The Divine is in the Details

Parashat Pekudei (Exodus 38:21 – 40:38) 

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday evening at our synagogue, we were treated to a dialogical discussion about specific biblical texts and commentaries – eight were offered and four were actually discussed – between Rabbi Mark Fishman from Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Montreal, an orthodox rabbi, and Rabbi Yael Splansky, our Reform rabbi. They have been having these dialogues once a month in the Canadian Jewish News and Yoni Goldstein, the editor of the paper, chaired yesterday evening’s session. Fishman is a very personable rabbi and feels quite relaxed addressing any Jewish audience. He does not seem to have any trouble or qualms about addressing a Reform congregation. He even went further in an angular response to a congregant who wanted the differences between Orthodox and Reform brought into sharp focus and discussion. As Fishman responded, he was interpreting text as a rabbi, not as a representative of orthodoxy. He presumed that and respected Rabbi Splansky for doing precisely the same thing. I hope I can offer due respect for what they said since I did not take notes and have had to rely on my memory.

One of the texts discussed last night was Genesis 43:29-33 and, more specifically, verse 32 that reads, “They served him separately and the Egyptian who usually ate with him separately.” The verse occurs in the context of the return of his brothers to Egypt for the second time, this time with Benjamin in tow as commanded. The brothers still do not recognize Joseph, the top government official in Egypt.

26 When Joseph came home, they presented to him the gifts they had brought into the house, and they bowed down before him to the ground.27 He asked them how they were, and then he said, “How is your aged father you told me about? Is he still living?”

28 They replied, “Your servant our father is still alive and well.” And they bowed down, prostrating themselves before him.

29 As he looked about and saw his brother Benjamin, his own mother’s son, he asked, “Is this your youngest brother, the one you told me about?” And he said, “God be gracious to you, my son.” 30 Deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep. He went into his private room and wept there.

31 After he had washed his face, he came out and, controlling himself, said, “Serve the food.”

32 They served him by himself, the brothers by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because Egyptians could not eat with Hebrews, for that is detestable to Egyptians. 33 The men had been seated before him in the order of their ages, from the firstborn to the youngest; and they looked at each other in astonishment. 34 When portions were served to them from Joseph’s table, Benjamin’s portion was five times as much as anyone else’s. So they feasted and drank freely with him.

What did it mean that Joseph ate alone? Rabbi Splansky suggested that it meant that, although Joseph had reached the heights of success in the Diaspora, without being amongst his own people as well, he was utterly alone. Without explicitly referring to E.M. Forster’s Passage to India, she cited a dominant expression from that text – “only connect.”

Rabbi Fishman, if I remember correctly, focused more on the fact that the passage described how Joseph, who usually ate together with the Egyptians, then chose to eat alone. And we are told that, for the Egyptians, eating with the Hebrews was an abomination. The implication was that he was caught betwixt and between, for he could not eat with his brothers or the Egyptians would have been appalled. But if he ate with them, he would have effectively joined the group that Egyptians found it vile to eat with, the Hebrews, and then what would happen to the esteem in which they held him? In that sense, loneliness, just when you are supposed to break bread together, was his only option. One interpretation focused on Joseph’s emotional state while the other focused on the politics of the situation.

I myself had a third interpretation, more in line with Fishman’s, but with a twist. Joseph chose to eat alone because he wanted to send a clue to his brothers that he was not an Egyptian. It was not simply that he was being forced between two unacceptable choices and choosing a third as the least bad of the three options. The choice he made was a positive one consistent with his playing with his brothers prior to revealing himself, as he clearly longed to do as indicated when he went off alone to weep profusely at the sight of his younger brother, Benjamin. The issue was not primarily about incompatible political and moral choices nor about an existential crisis of loneliness, but about playful politics.

Now none of these three positions are incompatible with one another. Unlike the possibilities of Joseph eating with his brothers, eating with the Egyptians or eating alone, which are mutually exclusive choices, the above three interpretations are all possibly true at one and the same time, but the emphasis shifts from existential angst, to moral politics to manipulative politics.

A second passage for discussion was offered by Rabbi Fishman, the famous passage in which Adam and Eve had just eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and God goes looking for Adam who has gone into hiding. When God come across him, Adam explains that he hid because he was naked and afraid. The passage given to us followed: “And He [God] said, ‘Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?’ And the man said: ‘The woman whom Thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree and I did eat.’”

