Rituals of Preservation and Elimination

Rituals of Preservation and Elimination: Vayikra Leviticus 1:1-5:26

by

Howard Adelman

There is almost an overwhelming consensus that the Book of Leviticus is the volume most remote from modern sensibilities. After all, it is about sacrifices, priestly garments and rites, ancient medical practices dealing with conditions such as leprosy, all apparently alien experiences. Leviticus seems so “primitive.” The volume focuses on all the distinctions among the tribes rather than the unity of Judaism. Some have dubbed it a spiritual challenge while others have been more forthright and called the Book of Leviticus a spiritual wasteland.

For Reform Jews, this section of the Torah is particularly formidable since Reform Judaism from the start repudiated a dynastic priesthood and the practice of sacrifice. Of special relevance is Reform Judaism’s explicit rejection of attempting to rebuild and restore the Temple. Calling Holy Blossom a temple instead of a synagogue was an overt and blatant exemplification of that rejection.

Rejection went along with substitution – the people, all the people, were priestly. Their mission was not to rebuild the Temple, but to be a light unto the world as they spread through the diaspora. Whether this meant upholding monotheism and the God of the Hebrews as the one true God or simply standing up for lofty ethical values of justice and peace were still matters that needed resolution, though the Reform movement has developed in the latter much more than the former direction. Sanctification was moral, not cultic. Sincerity of devotion replaced ritualistic practices as the highest ideal.

What do we do with one of the five books that is almost completely devoted to cultic practices? Do were merely focus on a few sections of the text that deal with mitzvot and the covenantal relationship to God requiring following God’s ethical and spiritual commandments? Does the purported spiritual bliss that should follow have nothing to do with the cultic practices? What do rituals, especially ones that seem both foreign and alien, have to do with spiritual enrichment? If alien, how can the passages in Vayikra be used to guide life and increase holiness in the world?

What happened to the sense of “purity”? What happened to the stress on a specific diet? What happened to the emphasis, not simply on being well-dressed, but on dressing in a special costume? Is Leviticus to be relegated to the dustbin of history, a relic of the past no longer relevant to our contemporary life? Is Leviticus a dated fossil of a species or religion that has become extinct? Alternatively, are the passages to be treated as metaphors upon which can be erected transformed practices with very different ideals wherein a burnt sacrifice becomes merely a literary tool to explore a deeper form of spiritual being?

I want to suggest that the dismissal of Leviticus may have been a mistake and that Leviticus has more to teach us that we need to recognize. This is because the prophetic voice is not the only source of authenticity. We need judges and lawyers, administrators and accountants, doctors and dentists as well as all the tradesmen, skilled artisans, labourers and suppliers of materials who helped build the mishkan in the last chapters of Exodus. We need practitioners of rituals and not just shit-disturbers who challenge those in power. I write as someone who has always revered the prophetic voice. However, we need people to do what is right and not just preachers calling for righteousness. Leviticus is a text for the practices of a spiritual community rather than about its goals, though the latter are not entirely neglected.

The mishkan was described in great detail in Exodus. It was where the holy tablets were kept, where God, when in residence as a cloud, filled the place. A tent of meeting preceded the construction of the mishkan. It was a portable place where Moses met with God. A tent of meeting is not a place for a political rally or a town hall, but a place where humans encounter God in his dwelling place. Vayikrah does not open with God occupying the holy of holies within the mishkan. Vayikrah does not open with God speaking through the priesthood. Vayikrah begins with God calling Moses, not Aaron, out of the tent of meeting. (I:1) God offers detailed instructions about the purity of the animals to be sacrificed by the people. If a burnt offering, it had to be brought before the tent of meeting as a request for atonement, as a request for expiation. Leviticus is primarily about the politics and administration of the Jewish religion to remove a blood-stain from the body politic, to clean the air of pollution.

In Christianity, Jesus personally replaced the sacrifice of animals. The blood of Jesus was offered as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of humans. Jesus body was the “more perfect tent of meeting,” for it was through the body of Christ that humans could meet with God. Jesus as the Lamb of God would forgive sins, not just specific ones, but all sins. And do so for eternal redemption. Thus, Christianity preserved, transformed and raised to a higher level the bones and blood of the Leviticus story.

