Judaism: Synthesizing the Physical and the Spiritual
Human Beings are the only entities that are made up of both a physical and a spiritual part. There are also two parallel realities; physical and spiritual and we exist in both.
From a Torah perspective, which one is the main focus? A deep analysis of the book of Shmot (Exodus) that we begin reading this week provides a compelling answer.
The Abarbanel, in his introduction to Sefer Shmot, points out that Hashem, in His wisdom, divided up the Torah into different books. The first one, Breishit (Genesis) primarily deals with great individuals: Adam, Noach, Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov etc. However, in Shmot we have a new narrative: the story of the Nation of Yisrael.
The Ramban, in his introduction to the book, uses the following analogy: The Forefathers and Foremothers in Breishit were really creating the blue print, the architectural plans for the future nation. In Shmot we now experience the different stages of the building of that nation. Like all construction, it progresses in a specific order until completion.
The book clearly delineates three phases of this building.
The first stage includes parshiot Shmot, Va’eira, Bo and Beshalach (Chapters 1-17).This section tells the entire story of ‘Yetziat Mitzrayim’- the exodus from Egypt. The slavery, the 10 plagues, the night of our departure and the climax: the splitting of the Sea. We relive this story every year on the festival of Pesach.
Rabbi Shimshon Refael Hirsch in his Horev (Section 2-Edoth, Chapter 23) explains the historical significance of Pesach as follows:
“Pesach-The Foundation ofYisrael’s Body: Commemoration of the Divine, creative act by which Hashem, true to His promise, broke open the dungeon of Egypt, and transformed the family of Jacob,Ya’akov, into a nation, after it had grown in numbers in the midst of suffering. This He did by freeing Israel’s body from serfdom”
In other words, Stage 1 is the Physical Creation of the Nation. For other nations this is the goal, the end of the road. For us, however, it was only the beginning of the journey that was to take us higher.
The second stage is portrayed in parshiot Yitro and Mishpatim (Chapters 18-24).Here we learn about ‘Matan Torah’- the Giving of the Torah. This includes; Hashem revealing the Ten Commandments to the entire nation at Har Sinai, expounding the laws and the Sinai Covenant. Shavout is the festival to re-experience this event. Rabbo Hirsch continues his explaination as follows:
“Shavuot-Foundation of the Spirit of Yisrael: Commemoration of the Revelation of the teaching with which Hashem, Who had summoned Yisrael to a national existence by means of physical freedom, now summoned the freed body of the nation to be the bearer of His teaching. This gave spiritual completion to that which had begun physically in Egypt.”
Stage 2 directly follows the first stage and is in essence the Spiritual Creation of the Nation. The momentous event at Mt. Sinai literally molded the ‘Neshama’, the spiritual entity of our nation. This too, however, did not mark the completion of the development.
The third stage is complex. This section of the sefer is itself subdivided into 3 subsections;
A)Parshiot Terumah, Tetzaveh and the beginning of Ki Tissa(Chapters 25-31) deal with the command to build the Mishkan.This was the portable, movable Sanctuary in the desert.
B)The rest of Parshat Ki Tissa(Chapters 32-34) tells the tragic story of the sin of the Golden Calf.
C)Parshiot Vayakhel and Pekuday(Chapters 35-40) describe the building of the Mishkan.
There is a famous argument as to the actual chronology of these events. Rashi(Shmot 31;18) explains that in reality the sin(B) preceded the command to build the Mishkan(A).This implies that the Mishkan was a reaction to the sin. It was a way to rectify the problem of the need for a tangible way to serve Hashem (See Kuzari- Essay1,96+97). The Ramban(Shmot 25;1), however, feels that the Torah describes the events in the original order.
Immediately after the Revelation and the Covenant at Har Sinai, Moshe ascends the mountain to learn more Torah. The very first thing Hashem teaches him is the command about the Mishkan. The Holy Nation is now ready to have the ‘Shechina’- Divine Presence dwell among them.
This Ramban is the key to understanding the third and final stage of the develodment of the people of Israel, Am Yisrael. It is one thing being a physical nation. It is another thing having a spiritual entity. However, the ultimate goal for our nation, is learning how to successfully synthesize the physical and the spiritual. The Mishkan is a beautiful physical structure made from all the earthly materials. The whole purpose, however, of this building was to bring Hashem into the world.
As the verse (Shmot 25:8) states “They shall make a Sanctuary for Me so that I may dwell among them”
The sin of the Golden Calf is an example of the tragic consequences when the physical is separated from the spiritual. The third pilgrimage festival;Sukkot celebrates this third stage of combining the physical and spiritual. The Vilna Gaon (Commentary to Shir Hashirim 1;4)associates Sukkot with the building of the Mishkan.
At the Brit mila and the mishaberach of a boy, and the naming of a girl, we proclaim ”may the child be raised to Torah, Chuppa(Marriage) and good deeds”.
This proclamation is really expressing the wish that each individual of this Nation follow its original developmental stages.
At the birth, which is Stage 1-the physical creation of the person by Hashem, we pray that the child will move on to ‘Torah’, which is stage 2-the Spiritual Creation. This begins at Bar /Bat mitzvah age when each individual has a personal ’Matan Torah’. From this point on, the person, together with Hashem, should be continuously creating the spiritual self. The goal is “Chuppa and good deeds’, the creation of a Jewish Home. This home is described as a mini Mishkan. A physical place entirely focused on bringing Hashem into the world.
In Judaism, we cannot solely live in either the physical or spiritual realities, we constantly strive to be the bridge between these worlds, to bring the Divine into the Earthly.
The Torah MiTzion movement strives to inter-connect and inspire world Jewry through Torah-centered Religious-Zionism by offering various models designed to reach and impact the Jewish people at both the communal and personal levels, including the setting up of Zionist Kollels in many communities abroad. There are groups in Sydney, Melbourne, St. Louis, Memphis, Moscow, Montreal, Munich, Capetown, Montivideo, Lima and more.