The Holy of Holies—the inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle and later the Temple in Yerushalayim—was an area that only the High Priest was allowed to enter, and only once a year, on Yom Kippur.
Yet even the Holy of Holies was occasionally in need of repair. To provide for such an eventuality there were openings in the upper chamber leading down into this sacred area. Artisans, who were Kohanim, were lowered from above in tevoth (boxes). Each box was open only to the side of the wall so that the men could do their job but “could not feast their eyes on the Holy of Holies” (Middoth 4:5, Pesachim 26a).
In Chassidic thought, the above tradition was given an allegorical meaning. In Hebrew, tevoth does not only mean “boxes” but also “words.” As such, the words of Jewish learning are seen as ways to enter the Holy of Holies, that is, the heart of every Jew, so as to repair and revive him spiritually. But just as in the Temple the repairmen in their tevoth could touch nothing but the wall’s surface, so the tevoth of the Torah can touch only the outer layer of the human heart. For them to penetrate into the inner chambers of the heart requires much work that demands enormous effort. Through the words, man can grasp the perpetual, holy murmurs from a world beyond, but nothing more. What lies deeper can be accessed only with repair work to open the channels of the heart, which are often wounded. Man’s walled heart allows no access to a ladder upon which he can climb to reach the knowledge of God. It is the soul alone that can penetrate the heart. As in the case of music notes, which are simply a vehicle through which the music itself is touched, words, too, are merely the channel through which something deeper is felt. Only when the soul is involved can there be a chance for the words to become a song.
Jewish education is in need of radical repair. We are living in times when the Jewish religious imagination seems to be exhausted. We no longer know how to lower ourselves, via the tevoth, into the Holy of Holies of the human heart.
We have fallen victim to a sociological and anthropological approach, which has led to the vulgarization of Jewish education. We ask whether the Jews constitute a race; a people; a religion; a cultural entity; a historic group; or a linguistic unit. But we do not ask what we are spiritually; who we are morally; what we owe the world and what our mission is. We may be busy repairing Judaism, but we are descending from the wrong upper chamber into an artificial temple, one of secularity.
Jewish education today deals with a great amount of information but forgets that it is transformation we are looking for. We are told by our Sages that just walking in the Temple created “new” people, for they were astonished and amazed by the many miracles that took place in its confines. It was not Jewish continuity that the Temple guaranteed but a radical re-creation of the Jewish spirit, which made souls grow wings and fly. It served as a protest against the stale and the obsolete.
It caused man to be so taken in by the spiritual power of the Torah that he was able to see God everywhere, like the Chassidic Rebbe who would walk in the forest to see the tall, swaying trees davening shemoneh esrei (1). As if they were performing a transcendent dance, reaching towards Heaven.
Jewish education must be just like a work of art, which is capable of introducing us to emotions that we never cherished before. It is boring unless we are surprised by it. Every thought is a prison if it does not evoke in us an outburst of amazement. We must be wary of spiritual minimalism. The words of the Torah are not allowed to be stationary; they have to astonish.
We must realize that we either ascend or descend. And never forget that at the core of each one of us there resides a tzaddik.
This essay is inspired by the writings of R. Abraham Joshua Heschel
- Praying the “18 benedictions”—the central prayer in each of the daily services—called by that name because it originally contained 18 blessings. It is recited silently, while standing in great concentration, often accompanied by swaying of the upper body as if in ecstasy.