Hebrews 9:11 literally depicts Jesus as personally the replacement for the high priest, himself the more perfect and greater tent offering, his own body as a sacrifice so that the God of wrath would be transformed completely into the God of love forever. Instead of a pure animal without physical blemish being sacrificed on the altar, the pure blood of Christ without a spiritual blemish would be sacrificed on a cross, not so humans could atone for specific sins, but as an atonement for all sin. Through ingesting the body of Christ into one’s own body, through surrendering oneself totally to the spirit of Christ, the Lamb of God would cleanse everyone of their sins, provided, of course, that one accepted Jesus as one’s saviour and redeemer.

However, Judaism is not about personal redemption as the ultimate goal. Individuals do have to atone for their personal sins through a guilt-offering and atonement through compensation. And the form of atonement depends on their station in the religious hierarchy – high priest, tribal chief or an ordinary individual. However, atonement is also needed to preserve the community; atonement for sins of the whole community is a distinct act itself. Judaism is about the eternal nation, עַם הַנֶּצַח (ahm hah-NEH-tsahkh). Eternal is not about that which remains unchanged forever, that which is above and beyond change.

Judaism is about a nation that will not and cannot be allowed to die and must change in order to live. The Jewish nation is timeless, is immortal, is everlasting – not in the sense of having a transcendent existence, but as being an everlasting and perpetual cause. Israel, Judaism, is the eternal nation, the body politic that must be preserved in perpetuity. Israel is about creating נִצְחִי (neets-KHEE) that nation. The study of Torah is the means to reconcile the God of history with the current historical moment. The ritual of Torah has to do with discriminating between that which must be expiated and eliminated or wiped and hidden away, on the one hand, and that which must be preserved, raised up and put on high on the other hand.

God is referred to as עוֹלָם (olam), as existing always and forever, permanently and perpetually. God is everlasting and lives continually for and in all time. God is not transcendent, living beyond time. God is a creative spirit who lives in time, in history, and even occupies space, though God is not embodied. The Jewish people as a collectivity have the responsibility for embodying the spirit of God.

Adam and Eve could not eat of the Tree of Life, could not live for eternity, lest they live forever וְאָכַ֖ל וָחַ֥י לְעֹלָֽם. (Genesis 3:22). Contrary to Christianity, God and man would not be together in spirit forever, וּחִ֤י בָֽאָדָם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ם בְּשַׁגַּ֖ם ה֣וּא (Genesis 6:3) God has a reputation, has renown, that lasts forever. And the goal of the Jewish people was to become a mighty nation with a reputation and renown that would live forever. רוּחִ֤י בָֽאָדָם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ם בְּשַׁגַּ֖ם ה֣וּא (Genesis 6:4) The message is not about one’s soul living forever outside of time and space in some transcendent heaven, but about humans living in this world as embodied creatures trying to earn renown for the people as a whole. Any nation can be a holy nation. Israel must be a holy nation.

That is why the Torah is a tale that runs from generation to generation (Genesis 9:12) so that we may pass on such ideals from parents to children and convey the mission of themselves as individuals to serve one’s people and thereby to serve God. Eternity is about succession and not about transcendence. That is why Jews are bound by an everlasting covenant and why Canaan for committed Jews must be an everlasting possession.

