Judaism is often described as a religion of law, an identity that it shares with Islam. But it is perhaps more accurate to consider Judaism as a religion defined by its commitment to embodied practice and experience. This is abundantly clear in the final chapters of Exodus, which concludes with a series of intricate laws concerning the construction of the Tabernacle.
The Torah’s focus on seemingly mundane details began with the tort laws of Parashat Mishpatim, and will continue well into the chapters of Leviticus outline the many different sacrifices. Can such verses have eternal meaning? If so, what is it?
The sages of the Talmud interpret these specific laws more broadly. They taught, for example, that after the destruction of the Temple, the offerings of study and prayer take the place of the ancient sacrifices, and the synagogue occupies the sacred communal space once held by the Tabernacle in the desert and the Temple in Jerusalem.
But Rav Yeevi, an 18th-century disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov (the founder of Hasidism) and later of the great Maggid of Mezritch, offers a beautiful interpretation of the first verse of this week’s Torah reading that makes these laws relevant not only communally but personally: “‘These are the precepts (“pekudei”) of the Tabernacle, Tabernacle of Testimony’ (Exodus 38:21) — the commandments are the visitations (“pikudim”) of God. Each mitzvah is an opportunity and an invitation for an experience of the Divine. Through performing these sacred deeds you transform your life into a dwelling place, or tabernacle (“mishkan”) for the divine Presence (“Shekhinah”).” (These last two Hebrew words share a Hebrew root, which signifies “dwelling.”)
What a striking image! When you live each day with this goal in mind, says Rav Yeevi, your actions come together to establish a home for God. They combine to form a living, embodied structure of deeds that bears witness to the presence of God in the world. This is the “tabernacle of testimony” — a human life filled with devotion and mindfulness.
Long ago, my heart was captured by a similar metaphor offered by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady, the founder of Habad Hasidism. He asks: Why must we continue to study the Talmud after so many codes of Jewish law have already been written? Don’t these tell us just what to do? This question becomes all the more pointed in the age of open-access websites dispensing information on the particulars of Jewish practice to all who seek it.
The Talmud, answers Shneur Zalman, is the quarry of raw material, the conceptual universe from which we can construct a nearly infinite array of new ideas. He describes these new structures as a veritable sukkah, a protected dwelling place that insulates us against the forces of spiritual ossification, rote worship, and intellectual myopia. This is his interpretation of the verse: “I have placed My words in your mouth, and with the shadow of My hand I have protected you” (Isaiah 51:16) — the great sea of Torah as it continues to unfold across the generations is the sheltering hand of the Divine.
The Hasidic masters tell us time after time that the word mitzvah (“commandment”) must be interpreted as “tzavta,” meaning a “bond” or “connection.” The commandments are meant to be opportunities through which we may transcend our ordinary consciousness. This approach to the mitzvotshapes our understanding of the entire project of Jewish law and observance; their ultimate goal must be to guide us toward an experience of a radical closeness with the Divine.
Halakhah should never become stagnant; it is supple, constantly changing and evolving. Yet halakhah also makes very real claims upon us; there are moments of creativity and innovation, but there are also moments of submission and obeisance.
Translating halakhah as “law” can be more misleading than it is helpful, just as rendering mitzvah as “commandment” obscures its other connotation of a deed that forges an intimate connection between human and divine realms. Halakhahis, literally, the sacred “way” or “path” by means of which we are called to construct the tabernacle of our lives, building a resting place for God in the world.
In the last chapter of Exodus (40:34-38), Moses finally completes the work of the tabernacle, which is then filled with divine glory. Several commentators note that, even more than the events of Mount Sinai, this evocative moment represents the ultimate fulfillment of the Exodus from Egypt. It is through the Tabernacle and the laws of the sacrifices that we have finally become servants of God.
Returning once more to our image a life of devotion, born of commandment, as a mishkanor dwelling for the Divine, we should note that devotion is not something that happens arbitrarily. It must be cultivated, and it must be built. We construct such a life in faith and hope that it will be filled with God’s presence.
The Torah tells us that the Cloud of Glory protected and accompanied the Israelites on their journeys, leading them and guiding them, and serving as an illuminated beacon at night. We might say that this is true in our lives as well: In moments of darkness and doubt, the sacred structure created by our own deeds, lit with divine light, guides and protects us — and bears witness to God’s relationship with humanity.
Ariel Evan Mayse is completing his doctorate in Jewish Studies at Harvard University, and studying for rabbinic ordination at Beit Midrash Harel in Jerusalem. His forthcoming dissertation is entitled “Beyond the Letters: The Question of Language in the Teachings of R. Dov Baer of Mezritch. A long-time student of Jewish mysticism, he teaches Hasidic thought and theology in Jerusalem, where he lives with his wife and son. In addition to several popular and scholarly articles on kabbalah and Hasidism, he is co-editor of the two-volume Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings From Around the Maggid’s Table (Jewish Lights, 2013), and editor of the recent From the Depth of the Well: An Anthology of Jewish Mysticism (Paulist Press, 2014).