In Fishman’s interpretation, God was testing Adam and Adam failed the test. Instead of accepting responsibility for what he had done, he blamed what he had done on Eve and, indirectly on God Himself for it was God’s idea to give Eve to him as a helpmeet. I tried to remember whether Rabbi Splansky had a different take on this, but I could not recall. I do recall one person in the audience raising the question of the counterfactual – what if Adam had passed the test and owned up to what he had done? Fishman offered an interesting answer. There were two possibilities. In one, Adam and Eve in the company of God could have returned to enjoy the pleasures of paradise. But he suggested that this was unlikely, because God wanted them to leave the garden.

I confess that I found the discussion disappointing. For this is one of the most iconic and important portions of Torah text and is about something even more fundamental than the message about accepting responsibility and not projecting blame onto another, though it is surely about that. What was the original command? Do not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil for if you do you will surely die. Note the following:

  • Neither Adam nor Eve dies, though they certainly now know they are mortal; just because he was made in the image of God, Adam has now come to recognize that he cannot be God whose essential character was that He was disembodied and could not die
  • The command was not a categorical moral commandment but a conditional one – If you do x, y will follow.
  • As Fishman said, the other tree was the Tree of Life; why was there a fear that Adam and Eve could have eaten of it and achieved immortality? Why did they not eat of that tree?
  • Eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil meant Adam and Eve had sex and sex introduced both to a radically different kind of knowledge than knowing and naming objects; it was about coming to know another person and, in the process, thereby coming to know oneself, seeing oneself in a mirror as it were and seeing oneself as embodied.

The issue was not that Adam felt ashamed because he had no clothes on, but that he now clearly and unequivocally saw himself as embodied and thereby knew that eating of the Tree of Life was a fantasy. In effect, psychologically and intellectually, he was no longer in the garden of innocence and now had to go on the voyage of discovery of learning what it meant to be an embodied creature, what it meant to make moral choices, what it meant to now really experience the knowledge of what was good and evil. If the first lesson of that voyage of discovery was accepting one’s embodied and non-divine form, the second lesson had to entail assuming responsibility for your actions and not displacing them onto another.

My dissatisfaction was not with the lesson Fishman took out of the passage, but how the form of the discussion had impoverished the potential metaphysical richness beyond it. The divine and the devil are both in the details.

Fishman had offered another passage, Genesis 37:21. “And Reuben heard it, and delivered him out of their hand; and said: ‘Let us not take his [Joseph’s] life.’” According to Fishman, this is the only time that the Torah tells a clear lie. For the brothers had thrown Joseph into a pit to be left to die. Travelers came by, heard his cries, rescued him and took him off to Egypt. Reuben, having felt guilty, went back to save Joseph’s life and sell him into slavery. But Joseph was no longer in the pit. So he retroactively made up a story and rewrote history in terms of his intentions and not in terms of what actually took place.

What unites all three passages is that they are each about accepting responsibility – the first being about Joseph accepting responsibility, not only for the well-being of his brothers, but for himself as a Hebrew with responsibilities for and to his people.

Before I turn to this week’s parsha. I want to discuss the fourth passage of commentary discussed last evening from Genesis Rabbah about a man traveling from place to place who saw a palace aglow/in flames (birah doleket). Did the passage mean that the travelers were appalled that the palace was on fire and the world that is God’s glory was on the verge of extinction, or is it a vision of fireworks, of a celebration of the palace that is God’s world in all its glory? These are two very opposed meanings, but again, they are both possible.

Perhaps trivializing the passage too much, it is seeing the glass half full  –  the fireworks from the palace of God celebrating the glories of this world – or, on the other hand, the glass half empty as we contemplate radical climate change because of human hands and the potential destruction of the world as we know it.

What has all this to do with this week’s parsha? First of all, it is about my own dissatisfaction with the discussion that skipped from one item to another without probing anyone of them in much greater depth. That is probably just my problem. But it is definitely related to this week’s text which is about details and depth.

