The Cardinal Directions in the Tabernacle
by Karen Humphrey
In the last few weeks, our Torah portions have dealt a lot with the design and construction of the Tabernacle. In reading commentary on these portions, one of the things that caught my eye was the way the four cardinal points of the compass were used in the Tabernacle. I began to wonder how that related to the directions of the Native American Medicine Wheel and the Chinese Ba Gua.
If we look at the layout of the Tabernacle, some interesting things stand out. The Holy of Holies, the dwelling place of The Eternal’s presence, was on the west side of the Tabernacle. The entrance and the courtyard for the offerings was on the east side. The table for the shewbread was on the north side, and the lampstand was on the south side. Symbolically, I interpret it as follows: the west represents the indwelling of the Divine. The east represents how that is presented to the world. The north represents the earth, and nourishment. The south represents the heavenly and spiritual. Now, how does that compare with these other ways of looking at the directions?
In the Medicine Wheel, the west is the place of introspection, looking within. The east is the place of illumination, where we can see clearly far and wide. The north is the place of wisdom, and Native American wisdom was very much earth-based. The south is the place of innocence and trust, and this is tied to the heavenly since it is not directly known and since we are all children of the Sky Father. In all directions, we have a match.
The Chinese Ba Gua deals with directions a little differently. The trigram for the west, K’an, denotes water, a strong yet gentle force. It also denotes the heart, and the I Ching says of it “in the heart the divine nature is locked within the natural inclinations and tendencies”. The trigram itself has one heavenly line in the middle, with two earthly lines on either side. A match.
The trigram for the east, Li, denotes fire and illumination. The I Ching says of it “that which is bright rises twice: the image of fire. Thus the great man, by perpetuating this brightness, illumines the four corners of the world.” The trigram is the opposite of K’an, and now the heavenly lines are on the outside with the earthly line in the middle. Another match.
North and south seem to be much more direct. The north, K’un, means the earth and the receptive. The trigram is all earthly lines. The south, Ch’ien, means the heavenly and the creative. The trigram is all heavenly lines. Again, we have matches.
So when we compare the directions on the Tabernacle to the directions in these two other systems, we see that we have a good match. In both of these systems, the similarities are absolutely brilliant.
Karen Humphrey is a member of Temple Rodef Sholom in Waco, TX, where she is currently serving as a board member and the chair of the Ritual Committee.