Sinai and Servitude

It1 was at Sinai, the fount of all Yiddishkeit, that G‑d chose the Jews as His people, and gave them His Torah to serve as a guiding light through life — for them, and for all of creation — until the end of time. The revelation at Sinai also infused the Jewish people with the potential of refining the world through the Torah, preparing it to be a dwelling place for the Shechinah, the Divine Presence.

After this event is described in Parshas Yisro, the following weekly reading, Parshas Mishpatim, introduces the practical laws which govern the life of man, and which invest the corporeal world with spirituality.

This reading begins as follows:2 “These are the laws that you shall set before [the Children of Israel]. If you buy a Jewish bondman, he shall serve for six years, but in the seventh year, he is to be set free without liability.”

The institution of human servitude discussed in the Torah mirrors the divine service of man, as he refines his materiality and elevates the world around him by observing the Torah and its mitzvos:3 “For the Children of Israel are servants unto Me.” More particularly, the Zohar and the teachings of Chassidus distinguish three levels in the service of G‑d, corresponding respectively to the three kinds of servant — the Canaanite bondman, the Jewish bondman, and the Jewish maidservant.

A Home Away from Heaven

It is in the following weekly reading, Parshas Terumah, that G‑d expresses His desire for a dwelling place on earth:4 “They shall make Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell among them,” indicating that the Tabernacle (the Mishkan) which the Jews were to build would create a “place” where the Shechinah could be manifest.

As we read week by week through Yisro, Mishpatim and Terumah (continuing on through Pekudei), with their respective leading themes — (a) the Giving of the Torah, (b) the enumeration of its laws to live by, and (c) the construction of the Mishkan — a definite progression becomes evident. First the requisite power is bestowed from above; then one begins to tackle his daily tasks like a dutiful bondman; and ultimately one finds that he has built a Sanctuary, the desired dwelling place on earth for one’s Master in heaven.

More specifically: The Giving of the Torah represents education in Torah and mitzvos, which creates the framework within which one may attract the Shechinah; the servant state signifies diligence in our divine service; and the Mishkan represents the successful completion of all the efforts expended to transform the whole world (and our individual segments within it) into a dwelling place for G‑d.

Women As Architects & Builders

In this vital mission of executing G‑d’s plan for the world, by transforming it into a home for Him, Jewish women and girls have been assigned a primary share. This explains why in every individual Jewish home — the counterpart and basic building-block of G‑d’s cosmic home — the homemaker is commonly referred to as akeres habayis,5 the essence and foundation of the home, in material as well as in spiritual matters.

This precedence applies to all three aspects of divine service enumerated above.

(a) Regarding education (signified by the Giving of the Torah), it is obviously the mother who wields the greatest influence on her children from the youngest age; she is in fact responsible for the formative stages of their education.6 For this reas on, every girl and especially every married woman has been endowed with the attributes needed to educate herself and others7 — and foremost among these attributes is the innate feminine trait of gentleness. For the most elemental task of education, the implanting of values through the woman’s natural warmth and love, must begin with8 “the right hand that draws others near.” Only then can the elimination of negative traits follow. After all, undesirable attributes are not an integral part of a Jew’s true essence; they are merely superficial and temporary.

(b) In the area of basic life-work the Gemara asks,9 “How does a woman help a man?” — and answers its own question by asking: “If a man brings home wheat does he chew it? If [he brings home] flax does he wear it? Does she not, then, bring light to his eyes and put him on his feet?” By converting the raw materials of the world into nourishing food and fitting garments, the Jewish wife and mother enables herself and her family to use materiality in the service of G‑d. This form of servitude leads to her next role:

(c) The third area, the Tabernacle, is obviously the domain of the woman, for the spirit and atmosphere of the10 “miniature sanctuary” — her home — are determined by the daily endeavors of its presiding priestess.

The Precedence of Women

The Torah itself calls upon women to assume their leading roles in these three basic aspects of Judaism — Torah education, divine service, and the construction of a dwelling place for G‑d:

(a) Before the Giving of the Torah, G‑d directed Moshe to speak first to the women:11 “This is what you shall say to the House of Yaakov, and tell the Israelites.” The former phrase, Rashi explains, refers to the women; the latter, to the men. The women, then, were the first to receive the tidings of the preciousness of the Torah, and the directives on how to prepare themselves and their children to receive it.

(b) In the area of the servitude of Jewish bondmen, the category of divine service represented in the Torah by the Jewish maidservant (as explained below) is the highest.

(c) Describing the contributions brought to Moshe Rabbeinu for the construction of the Mishkan, the Torah writes,12 “The men accompanied the women.” Here, too, the women were followed by the men.13

The relationship between these three points is obvious: the women were first to receive the Torah and to offer their precious objects for the Mishkan, because they were also first in educating their children and in making each of their respective homes a Mishkan.

Stages in the Soul’s Servitude

The Zohar sees the servitude of Jewish bondmen as an image for the descent of the divine soul into the physical body and material world, with the purpose of becoming a servant or maidservant of the Creator. This it does by employing the Torah and its mitzvos to refine the body, the animal soul, and its own particular segment of the corporeal world. By doing this, the divine soul constructs a dwelling place for Divinity — and also, it should be added, it thereby becomes free.

As mentioned above, the Kabbalah goes on to explain that every individual has the potential for three successive stages of divine “servitude”, which are represented in ascending order by the Canaanite bondman, the Jewish bondman, and the Jewish maidservant.14

When a person is taking his first steps in divine service, and is still at the level of the Canaanite bondman, his major task is to harness the instinctual drives of the animal soul that hankers after the worldly pleasures. This he accomplishes by standing in awe of his Master and accepting the yoke of His authority. At this stage, he bends the willful desires of his animal soul to conform in practice to the wishes of the Master.

