Mathematics of the Mishkan

Jan 29th, 2011 by Rabbi Simcha Weinberg in Portion of the Week
I have never been very good at mathematics. The Mishkan, or, Tabernacle, does trigger a very important mathematical skill.

In his new book, “The Mind’s Eye,”, neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks makes the surprising disclosure that he has a disease called Prospopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces. ” I have had difficulty remembering faces for as long as I can remember,” he writes.

Scientists argue that our brains do not store a photographic image of every face we see. Instead, they carry out a mathematical transformation of each face, encoding it in “face space.”

On a map of “face space,” you might imagine the North-South access being replaced with a small-mouth-to-wide-mouth axis. But instead of three different dimensions, like the space we are familiar with, “Face space” may have many dimensions, each representing some important feature of the human face. By reducing a face to a point–creating a compact code for representing an infinite number of faces–our brains need to store only the distance and direction of that point from the center of “Face Space.” “Face Space” also sheds light on the fact that we are more likely to correctly identify distinctive faces than typical ones. In the center of face space, there are lots of fairly average faces. Distinctive faces dwell far away from the crowd, in much lonelier neighborhoods.

What does this have to do with the Mishkan?

Well, the Mishkan is a face. Take a look. Imagine the Holy of Holies as the top of the face. The brain, or the holy Ark, is right there.

Just below the Holy of Holies, at the top of the Holy, on one side, is the Menorah, offering light, representing sight, or, one of the eyes.

Opposite the Menorah is the Table with the “Show Bread,” or “Face Bread,” representing the other eye.

Just below the two eyes, and the Menorah and Table, is the Incense Altar, placed in the center, representing the nose.

Just outside the Holy, is the Large Altar on which the offerings are made. This represents the mouth.

Brain, eyes, nose and mouth: We have a complete face.

Let’s examine this face in light of “Face Space.” We examine other faces in terms of a basic face. The Mishkan provides us with a special “Face Space,” the face by which we measure, evaluate, and recognize other faces. The Mishkan reminds us to look at faces in terms of the role each individual can play in the perfection of the world. Each face has a space in serving God. Each has a unique role in the world. It is not the individual face we see, but the special role each plays on the face of this world.

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