Commentary on Parashat Beshalach, Exodus 13:17 - 17:16
“Spirituality” has become a centerpiece of our contemporary vernacular. New books intending to help people find more meaning in their lives, to infuse their lives with spirituality, appear regularly. Even medical doctors, psychotherapists, and health care professionals have adopted spirituality as a modality for therapy.
What is Spirituality?
What is the Jewish understanding of this concept, and what are the means to attaining this phenomenal experience?
A brief verse from the Shirah (song) in today’s parashah provides some insight: “This is my God, and I will glorify Him.” These words were uttered by the entire Jewish nation at the crossing of the Red Sea, as the people experienced the highest level of spirituality–an unparalleled closeness to God. The manifestation of Godliness was so clear that every Jew, even the humblest, could literally point a finger and say, “This is my God, and I will glorify Him.”
Let us reflect on three definitions of the word ve’anveihu–“and I will glorify Him.” Rashi interprets this word to mean, “I will build Him a sanctuary,” from the root neveh–home. It expresses Israel’s longing to build a resting place for the Shechinah, God’s presence.
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l, once explained that Shechinah is related to the word shachen, neighbor. This Name of God conveys an overwhelming closeness to God. What an uplifting spiritual feeling we might attain as we enter our synagogues, imagining that we have entered God’s Home!
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th-century Germany) interprets the word ve’anveihu, “I will make myself a sanctuary.” The greatest of all sanctuaries, he writes, is the human being who makes himself holy.
“Ner Elokim nishmas adam–The candle of God is the human soul.”Judaism teaches that since each of us isendowed with a measure of Divinity–a soul–each has the potential to become a sanctuary. There is a Divine spark lodged within every Jewish heart. When that spark is ignited, the heart overflows with love, warmth, and a spiritual energy. What an optimistic view of the potential of Jewish spirituality!
Our Sages also identify the word ve’anveihu with the root naveh–beauty. “This is my God, and I will adorn Him with beauty.” How? By beautifying the mitzvot (commandments). I will acquire a beautiful Sefer Torah, build a beautiful succah, possess a beautiful new lulav, adorn myself with beautiful tallit and tefillin.
Adding an aesthetic dimension to mitzvot expresses how deeply we cherish the mitzvot. Who is not touched with emotions of spirituality upon entering a traditional home on the Sabbath Eve to see a family around the table, upon which rests a beautiful, glittering candelabra, a shiny Kiddush cup, an embroidered challah cover–the entire Sabbath decor! Beauty evokes spirituality!
Moreover, the great Talmudic Sage, Abba Shaul, teaches that the summit of Jewish spirituality goes beyond the realm of the aesthetic and reaches into the orbit of the ethical.
Refining Our Character
The mitzvah to refine our character and to develop into caring, loving, sensitive and ethical people is also learned from the word, ve’anveihu. By dividing the word in two–ani vehu, I and Him–we derive that the highest spiritual achievement is to emulate God’s attributes. Just as He is gracious, compassionate, kind and forgiving, so, too, we must be gracious, compassionate, kind and forgiving. We must become Godlike. Imitatio Dei is the foundation of Jewish ethics.
The summit of spirituality is reached when, after internalizing these ethical traits, we reflect them in our thoughts, in our speech, and in our actions. While outer beauty is aesthetically appealing, we must develop an inner beauty that issues from the heart. Each of us who follows the Godly way becomes a beautiful Jew–sheiner yid.
Is it not remarkable that one Hebrew word from the Torah contains so many diverse and rich nuances? This isthe greatness of the Torah–the source of all spirituality!
Provided by the Orthodox Union, the central coordinating agency for North American Orthodox congregations.
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.