Ve’asu li mikdash, veshachanti betocham.  And they shall make Me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell among them.

I have recently begun studying Tanya, a foundational text of Lubavich Chassidut, with Rabbi Levi Wilansky. The third section of the Tanya focuses on teshuvah, reframing it from “repentance” to a renewal of one’s commitment to and relationship with the Borei Olam, the Creator of the world.

The Alter Rebbe opens with a discussion of the differences between how a Jew may make amends for violating a mitzvat ‘aseh, a commandment to do something, versus a lav, or a lo ta’aseh; a commandment not to do something. He brings an allegory of a room being prepared to house a king. First, the room must be cleaned, and emptied of anything not befitting a king. This is analogous to the lav; a Jew refrains from certain actions in order to make space for the Divine. Once the room is cleaned and cleared, it is filled again with the proper furnishings and artwork so as to make the room a pleasant place for the king to reside. This is analogous to the mitzvot ‘aseh.

This way of understanding mitzvot makes for a fascinating reframing of the process of building the mishkan, the portable Temple used by our ancestors before the more permanent Temple was built in Jerusalem. While the donation of materials and the labor and artistry involved in building the mishkan are positive actions, and they were commanded to that generation, their halachic relevance to today’s Jews is their being templates for the thirty-nine categories of actions which are considered melachah, labor, forbidden on Shabbat.

The individual melachot Shabbat, the “labors” forbidden on Shabbat, are all manifestations of a lav, the commandment not to work on Shabbat. When religious Jews refrain from melachah, they make space for something. They clean and clear the day to make space for the Divine. But what are the furnishings and the artwork that make that accentuate the day’s holiness, and create beauty and pleasure? Tefilah, prayer, if it is done with intent and with feeling, can charge the day with a sense of spiritual elevation. Tables set with delicacies, eaten while singing nigunnim or zmirot (Shabbat songs), and a few words of Torah, raise the spiritual atmosphere of the room.

It is one thing to refrain from what is forbidden. There is fulfillment of mitzvah in doing so. But something active must be done in order to make the mitzvah fulfilling.

Shabbat Shalom!

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