The eighth book of Exodus
Tetzaveh, and you will do the mitzvah…
When Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh sent me out to discover the mindfulness at the heart of my own ancestral spiritual tradition, I developed a practice with friends and rabbis that we called Insight Torah sharing. We sit together in groups of two or three, a traditional chavruta-study friend- practice from Judaism and Buddhism. We take turns looking at the passage to find a wisdom teaching in each line and verse that speaks to our deepest yearnings for living a spiritually centered life in this every day world of distraction.
There are many portions of the Torah that are filled with instructions to Moses for doing exactly that. Portions such as this week’s Tetzaveh can be downright boring and seem themselves like an irrelevant distraction until we bring the lens of insight to find for ourselves a spiritual teaching for our own lives.
Tetzaveh: and you will do the mitzvah…
The Hebrew word Tetzaveh is the grammatical command form of the word for mitzvah, and this word form begins this portion of the continuing story of the exile from Egypt and finding God in the wilderness. In the Jewish mystical tradition a mitzvah refers to an action that bring us closer to the divine energy within and all around. In one traditional Jewish way of reading the Torah, there are 613 mitzvot ( the plural of mitzvah) that we do with the specific intent of bringing divine energy close. In the modern world we think of a mitzvah as a good deed, an altruistic action, Right Action in the Buddhist sense.
In the story of Tetzaveh, God ( an unnamed presence) and Moses are together in deep conversation on Mount Sinai, and Moses is receiving detailed instructions to transmit to the Israelites and to the priests about the garments and consecration of the priests and the rituals and the altars for the rituals.
Why such detail? Why such attention to the placement of each object? The construction of these ritual objects is the actual work of the people who have fled Egypt. Everything else is provided for them so this is their work. The detailed instructions throughout the Torah are rich teachings and reminders to put the quality of reverence into everything we do.
The god-centered story and language of Torah have served as tools for thousands of years to help people find deeper meaning in the every day details of life. To help us remember the value of paying attention to the smallest details. Bringing the quality of reverence into everything we do is a practice that is both a fruit of mindful intention and action and a means to helping us cultivate mindful intention and action.
In the Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh, the miracle of presence is found in the details of washing dishes.
This, like the Torah instructions, is cultivating reverence and presence into the work of building altars and clothing for priests and making every action of our work the building of a sanctuary for divinity among us.
The adornments for the priests are fantastic and fantastical. It is striking how civilizations adorn their priests and kings and queens… And here in this story the great mystic Moses who lives and breathes in conversation with God has visions that last for 40 days filled with intricate creations and installation of gems and magical charms.
If you imagine having an experience of 40 days of intimacy with the Divine Energy, with the Creator, what do you imagine the experience to be like?
From a spiritual perspective , Moses is receiving from an unnamed source instructions for how to construct a human society that places mindfulness of Oneness at its center. Mindful attention to each detail creates the energy and power to contain the uncontainable, so that when completed, the Godding force, life unfolding itself, will meet all of the people, will stay with the people and the people will know their true nature.
Last year I spent several hours in the Armenian shop just inside the Zion Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem. I wanted to learn from the perspective of the two Armenian brothers, shopkeepers who have lived and worked in the Armenian quarter, as their family has done for generations. I asked them, what is their perspective on how to create peace in Jerusalem and in all of Israel? Their answer with big smiles were to love God and to live that love.
They shared with me how much they admired the Jewish people and also how hard life had become for the peoples living in Jerusalem for thousands of years who aren’t Jewish. And they said that the Jewish people must remember that Jerusalem has always been a holy place for everyone and that Jerusalem’s strength lies in its being a holy place for everyone, not just for the Jews.
I felt embarrassed because I know as a Jew how much I love the Jewishness that I encounter in Jerusalem – the deep teachings, the amazing array of teachers and synagogues and creative applications of Judaism to every conceivable aspect of life. And embarrassed because I know that the Armenians and Muslims and other Christians also celebrate holy Jerusalem and that I can’t imagine that holiness when one people monopolize it for themselves. Even when I am one of those people.
So I look again at Tetzaveh, to the mitzvah that we shall do so that God might abide among us. And I see the instructions are focused on beauty and service. I see that Aaron the priest is to carry the instruments of decisions over his heart. I see that the rituals are contained within this system ordained by God, all for the purpose of God and the people dwelling together.
And all of this in a very transportable mishkan – sanctuary – and I can’t imagine why we havent yet as a human race learned to conduct our holy affairs and rituals in peace and reverence, next door to other people doing the same, and I can’t imagine a future unless this is what we learn to do.
Exercise: learning to meet your deepest needs with new strategies
Imagine you are Moses and God has instructed you to perform the mitzvah of organizing the Israelites to protect their priestly class and rituals and create a society and structures that foster all of that.
Imagine doing this in a way that doesn’t prevent other peoples from similarly thriving in the fullness of their traditions and rituals.
Roberta Wall lives in Asheville, North Carolina.