Thursday, March 23, 2017

Zionist Chassidism:Torah and Labor

By Rafi Ostroff 
Head of the Religious Council of Gush Etzion

In this week’s Torah portion the human operation of building the Tabernacle begins, following the Divine command in the previous portions. The Rebbe of Husiatyn decided to take advantage of the opportunity to discuss his views on the value of labor and workmanship in general.

The Rebbe felt that it is a direct mitzva to perform labor for the sake of heaven. He commented on the opening verse of the Torah portion: “And Moshe gathered the entire community of Bnei Yisrael, and he said to them: These are the things which G-d has commanded that they be done” [Shemot 35:1]. The Rebbe notes that there are two “things” that follow, the mitzva of resting on Shabbat which introduces the command of the Tabernacle, and the labor performed during the other six days of the week, which is also a mitzva.

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And this is what is referred to in the passage: “Love labor, for just as the Torah was given in a covenant, so labor was given in a covenant. As is written, ‘Labor for six days and do all of your work. And the seventh day is Shabbat, dedicated to your G-d.’ [Shemot 20:9-10].” [Avot D’Rebbe Natan 11a].

And that is what is written in the book “Ma’or Einayim” [written by Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernovil, a disciple of the Maggid of Mezerich – R.O.] in the name of the Baal Shem Tov: After 120 years, people are asked, ‘Were you faithful in your business dealings?’ (See Shabbat 31a.) A person is asked about his behavior in business and labor. And this factor is also a facet of holy labor and Torah – to see whether the person studies Torah in order to follow the ways of the Holy One, Blessed be He. For example, if he studies the Mishna which discusses exchanging a cow for a donkey, which is something that is very important to the Creator. And whether a person acts in this way and behaves according to the Torah is very important to the Holy One, Blessed be He. And also in performing labor, if he acts according to the Torah then he is involved in the Torah even while he performs his work.

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The Labor of the Tabernacle and Regular Work

The Rebbe thus teaches us a very innovative concept. We always thought that to study the Mishna about exchanging a cow for a donkey is a mitzva, while to act according to the Mishna is a secular activity, outside the bounds of the Torah. But the Rebbe teaches us that if I actually exchange a cow and a donkey according to the rules of the Mishna, or if I perform any other labor for the sake of heaven while I observe the halacha, then this labor itself is also a mitzva!

And at this point the Rebbe quotes another passage from Avot D’Rebbe Natan:

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In fact, the Holy One, Blessed be He, did not reveal His Shechina to Yisrael until they actually performed manual labor, as is written, “Let them make a Tabernacle for Me, and I will dwell within them” [Shemot 28:8].

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But we might still ask: What connection is there between weekday work and the labors of the Tabernacle? After all, this Midrash quotes the verse about building the Tabernacle to prove that the Holy One, Blessed be He, sends His Shechina within Yisrael only after they have begun to work. But isn’t this verse referring to the labors of the Tabernacle and not mundane regular work?

The Sanctity of the Tabernacle as Part of Practical Life

And therefore, the Rebbe teaches us another lesson from the book Ma’or Einayim. The purpose of giving the Torah to the nation of Yisrael was that they themselves would play the role of a Temple: “And I will dwell within them.” The labors of the nation during weekdays can be compared to the work on the Tabernacle, and the holy service on Shabbat is the secret of the building of the Tabernacle.

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That is what is called the labor of the Tabernacle – making a Tabernacle for the Creator of the entire universe using all thirty-nine types of secular labor. [That is, when work is done during weekdays and all thirty-nine types of labor that are forbidden on Shabbat are performed, a Tabernacle is made for G-d by installing Divine sanctity throughout the world – R.O.] That is, this includes earthly elements that are necessary for living, for it would be impossible for every Jew to spend all of his time learning Torah. As is written, ‘Many people acted in the manner of Rabban Shimon Bar Yochai, and they failed’ [Berachot 35]. [They tried not to do any work but only to learn Torah – O.S.] However, every person who performs his labors faithfully and honestly, with the intention of serving G-d and clinging to Him, is thereby participating in the construction of the Temple.

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I have written before that the Rebbe of Husiatyn draws his entire fund of knowledge from Chassidic writings. But in this case he spreads out before us the principles of “Torah and Labor” which was the motto of religious Zionism as it crystalized in Eastern Europe. He does not mention or even hint at the writings of the originators of these ideas, such as Rabbi Reiness, Rabbi Alkalai, or Shachal (Shmuel Chaim Lando).

Does modern religious Zionism continue on an ideal path of “Torah and Labor” which we see here is founded at least in part in Chassidic roots? Perhaps we should strive for both us and for various modern Chassidic sects to follow this path, which sanctifies weekday labor in order to impart the holiness of the Tabernacle to all segments of our lives.

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