The Second Pillar of Creation
Rabbi Dr. Michael Bernstein


Creation rests on a tripod. The entire world, according to our Sages (Avos 1:2), is supported by three pillars¾Torah, avodah and acts of kindness¾and should one of them be removed, the entire edifice would collapse. Avodah, the second pillar of creation, refers to the divine service performed by the Kohanim, the priestly caste, in the Mishkan and, afterwards, in the Temple; this is the overarching theme of the Book of Leviticus. Tragically, the divine service has been interrupted for some two thousand years, ever since the destruction of the Second Temple. In the absence of the second pillar, how is creation supported?

There is a substitute. The prophet declares (Hosea 14:3), “Uneshalmah farim sefaseinu. We will supply bullocks with our lips.” In other words, prayer can take the place of the interrupted divine service. Moreover, the Talmud (Berachos 26b) correlates the three daily prayers to the three primary offerings of the Temple service.

How does prayer serve as a surrogate divine service? After all, prayer is essentially a personal act of reflection, introspection and self-criticism. It is the silent, inwardly directed “duty of the heart,” whereas the divine service is an elaborate and demonstrative set of physical acts performed as homage to God. How do we bridge the chasm between prayer and divine service? Why is prayer, more than any other commandment, the surrogate for the divine service?

There is a duality in all the commandments. They are personal acts that draw us closer to God as individuals. They also serve collectively as an expression of the servitude of the Jewish nation to God. As expressed in the Torah, God’s goal is to create a realm on Earth where His presence is manifest and thereby extend His divinely willed good to all mankind. This second sacred duty endows the performance or nonperformance of every mitzvah with the potential of a sanctification or desecration of His Name.

Most of the mitzvos address the idea of personal perfection either indirectly or by addressing a specific character trait. For instance, a person who performs a mitzvah commemorating a certain important historical event is creating and solidifying a personal bond with God, which elevates and perfects him; it is the resulting relationship more than the act itself that elevates his existence. Two mitzvos, however, are pure acts of human perfection¾prayer and Torah study.

Of these two, prayer more directly addresses personal improvement through human emotion; it is the supreme deliberate attempt to bring the human personality ever closer to its perfect form. It follows that for the Jewish people collectively prayer is the most effective way to express our servitude and heighten the awareness of God’s presence among men. In this sense, prayer takes the place of the divine service; we perfect ourselves as members of a nation whose collective duty is to reveal God’s presence, and this endeavor to achieve self-perfection (shleimus) is in itself our service of God.

In this light, we gain new insight into the Shema. The Talmud states (Berachos 63b) that if a person deliberately neglects to say the obligatory Shema even once, it is as if he has never said it. Why so harsh a judgment?

The Shema is a declaration of faith and acceptance of the obligation to serve God (kabalas ohl malchus shamayim). It cumulatively transforms a person and brings him ever closer to God. Each day, as he draws closer, the possibility of a deliberate omission becomes ever more remote. Therefore, if a person deliberately neglects the Shema, it proves he has never really said it properly, that it was never more than lip service.

During the Amidah of the festivals, we say, “You chose us from among all the people, You loved us and favored us. You lifted us above all the polyglot nations and sanctified us with Your commandments. You drew us close, our King, to Your service, and proclaimed Your great and holy Name over us.”

Only on the festivals do we speak about being “lifted above all the polyglot nations,” making reference both in the Amidah and in the Kiddush to the superiority of Hebrew over the myriad languages of the world. There is no such mention in the Sabbath liturgy. What is the connection between the Hebrew language and the festivals?

Both the Sabbath and the festivals are sanctified, but they differ. The sanctity of the Sabbath is inherent, and it is our obligation to acknowledge it. We do not create its sanctity. We are, however, involved in creating the sanctity of the festivals. We do it indirectly by declaring the new months and establishing the calendar dates; we bless God “who sanctifies Israel and the times,” which the Sages interpret as “who sanctifies Israel who in turn sanctify the times.” We also do it directly by the special festival offerings in the Temple.

After the destruction of the Temple, we no longer have the ability to bring the festival offerings, but we do have a substitute. Through our prayers, it is considered as if we brought the appropriate sacrifices, and in this way, we continue to participate in the sanctification of the festivals. Therefore, the Hebrew language, perfectly constructed and nuanced for holiness, plays a major role in the festival observance and earns special mention in their liturgical prayers.

Symmetry and elegance pervade God’s creation. We find one example of this harmony in the three pillars of the world. Nefesh Hachaim, among many works, identifies the lower three elements of the human soul as nefesh, ruach and neshamah. They correlate respectively with man’s physical self and actions, his emotional states and his intellectual activity.

Man’s task is to improve these aspects of the soul. Fittingly, the Torah obliges us to place tefillin on our arms, near our hearts and near our brains, the three parts of the body associated with the three levels of the soul.

As we consider the three pillars identified by our Sages, we may discern the quintessential ideals of these three levels-kindness, service and prayer, Torah study. As man struggles and prevails in these areas, he ennobles these aspects of his soul and thereby strengthens the pillars of creation.