Jews Like to Touch Things (Ki Tissah)

Jews like to touch things.

When we parade the Torah around the congregation in the hakafah, we place our prayerbook onto the Torah cover and then kiss it. Some of us will tap a finger onto a mezuzah before entering a Jewish home. Upon visiting the holy site of the Western Wall, we write down prayers and insert them compactly into the crevices scattered along the surface.

Our God can't be seen, touched, smelled or heard ... at least not in ways that we normally see, touch, smell and hear things. One of our 10 commandments even bars us from creating images of God. Theological encounter is intellectual, not sensual.

And yet, perhaps even to make up for this, Judaism has its share of sensory triggers. Even looking around our sanctuary, we notice the eternal light, the ark, the Torah ... These things are not just sanctuary-dressing. They are not only for decoration. They matter.


In this week's Torah portion, Ki Tissah, God continues to instruct Moses about the details of the holy tabernacle; the Mishkan.

God talks about the tells Moses about the "biggies" - the ark and the Torah and the Ten of Meeting. But God also gives very specific instructions about certain fragrances - stacte and onycha and galbanum. This portion can seem more like architectural blueprints than theological insights.

Toward the middle of the passage, God says:

You shall anoint the Tent of Meeting and the Ark of the Testimony with oil and the table and all its equipment and the menorah and its equipment and the incense altar and the altar of burnt offering and all its equipment and the basin and the its stand. And you shall make them holy. Anyone who touches them will be holy.

Anyone who touches them will be holy.

When first thinking about this verse, I thought it perplexing. Think about the Golden Calf for a moment. The Israelites performed one of the most egregious communal sins exactly because of their desire to touch God, to see God, to know God through something tangible - something they could touch.

But in this portion, God tells Moses that we should place a high value on touching various religious items. It seems difficult to blame the Israelites for worshipping the Golden Calf when God explicitly talks about the holiness that is conferred by touching religious objects.


Judaism is quite clear that physical objects do not hold some sort of mystical, magical power. You don't get some sort of divine reward for kissing the Torah, or for placing your hands on the Western Wall. But then, why does our Torah spend a few portions talking about entirely about physical objects and their importance?


I think that it goes back to the line God uttered a in T'rumah: Make me a sanctuary that I might dwell inside. But this is the important piece; God does not require a special tabernacle in order to dwell amongst us. WE do. When we construct a building that takes effort, sacrifice, passion, spirit and talent, we find more value in that place.

Similarly, I think that God instructs us to build the tabernacle with such precise specifications and ornamentations so that when we are present, we feel a stronger sense of community, of spirituality, and of holiness.

It's not the act of touching objects that makes us holy. But it is partially the objects that bring us together to pray, to sing, to celebrate, to mourn, to perform mitzvot, and to become the best parts of ourselves. And that is holy.


Is Shabbat Really a Day of Rest? (Vayak'heil)

The Best Gift you can Give (T'rumah)