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February 16, 2014

Prayer, Shabbat and Halakha: The Portable Mishkan
A Dvar Torah for VaYakhel

In his essay “Halakha and Agada” the modern Hebrew poet Hayyim Nachman Bialik compares the structure of Jewish observance to a cathedral. “Halakha is a creative process. It is the supreme form of art — the art of life and of living. The creations of Halakha grow little by little, piece by piece, out of all the stream of human life and action, till in the end the fragments add up to a single total, and produce a single form. Halakha is the master-art that has shaped and trained a whole nation, and every line that it has graven on the nation’s soul has been inspired by a supreme wisdom which sees the end in the beginning.” (Bialik, Revealment and Concealment, Ibis Editions, 2000, 49–50)

I have earlier expressed in this forum how — in Abraham J. Heschel’s felicitous formulation — classical Judaism has preferred sanctification of time (as in the Sabbath) to sanctification of place (the Sanctuary or Temple). Still, both are necessary for a complete religious orientation to the world and to life. It is indicative of this duality that both at the end of the original instructions for building the Mishkan (in Exodus 31:12–17) and in this week’s reading, at the beginning of the actual construction (in Exodus 35:2–3) God reiterates to Moses the importance of keeping the Sabbath. The rabbis would derive from this the lesson that all the kinds of work that were done to construct the Sanctuary would serve as paradigms of the kind of work to be avoided on the Sabbath. But Heschel draws from this juxtaposition the equally profound lesson that for Judaism, the Sabbath is a sanctuary in time.

A physical sanctuary — whether the ancient Temple or the modern synagogue — serves as a tangible and visible marker and symbol to human beings, who need to be reminded of God’s presence in the world. The rituals surrounding the sanctuary serve this function. One needs to approach it in a state of bodily purity. In the ancient Temple, only priests were allowed to enter the outer sanctum, and nobody at all was to enter the inner sanctum, to emphasize God’s holiness.

Since the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis said, God dwells in the “four cubits” of halakha. (Berakhot 8a) This means that when we no longer have the physical structure that defined where holiness was to be found, we seek holiness by structuring our actions in ways that define holiness. The Sabbath is one such construct. Anyone who observes the Sabbath senses from the onset of Friday evening a difference in the quality of experience — the ushering in of a world of serenity, beauty and joy, and intimations of God’s presence.

The Zohar — that massive, rhapsodic mystical commentary on the Torah — has a section devoted to the Portion Vayakhel (available in Volume Six of the Pritzker edition of the Zohar, translated by Daniel Matt). Interestingly enough, long sections of this portion of the Zohar are devoted to the themes of prayer and the Sabbath. We are told, for instance, that the prayers that we utter with full heartfelt devotion make their way up through the various levels of the heavens, guided by angels appointed for this task, until they are finally received on high in God’s throne room. At the onset of the Sabbath, a star flies heavenward and bursts into a pyre, attracting one color after another. The word vayinnafash of the Veshamru prayer alludes to the extra soul that a person receives on the Sabbath. These are the basic themes on which the Zohar expatiates, page after page, of this week’s portion. (Matt, Zohar: Pritzker Edition, Volume 6, 145–188)

No explanation is given for the appearance of these themes in this portion of the Zohar. But none is needed. It probably seemed obvious to the author that prayer and Shabbat serve the same purpose as the Sanctuary — to serve as vehicles for God’s presence. Since the Temple was destroyed, we have created a portable sanctuary to keep God’s presence close to us. We weave this sanctuary through a tapestry of sacred behaviors, through the recurrent patterns of prayer, Shabbat, and holidays. As the Israelites carried the Tabernacle through their wanderings in the wilderness, so through keeping these time-honored, sacred observances we maintain God’s presence in our midst during all our wanderings through history.

Rabbi Len Levin teaches Jewish philosophy at AJR.