Kallah 2011: savoring new light
Letter to liminal places (a poem for those who feel in-between)

Kedushat Levi on work, rest, action, speech, Torah

Here's a taste of Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev's commentary on this week's Torah portion, Vayekhel. My translation is indented; explanations and commentary are interspersed. He says some lovely things about the interplay of work and speech, weekday and Shabbat -- and then says something very powerful about the study of Torah, the building of the tabernacle, and the creation of new worlds. Read on!

"These are the things (דברים) which God commanded that you should do them, six days you shall do [work], etc..." (Exodus 35:1-2.)

The sages interpreted this (in the Talmud, tractate Shabbat) to refer to the 39 forms of labor. As it is said, "these [are the things]" -- this hints at externals [external forms of labor rather than internal ones], as the Ari (of blessed memory) expounded on the verse (Lamentations 1:16) "For these things I weep, etc," arguing that we need to heal them by means of work. When we say "to do," [as in: "these are the things which God commanded that you should do them,"] we're speaking in terms of healing.

Reb Levi Yitzchak is arguing that what God was really saying was not merely "these are the things you should do -- do all your work on six days, but on the 7th day, you should rest," but also "these are the things which God commanded we should heal / repair." In his reading, God is giving us an encoded instruction about the need to make a cosmic repair.

It is said with regard to Shabbat "God commanded to do," and with regard to the [building of the] mishkan it is written "which God commanded, saying." The Tur raises a question [about why one verse uses language of "doing" and the other verse uses the word "saying"], and notes that although creating the mishkan involved the mitzvot of making/doing, by means of the the work of the mishkan they repaired the world of speech. That's what Torah means when it says "which God had commanded, saying."

This week's Torah portion begins with the instruction about working during the week and resting on Shabbat, and then moves into language about the building of the mishkan, the portable tabernacle the Israelites built as a dwelling-place for God. (The word mishkan shares a root with Shekhinah, the indwelling and immanent Presence of God.) It's this juxtaposition -- instructions about work/rest followed by instructions about the mishkan -- which catches the eye of the Tur, and later of Reb Levi Yitzchak...and on that juxtaposition, they're going to hang a fascinating new interpretation.

Reb Levi Yitzchak cites the Tur (a.k.a Jacob ben Asher) who noted that the first verse uses the language of "doing" (God commanded us to do something), and the other verse uses the language of "saying" (God commanded us, saying...) He tells us that although building the mishkan involved physical making and doing, as the Israelites built that tabernacle they were actually in some cosmic sense repairing the brokenness of human speech.

Sometimes it's hard to say exactly what we mean. Sometimes our words hurt one another. Sometimes we say the wrong thing, or we speak in a way we regret. Human speech is a flawed and often broken thing. When our ancestors built the mishkan, says Levi Yitzchak (following the Tur), as they attached wood and cloth and pegs together they were also cosmically repairing the brokenness of human language. In his reading, the Torah hints at this when it uses the word לאמר, "saying..."

And on Shabbat, when they weren't doing work, only (engaging in) mitzvot of speech, such as Torah and prayer -- for Shabbat is the very essence of Torah and prayer -- by means of this they repaired the world of work. And this is "Which God commanded them to do," as it is said, repairing the world of making/doing.

This week's Torah portion begins with an instruction about working during the week but resting on Shabbat, and progresses immediately to talking about how the people who were moved to do so brought gifts to God and fashioned those gifts into the mishkan. Kedushat Levi reads this in a mystical way. This isn't just a passage about working and cessation of work, or about the building of the tabernacle and then pausing from that building. When our ancestors built the mishkan, they were really repairing human speech of its brokenness. When they paused from that building, on Shabbat, and prayed and studied Torah instead, they were repairing the world of human labor, action and physicality. In doing work, they were refining their speech; in speaking and praying, they were refining their work. We can't heal the world we inhabit while we inhabit it. Our speech on Shabbat heals the world of our work, and our work during the week heals the world of speech on Shabbat.

A bit later in the commentary, Kedushat Levi takes a different tack. God, he says, is known as "El Shaddai," which is a name which offers two messages at once. The name El connotes strength, while the name Shaddai connotes divine flow (as in the Hebrew word shadayim, breasts.) The Holy Blessed One goes by the name "El Shaddai" in order to evoke both boundaried strength and limitless flow at the same time. When the Holy Blessed One first aspired to create, says Kedushat Levi, God was inclined to expand and spread without limit, but realized that in order for creation to take place, God had to say dai (enough!) and create limits.

The Blesssed One had to behave in the world according to the strength of those who would receive God's presence, rather than according to the strength of the Ein-Sof / God's limitless transcendence. [In other words: God had to reveal God's-self in a way which was mindful of our limits.] Because we can't receive all of God's greatness.

That puts me in mind of last week's Torah portion: Moshe asked to see God, and God explained that humanity cannot see God's face and live. Instead God offers Moshe the chance to be sheltered in a cleft of rock, and to catch a glimpse of God's afterimage after God has "passed by." By the same token: God has to continually reveal God's-self into the world at a level which we can receive. We need capacitors or transformers, as it were, to modulate the transmission from on high so we don't blow out our spiritual circuits.

The work of creating the mishkan was a kind of creation of heaven and earth, everything in a pleasing order according to the wisdom of God through the combinations of holy letters and names, and through those letters and names, heaven and earth can be created... And the Blessed God gave into their hearts wisdom, understanding, and knowledge, and the Blessed God gives that same strength to the righteous in every generation. When the righteous immerse themselves in the study of Torah and unearth new insights, they are creating new heavens and earths.

First, Kedushat Levi likens the building of the tabernacle to the creation of heaven and earth. God created heaven and earth through combinations of holy letters; the builders of the mishkan created the tabernacle through wood and cloth, but because they had divine wisdom implanted within them, their physical building of a physical object was effectively parallel to God's creation of heaven and earth.

And then he likens the study of Torah to the building of the tabernacle. (So he's taken something verbal -- God's creation -- and likened it to a physical act of building; then he takes something physical -- the act of building -- and compares it with Torah study, which is verbal.) Once again, he's showing us how words and actions are intertwined. When we study Torah and reveal new insights hidden within it, says Reb Levi Yitzchak, it is as though we were building the tabernacle, which is as though we were creating whole new heavens and earths. The pursuit of new Torah insights and new understandings is a whole new creation.