefore a place of snakes, serpents and scorpions (Deut. 8:15), the three kelipot, which are the source for all separateness and lack of nullification.[2]


The passage of the ark and the Israelites through the desert subdued the negativity of the desert. The revelation of Divinity in the tabernacle as they carried it through the desert automatically neutralized the negative forces. Like wax, they melted away. [See Zohar 2:184a.]

This neutralization served as a preparation for the Messianic Future, so that it will then be possible for Divinity to be apparent in our lowly world. This revelation will be possible only because of the previous neutralization of the source of concealment and separateness in the desert.

(Tzemach Tzedek’s gloss: It can be suggested that this two-stage process parallels the two stages that must take place in man’s spiritual discipline. First he must achieve the level of iskafya, suppressing his negative inclinations so that he can reach the level of ishapacha, transformation of darkness to light. Without achieving the level of suppression, he cannot hope to reach the level of transformation.

Similarly, the future revelation—actual revelation of Divinity in the lowly world, the transformation of darkness to actual light, when in the evening there will be light…(Zechariah 14:7)—can only take place after the desert has been suppressed.

(Elsewhere (Likutei Torah Maasei), the author explains that the suppression of the desert empowered man to suppress his bodily inclinations.))


What is this future revelation of which we speak?

In reality, from the perspective of the Divine essence, there is no concealment of Divinity at all. Before Him all is naught. There is no difference between pre-creation and post-creation. Even after creation He is the only existence as He was before creation. How so?

All of creation comes into being, from nothingness, by virtue of the Divine letters. By the word of G-d were the heavens created, says the Psalmist (33:6). [Why is the metaphor of speech used for creation? Let us gain insight by examining the nature of human speech, which reflects the nature of Divine speech.]

Human speech is nullified and subordinate to thought; it is totally insignificant. It is only for the listener that speech is a “something.”

So it is with Divine speech: The letters that make up the “Ten Utterances” of creation [Let there be light; Let there be a firmament etc.] are only significant in the eyes of the creatures that come into being from them. But from the perspective of the Divine essence, they are as naught. The letters make the world a “something” in our eyes; but for Him there is no concealment at all.   

In the Future, with the revelation of the Divine essence, no concealment will obscure the Divine reality, even in the lowest world Assyiah. The physical mind will see divinity. This revelation will be possible because of the passage of the tabernacle through the desert.

A Personal Tabernacle

The above is a description of the purpose of the actual passage of the tabernacle through the desert, on the level of Olam (“world”), Space. This takes place now as well on the level of Nefesh (‘soul”), Human.

[In Sefer Yetzirah reality is divided into three designations: World, Year, Soul, or Olam Shanah, Nefesh, or Space, Time, Human.]

The dynamic of the tabernacle exists within every soul. All of its details and particulars have their parallel in the human condition.

When G-d commands the Israelites to construct the tabernacle, He says: Build for me a temple, and I shall dwell within you (Ex. 25:8). He does not say I will dwell within itbut rather within you.

Every person must create a tabernacle in his own self; he must allow Divinity to be revealed in his being. This is achieved through worship of the heart, prayer; through purification of the heart, as King David asks of G-d: Create for me a pure heart…. (51:12). When a person’s heart is pure of any dross and is entirely devoted to G-d it is then called a tabernacle.

(Tzemach Tzedek’s gloss: This is related to the saying of our sages of blessed memory (end of Shekalim ch. 3): Purity brings to holiness. See Reishit Chochmah (Gate of Holiness ch. 5).)

The creation of the human tabernacle neutralizes the concealment created by the animal soul. The coarseness of the animal soul makes the world appear separate from Divinity. But when the heart is purified, the Divine reality becomes apparent. Even within the realm of concealment there is no concealment.

Just as the tabernacle neutralized the desert so the human tabernacle neutralizes the human desert. The human desert is the place of all deeds, words and thoughts that are not directed toward Divinity. This is a desolate and uninhabitable place, the yetzer hara (evil inclination), which must be subdued.

(Tzemach Tzedek’s gloss: Elsewhere the author explains that good deeds can precede the total eradication of every vestige of evil; that the introduction of light automatically subdues negativity; that a small amount of light pushes away much darkness [Tanya ch. 12 based on Ecclesiastes 2:13]. Similarly, the passage of the tabernacle automatically subdued the kelipot, as in the verse [said before the Torah is removed from the ark in the synagogue]: When the ark would travel…and your enemies will flee. So it is in the soul. The introduction of light through Torah study and prayer, the body and animal soul are automatically subdued.)

Let us now explain the spiritual significance of the beams that made up the walls of the tabernacle. The Torah calls them “standing acacia wood” (Ex. 26:15). Angels too are called “standing” [see Isaiah 6:2] and indeed the Midrash draws a parallel between the dutiful standing of the angels and these beams.

Standing equals silence [see Sotah 39a]—silence of all sense of self, a quieting of all foreign desires that man craves and fancies. When those cravings are allowed to be expressed it is “negative movement.” “Positive movement,” on the other hand, refers to the movement of the soul in its ever-growing love and desire for Divinity. [Indeed the soul is called a “mehalech,” one that moves and grows in a positive sense, as opposed to the angels who are called omdim, standing stationary.]

But in order to graduate from “negative movement” to its positive form, one must experience “standing,” silencing of the lower modes of movement. (Tzemach Tzedek’s gloss: As we mentioned above, iskafya (suppression) must precede ishaphca (transformation).)

This experience is the “standing acacia wood” of the human tabernacle. It is the basis upon which all further spiritual achievement is founded. It can be compared to the bones of a person upon which are added flesh, sinews etc. Similarly, the beams are the base upon which was added cloths of blue and purple wool. These cloth coverings in the human tabernacle are the “positive movement” of ecstatic love for the Divine.

It was specifically the sons of Merari, a word that connotes bitterness, who carried the beams, since it is through honest introspection and attendant contrition that one attains the level of “standing,” which in turn leads to the cloth coverings of the tabernacle, experiences of love and ecstasy. 

[Adapted by Rabbi Yossi Marcus from Likutei Torah. Corrections:. ymarcus@askmoses.com]      

[1] Timna, a member of a royal family, sought to convert to the faith of Abraham. She was refused. Instead, she became a concubine of Eliphaz, son of Esau. She said: “Better a maidservant to this nation than princess to another!” (Sanhedrin, 99b). Even if she could not convert she wished to be related to Abraham and therefore married his great-grandson.

Why indeed was she not accepted as a convert? The answer can be found in her name: Timna. Timna means “withhold,” and connotes selfishness. Because she was a selfish person, she was unworthy of joining the family of Abraham, a family distinguished by a generous and giving spirit. Eliezer, servant of Abraham, knew that Rebecca would become Isaac's wife when she demonstrated her kindness by offering water for Eliezer and his camels.

The importance of generosity in Torah is reflected in all of its laws. For example, dirt of the desert, because it is incapable of “giving” and producing fruit, is invalid for use in the mitzvah of kisui dam (covering the blood of a slaughtered animal). See Or HaTorah, Bereishit, 5:886.

[2] See Arizal’s Likutei Torah, parshat Eikev, s.v. Nachash, saraph.

Three Kelipot. Kelipah, or “shell” is the symbol frequently used in Kabbala to denote “evil” and the source of sensual desires in human nature. The three kelipot can only be elevated by man’s total rejection of them. There is a fourth kelipah called kelipat nogah. Kelipat nogah, “translucent shell,” contains some good and, unlike the three impure kelipot, which are entirely evil, is “neutral” and can be utilized for holiness. Man’s animal soul, for example, stems from kelipat nogah. See Tanya ch. 7.



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