We all know the expression that the devil is in the details. It has a mirror expression. In Gustave Flaubert’s words, “Le bon Dieu est dans le detail.” (The good God is in the detail.) Is it God or the devil in the detail – or is it details? Surely, it cannot be both. But why not? Don’t the two versions express the same thing, just as the term “detail” can both be a singular and a plural? The divine is in the detail because attention to particulars is critical to the success of any project. If one is to do something right, it has to be done thoroughly with meticulous attention to every detail. For if not, the devil is in the details. Miss out on one crucial item and, instead of the construction of a building of exquisite beauty and engineering, we get a balagan.

Do the divine and the devil both being in the detail point out two sides of the same homily? – if you want something exquisite, pay attention to the detail. If you do not, one detail left out can cause devilish destruction. Aspiration and caution are two sides of the same message. Attending to every small item is critical in accomplishing an important task. Of course, the same expression is cited when offered as an excuse for a delay. ‘It took longer than I thought because I had to pay so much attention to each step of the way.’

But the uses of the expression and the expression itself may be varied, but the meaning is constant. Attention to detail matters. So in this week’s portion we now have the accountant’s summary to add to the architectural and design detail of the mikshan. For accountability means not only taking responsibility for one’s action, but entails transparency and auditing of what took place. The world needs accountants as well as architects, engineers, and set designers. Further, after the architects, after the accountants, then the political leaders have to follow the exact details of their divine instructions. Only then, the Book of Exodus ends with the following:

When Moses had finished the work, 34 the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. 35 Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. 36 When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys; 37 but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. 38 For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.

We return to the depiction of the divine as a cloud where the divine presence so fills the mishkan that there is no room for Moses. But when the cloud lifted, once again the Israelites could continue their journey, a journey that must have continued at night led by a torch for “a cloud of the Lord rested (on the mishkan) by day.” If there is anything where it is virtually impossible to grasp details, it is in a cloud or in fire. So we are faced with a paradox – a section of the Torah that has been all about details of architectural detail and the refined design of the artefacts, about construction details and detailed rules about usage, we are back to an old theme, God as a cloud by day and a fire by night, of resting by day and moving by night.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described the details of Jewish ritual, particularly on shabat when we are commanded to rest, to be near the Tabernacle – not in it – when it is filled with the cloud of divine presence. Each of us, as Heschel said, is called to accept responsibility for being the architect of sacred time while the divine fills up sacred space. So when the detailed work was done, when the accounting was all completed, when the instructions on use were followed in all their detail, God as a cloud gets to occupy the space and there is not even room for Moses, the leader of the people. How can that be? How is it that the community is brought together as one nation, not in a space shared with God, with God’s presence being felt and experienced, but when the divine cloud takes up all of sacred space and the Israelites are left to cope with sacred time?

Often we are told that Judaism encourages communal more than individual worship, such as when we recite the kaddish. But I would attend to the other aspect of this depiction of the divine in the midst of His people, a depiction of the people outside the Tabernacle when it is filled with the cloud of the divine presence – the message of exclusion rather than inclusion, the vision of Joseph sitting and eating by himself while his brothers eat at another table, and his Egyptian friends and companions eat at a third.

God in the Torah is a God of frozen ice and fiery lightning that reigns down on the Egyptians. (Exodus 9:23-24). When the Israelites had escaped from Egypt, they were accompanied by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. (Exodus 13:21-22) Once the mishkan is constructed, the pillar of cloud no longer leads the Israelites, but fills the Tabernacle so that the Israelites cannot move forward. In my interpretation, they must probe through the haze and confusion and figure out their next step and who they want to become. They must decide who should be the next president of the United States. That, only they can do, not God.

Of the items included in the mishkan, including rare gems and fine linens, the most important may be the mirrors of copper, at once artefacts of vanity and narcissism of self-obsession, of self-confidence and self-consciousness – among birds, only magpies can recognize themselves in a mirror. As Rabbi Fishman told us last night, when we read the Torah, we are holding a mirror up to our own souls. For the Torah is not just a text about history but a sacred text about who we are now and where we should be going, about our taking responsibility for oneself, but doing so in communion with others, about seeking and following a pillar of fire. As palace of sparkling fireworks with the glorious future beckoning and a palace on fire in which we face an apocalypse, about reconciling our best of intentions with our actual behaviour as we go forth from our land in search of a better world.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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