When a person has graduated to the higher plane represented by the Jewish bondman, the attributes of the G‑dly soul flood the animal soul with light; they empower the animal soul, too, to experience a certain degree of desire for G‑dliness. Nevertheless, the individual’s worldly desires have not been completely quashed or quieted. They still resemble the raw wheat and rough flax which must be refined and tempered before they are ready for human consumption.

At the highest level of divine service, as represented in the Torah by the Jewish maidservant, one’s desires for worldly pleasures have been completely sublimated and transformed. One’s only desire is to cleave to Divinity. At this point one’s role resembles that of the maidservant, who prepares food for human needs by refining and transforming raw substances into edible dainties. In the idiom of the Zohar,15 the Jewish people “nourish their heavenly Father.”

To Marry Her Master

In fact, however, the role represented by the Jewish maidservant takes the soul even further. The ultimate goal of this kind of servitude is that the maidservant marry her master; or, in the spiritual analog, that one leave the state of “maid” and be come a “wife”, and through this union draw the Shechinah into the world.

In the course of this upward odyssey, to borrow for a moment the terms of the Kabbalah, the soul ascends from the World of Beriah to the World of Atzilus, from the state of “maid” to the state of “bride”, refining any physical impurities encountered along the way. In the ultimate consummation of this mystical marriage, the bride — Knesses Yisrael, the Congregation of Israel — is united with the Bridegroom, with the Holy One, blessed be He. And with this union, the Divine desire for a dwelling place in this world is fulfilled.

The Status Of The Jewish Maidservant

The goal of this mystical marriage is reflected in the halachic particulars of the physical analogy.

In the first place, a Jewish girl may be bonded as a maidservant by her father only to a master with whom (or with whose son) a valid marriage can eventually be effected.16

Secondly, whereas in the case of a man,17 “If he does not have the means he shall be sold [by the courts, as a bondman, to make restitution] for his theft,” a Jewish girl may be bonded by her father as a maidservant for a certain period of time, only if he is in such dire straits that even the shirt on his back is borrowed. (And even then, the arrangement is valid only if the ultimate goal of marriage to the master can be envisaged at the outset, as explained above.)

In the spiritual analog, likewise: The soul is dispatched on its earthly journey into the body, only because the ultimate goal of union with G‑d is envisaged from the outset, and only because of a pressing need — the establishment of G‑d’s home on earth.

It is in the kind of divine service represented by the Jewish maidservant, then, that the mission of the soul (and the soul’s own simultaneous perfection) are clearly seen: This kind of divine service transforms the terrestrial world into a dwelling place for G‑dliness; it converts the base attributes of the animal soul so that they desire only G‑dliness; and ultimately, it attains a state of union with G‑d.

Short-Term And Long-Range Goals

The ability to accomplish this finds its richest expression in the Jewish daughters of all generations — in all three major themes that figure in the Torah readings of this season, as enumerated earlier: in the transmission of the Torah, in the tempering of materiality so that it serves spiritual purposes, and in the consequent creation of a perfect dwelling place for G‑d in the world (just as the womenfolk of an earlier generation were the first to act in the construction of the Mishkan).

However, over and beyond the noble mission of marrying and establishing a miniature sanctuary, discreetly guiding one’s husband and children, and allowing one’s living example to shine a ray of light into the lives of friends and acquaintances, something else remains. In addition to all the above, there remains the vital, long-range mission, of bringing about the ultimate and true Redemption by means of one’s divine service.

Our Sages teach that18 “It was by virtue of the righteous women of that generation that the Israelites were delivered from Egypt.” So, too, must it be in our generation of19 “the footsteps of Mashiach,” a generation whose souls are a reincarnation of the souls of the generation of the Exodus.20 And one thing is for sure: The women of this generation will not need a great deal of persuasion to leave the current state of galus!

The Obligations of Husbands

If Jewish women and girls are blessed with a role so elevated as that outlined above, Jewish men are obviously obliged by the Torah to show them the respect which is their due. Indeed, though his wife is his21 “compatible helper,” and is moreover dependent on him,22 “The Sages likewise ordained that a man should honor his wife more than his own person”23 — to show her honor and esteem, not equal to the respect he expects for himself, but far more. In plain words, he is obliged to help and respect and encourage his wife even more than he cares for himself. Thus, for example, if she requests his help in a matter which he considers to be insignificant, he ought to forego his own comfort and time and lend a hand.

When it comes to Torah and mitzvos — for example, when a wife wants to study Torah or Chassidus, or to go out to participate in outreach projects — it goes without saying that her husband must honor her desire (more than he would value his own), and give her every possible encouragement and assistance. There are ample precedents for the honor shown to Jewish women in the past for their achievements in Torah study, as related (for example) by the Rebbe Rayatz in his memoirs.

Certainly, the realm of women’s Torah study and fulfillment of he mitzvos is clearly defined.24 In the area of chassidic philosophy there are no limitations, for women are equally obligated to observe the ongoing commandments, such as loving G‑d and fearing Him. Moreover, they bear an equal responsibility to disseminate the teachings of Chassidus.25

Preparing for a Cosmic Marriage

May G‑d grant success to the activities and resolutions of this gathering, so that its participants will continue to carry out their true mission. In this way Jewish women and girls will hasten the arrival of the ultimate Redemption — the marriage of the entire Congregation of Israel with the Holy One, blessed be He.26 At that time we will see the perfect revelation of G‑d’s dwelling place in the world, and the distinctive worth of women will be revealed. Indeed, at long last,27 “Let there speedily be heard in the cities of Judah and in the courtyards of Jerusalem, the sound of joy and the sound of happiness, the sound of a groom and the sound of a bride” — in our time, and with gladness of heart.