August 7, 2018

Educating awe of God (Shemini)

For the past two months, the weekly Torah reading has almost entirely discussed details about the Mishkan. However, it is only in Parshat Shemini when the Mishkan completes its transformation from blueprint to building and when it becomes a fully functioning centre for religious life.

Like all great institutions, the official opening of the Mishkan was surrounded with pomp and ceremony, and Parshat Shemini begins by describing the events that took place on the eighth and final day of the Mishkan’s inauguration ceremony. Having instructed Aharon to offer up a variety of sacrifices as part of this final ceremony, Moshe declares to the people ‘this is what God has commanded. Do it and God’s glory will be revealed to you.’ But, as numerous commentaries explain, this instruction is confusing. By this point the people had performed all that was required of them and the only person yet to complete his service was Aharon. So what was Moshe asking from the people when he told them ‘this is what God has commanded.. do it’? To answer this question, we must turn to the Midrash (Torat Kohanim) and the accompanying commentary by the Malbim.

The Malbim explains that just as the physical Mishkan was sanctified through the service of Aharon, every person is also dutibound to sanctify their own inner Mishkan. Therefore, as the inauguration ceremony of the physical Mishkan was concluding, Moshe explained to the people that they were still responsible for developing their inner Mishkan by nurturing their fear (or as I prefer, awe) of God and by committing themselves to serving God. What we learn from here is that God’s revelation is not only dependent on the public service of Aharon, but also, on the efforts of each individual to nurture their awe of God.

However, as I recently discussed with some of my students, one of the greatest tragedies of modern Jewish education is that we don’t speak about – let alone educate towards – awe of God. Though many of our greatest texts stress the role of Yirat Hashem (the awe of God) as a fundamental building block of divine service, we seem to have erased this from the set of educational priorities that we expect of our children, and of ourselves. Yet, to quote R’ Aharon Lichtenstein: ‘Yirat shamayim is a key value in its own right and the key to so much else. The wisdom – and, to an extent, the right – of maintaining a rich and variegated spiritual and cultural life is, in great measure, conditioned upon the quotient of awe and awareness of divine presence which suffuses it’. Thus, to succeed as modern Jews, we desperately need a strong sense of awe and awareness of God.

Sadly, we no longer have a Mishkan or a Temple. However, each of us do have our own inner Mishkan, and the more we invest in nurturing our own Yirat Hashem, the more able we are able to connect with God. May we – like Aharon – be successful in serving God faithfully, with love, awe and devotion.

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