"And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan. When the cloud rose up from over the Mishkan, the children of Israel proceeded in all their journeys" (Exodus 40:34, 36)
Painting by Yoram Raanan: www.yoramraanan.com
Classes that I lead on this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Pekudei (Exodus 38:21- 40:38), often evoke questions about the essential nature of religion and spirituality.
My students generally agree that these two terms, “religion” and “spirituality,” beg for precise definitions. Seldom, however, does the class reach a consensus about the nature of those definitions.
Invariably, some students believe that the terms are synonymous, or closely related. On the other hand, most insist that the two terms are irreconcilably distinct from each other.
Students encounter various difficulties when they study this week’s parasha, along with the preceding four parshiyot. They find these concluding sections of the Book of Exodus monotonous, repetitive and overly detailed. While they are excited by the narrative interlude revolving around the story of the Golden Calf, they find the rest of the material too technical to engage their interest.
Often, students describe the difficulties that they encounter in these parshiyot in terms of religion and spirituality. They report that they do find spiritual meaning in the narratives that constitute the opening several sections of the Book of Exodus. They acknowledge the majestic spirituality of the Almighty’s great revelation upon Mount Sinai and are moved emotionally by the Ten Commandments. They can even detect profound spiritual themes underlying the legal rules and regulations that comprise Parashat Mishpatim.
But once the Torah begins its description of the construction of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) and its component parts, they become – to use current jargon – turned off.
Over the years, I have learned to allow the students to fully and honestly express their reactions and to try to determine exactly what it is that renders these portions of the Torah so disappointingly irrelevant to their initial interest in the biblical subject matter.
One student expressed it this way: “We enrolled in this course not because we were interested in religion, but because we were interested in spirituality. At the very least, we had hoped to find the spirituality that is intrinsic to our religion. However, when we began to read of the Tabernacle, and especially when we realized that this structure is the central symbol of communion with the Divine, we were frankly astonished and deeply disillusioned.
“We would have preferred to learn that for a human being to enter into a prayerful relationship with the Almighty, he would be advised to find a secluded place in the wilderness where he could find the solitude necessary to contemplate, to meditate, to introspect. Why a central luxurious structure? How are we to relate our spiritual needs to this Tabernacle? For that matter, how can we find meaning in the contemporary synagogue, for which, as you have taught us, the Tabernacle was but a precursor? “Why is the Tabernacle, or for that matter the synagogue, a prerequisite for a meaningful spiritual experience?” I welcomed this student’s formulation of the question.
I believe that he spoke for many contemporary seekers of spirituality who find this week’s Torah portion, and indeed synagogue life in general, inadequate to their personal religious strivings.
My response to this student, and to others who have phrased the same question in different words, is based on my own definition of Jewish spirituality. I believe that Judaism is a profoundly spiritual religion, but its spirituality requires several ingredients that are absent from the spirituality that my students, and many others nowadays, seek.
For one thing, our religion understands that those who search for spiritual elevation through solitude and seclusion are doomed to failure. Yes, there are times when it is perfectly legitimate, from the Jewish perspective, to “go it alone.” But in most instances, spirituality requires the company of the community.
This is the secret of Jewish prayer. It takes place in the context of a tzibur, a group of others. Although some see the presence of others as a distraction to the experience of prayer, Judaism understands that the presence of others enhances that experience. We all need each other not just for material survival but for spiritual growth and development.
It is for this reason that the Tabernacle was constructed.
It was to be a place where Jews could come together to pray as a klal, a cohesive group, and not just as pratim, a conglomeration of individuals. Praying next to another person intensifies one’s prayers and elevates one’s spirituality. In a metaphysical sense, the prayers of 10 men united in prayer in the same chamber are on a higher standard than the prayers of those same men praying separately in 10 different locales.
This is the secret of the Tabernacle and the very reason why it was urgent that it be erected at the onset of our sojourn in the wilderness. It could not be postponed until that time when we would be settled in our Promised Land. This concept of community, modeled by the Tabernacle, defines the core of every synagogue established in every corner of the Diaspora, from biblical times until this very day.
There is another component of Jewish spirituality that makes it different, arguably unique, among the spiritualities of the rest of the world. This component is epitomized by the Tablets, the Edut, which were placed in the Holy Ark, at the very epicenter of the Tabernacle. As we will read this Shabbat, near the very end of this Torah portion and near the very end of the entire Book of Exodus: “Moses set up the Tabernacle...
He took and placed the Edut in the Ark...Then he put up the curtain for screening and screened off the Ark of the Edut – just as the Lord had commanded Moses.”
In the holiest place on Earth, at the very heart of Jewish life, is to be found – a text! The Edut, the Ten Commandments, are a text: a divine text, a sacred text. Spirituality cannot be reduced to spirit. Spirituality must have an actual body, a text at its very center.
These, then, are two of the distinguishing features of Jewish spirituality. Spirituality only resides within a community, and it requires a revealed text. Absent these two features, and the spiritual experience is deficient, transient and potentially misleading. With a community and with a text, spirituality is enriched, everlasting and uplifting.
This Shabbat, we will complete Parashat Pekudei and thereby conclude the entire Book of Exodus. We celebrate this accomplishment by proclaiming, “Hazak, hazak, venit’hazek!” (be strong, be strong, and let us be strengthened). Let us indeed be strong and strengthened by spirituality that is not only consistent with religion but is its very essence. The writer, a rabbi and doctor of psychotherapy, is the executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union of North America.