Hebrew Language and Jewish Thought

By David Patterson | Go to book overview

1

OPENING REMARKS ON THE HOLY TONGUE

The Torah portion Vayakhel (Exodus 35-38) relates how the Israelites built the Mishkan (the Holy Tabernacle) as a dwelling place for the Shekhinah (G-d's Indwelling Presence); creating such a dwelling place for the Holy Presence was essential for the Israelites to find their way through the wilderness. One of the artisans chosen to oversee the work was Betsalel. In fact, it was he who made the ark that was to be the vessel of the Holy Word. According to the Talmud, Betsalel was chosen for this most sacred of tasks because he knew the secret combinations and meanings of the Hebrew words and letters that G-d uses at every instant to do the work of creation (Berakhot 55a). 1 Which means: Betsalel had the wisdom, understanding, and knowledge to sound the depths of the holy word contained within the Ark of the Covenant. For out of that word heaven and earth-the sum and significance of life-came into existence. If “Hebrew words describe not only an object but its very essence, ” as the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Yehuda Loeve (1513-1609), has said (Loeve 1997:288), it is because an object is in some sense made of its Hebrew word. Betsalel's wisdom lay in understanding that connection between word and reality.

As we participate in the work of creation, we engage in the work of Betsalel, transforming the world itself into a Mishkan where the holy may find a dwelling place in a realm that is otherwise a wilderness. Indeed, the Mishnah identifies the thirty-nine categories of labor that are forbidden on the Sabbath according to the categories of labor that went into the construction of the Mishkan (see Shabbat 7:2). The purpose of our labor, therefore, is to make the world into a place where the Shekhinah may dwell, transforming all of creation into a Mishkan, so that life may take on meaning. From the standpoint of Jewish thought, then, (melakhah) or “labor, ” is the effort to create a dwelling place for holiness in the world, without which there is no meaning in the world. The key to such labor is the insight into the word that guided the labor of Betsalel: the key to meaning in life is meaning in the word. When meaning is torn from words, life is drained of its substance and the world is transformed into a wasteland. That is when the world as Mishkan is in need of mending, even as the Holy of Holies in the Temple (which was also called a Mishkan) on occasion required repairs.

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Hebrew Language and Jewish Thought
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Opening Remarks on the Holy Tongue 6
  • 2 - First Things 16
  • 3 - Giving Voice to G-D 32
  • 4 - The Good 51
  • 5 - For the Sake of Another 70
  • 6 - The Soul 89
  • 7 - Exile 110
  • 8 - Dwelling 133
  • 9 - The House of the Book 153
  • 10 - The Word 173
  • 11 - The Holy 195
  • 12 - Closing Remarks 216
  • Appendix 220
  • Notes 223
  • Bibliography 230
  • Index 237
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