Can something small contain something large? Can a small amount of space contain a large number of people, beyond the normal capacity of the space?
Famously, this was said to be the case for the Temple in Jerusalem. “People, when standing, would be crowded, and when bowing down, would have plenty of room.” The space somehow expanded to meet the needs of the crowd.
This theme comes up in this week’s parsha, too. The people are thirsty and complain to Moshe and Aharon. God tells Moshe to get the rod and gather the people and speak to the rock. Moshe gets the rod, and, the Torah tells us, when he and Aharon go to gather the people, they gather the entire congregation in front of this one rock. Rashi comments: “This is one of the places where the small contains the large.” In other words, even though the space around the rock was small, it miraculously accommodated the entire people of Israel.
The ability of the small to contain the large is a miracle, and I would like to believe that it is possible in all areas of life. I would like to believe that it is possible to fit more guests around the dining room table than you had anticipated, that the food and the space and our ability to interact and be social are all larger than they seemed. I would like to believe especially that time can expand, that even when there are more tasks, they will somehow fit into the time we have to do them, that our stress in the face of seemingly endless tasks is a kind of faithlessness and could be replaced by a mindset that does not see the limitations of a small box but trusts in the expansiveness of the widening Temple floor.
Sometimes, of course, we do hit limits, physical limits of time and fatigue and yes, space, and surely these also play their role; they force us to make our priorities clear in deciding what we will spend our limited resources on and they also keep us humble, reminding us of our finitude and mortality and very limited capacity in relation to the Endless One.
And yet, at the same time, there is a touch of the divine in all of us and in everything around us and so there is also a sense of infinitude, of endless capacity in the world as we know it. We certainly have an endless capacity for love, and I think it is often out of this endless flow of love that we do feel an inkling of this sense of space or time expanding, the sense that actually all is really possible with faith, that there is no reason a small container cannot contain a large amount, that all those imagined limits are false. Though hard-nosed realism is necessary in this physical world of ours, there is also a place, and especially a religious place, for broad-minded dreaming and I wish I had more of it.
I think the Israelites, too, could have used more of it. The desert experience was an experience of endless time and space in one regard, but also an experience of severe physical limitations with very limited food and water resources. Their constant complaints were an expression of their lack of faith that these limitations could be overcome, that the God who created and inhabited the endless desert could certainly eke out of the limited physical environment a great abundance of food and water, that what seemed scarce need not be so if one had faith.
On Shabbat we are touched by both of these sensations at once. On the one hand, we have a sense of our own limitations; we are no longer productive creatures in the world, but exist in a world created by someone else and so very small and limited ourselves. And on the other hand, it is a time that is considered me’eyn olam haba, “like the world to come.” We are privileged to move beyond our weekday limitations and touch the world of infinity and eternity.
May we feel the reality of this limitless infinity around us and really believe that the small can contain the large.