That does not mean that other people cannot live in Canaan. That does not mean that Canaan cannot be a national home for another people. In fact, if Canaan is to be an everlasting home for Jews, it must become a home not only for the Jewish nation, but can be a home for the Palestinian nation. Not their exclusive home. And not the exclusive home of Jews. But a home where Jews can dedicate themselves to a body politic that will glorify God’s name forever.  (Genesis 48:4) Jews must not only be embodied, but their national being must also have a body. But a body dedicated to the service of God’s name, for God is forever. God’s name is forever. God’s name is לְעֹלָ֔ם. (Exodus 3:15)

Jews are commanded to celebrate God’s name as a permanent ordinance, as a permanent covenant between God and his chosen people. Not His superior people, but a people chosen to carry the burden of the covenant. It is that which must be remembered. It is that which must be celebrated. And Leviticus is about that celebration. That celebration involves statutes that are passed on from generation to generation. That celebration is about a nation that lives under the rule of law and for the sake of justice. And that is why the nation requires the equivalent of a priesthood as a group dedicated to the perpetuity of the covenant, of the statute, of the law (כְּהֻנָּ֖ה לְחֻקַּ֣ת עוֹלָ֑ם וּמִלֵּאתָ֥ יַֽד־ Exodus 29:28) in addition to the responsibility of individuals to perform mitzvot.

Leviticus is about putting that obligation into practice. It is about administrative justice. Why start off with a sacrifice on the altar in front of the tent of meeting? Why only a male animal for a blood sacrifice, and one without blemish?  Because sacrifice must be about our works – about the best of our flocks and the best of our agriculture. It is not about the sacrifice of humans, any human, and not about the sacrifice of Jesus. The sacrifice of a male animal without blemish means that the best of what we can make or do must be in service of perpetuating God’s name.

Why a male? Why not an ewe? After all, female goats without blemish can be sacrificed for a guilt offering, for a sin committed by an individual against another. (Leviticus 4:27) However, males in general need to be reminded that though they, like women, are created in the image of God and must serve God in the activity of creation, they are embodied. Adam was a geek who thought he was there simply to be a scientist, to offer at its most basic a taxonomy for the world. He had to learn that he was an embodied creature with sex drives and an obligation to reproduce and raise children and to raise them to serve God. That is why one sacrifices a male animal’s body without blemish as a burnt offering to atone for being oblivious of what a male’s obligation is and remains. Eve knew it in her body. Adam did not. Lest we forget, sacrifice of a male animal without blemish is intended to atone for forgetting.

However, preservation, putting away and raising up are not the only functions. Sins must also be expiated, eliminated or removed. They must be wiped away (Akkadian kuppuru) and covered (Arabic kafara) rather than raised up. In Macbeth, as much as the Lady cries out, “Out, out damn spot,” the blood stain remains unless there is expiation.

Man in the form of Jesus is not a substitute for an animal sacrifice. Rather, an animal sacrifice is a substitute for human sacrifice which reminds man what he must give his life for – an embodied existence, a life that commemorates the renown of God and raises up the nation of Israel as a memorial to God. We give of our blood and sweat to make a better world and do not rely on the blood of a God-man to escape this world for eternal salvation. For what must be saved is the here and now, the moment that must serve all time. There is NO eternal redemption, only the task of continual, of perpetual redemption.

There is eternal damnation, not by being sent to purgatory, but by being put to “death,” destroyed spiritually as a Jew, by being cut off from one’s people. Execution means exile from the community, most generally, self-inflicted.  Why is idolatry the greatest sin? Because idolatry is the worship of a material artifact as divine rather than the human collectivity in a divine relationship. What is a sin offering (hattat)? In Yitz Greenberg’s words, it is “a purification rite brought for sins committed by people which generated impurity in society.” (my italics) Moral impiety becomes a sin and not just a state of guilt because society is polluted. The public is therefore ultimately responsible for moral pollution. Humanity, handed the gift of freedom by God, has the responsibility of tilting the balance of creative versus destructive forces in favour of creativity.

As individualism was stressed more and more, Jews became even more removed from cultic practices precisely at a time when rituals were more important than ever for preserving the cohesion of the community. Reform Jews have emphasized and extolled non-cultic piety at the expense of ritual piety, stressing the importance of the individual Jew rather than the preservation of the community. Reform rabbis argued that this was the way Jews survived the destruction of the Temple. However, one could argue that the reverse was true, that the preservation, transformation and raising up of cultic piety and the practices of expiation as removal, as wiping away rather than covering up sin, preserved the people; the over-emphasis on the individual simply leads to the creation of ethical humanistic Judaism and the gradual erosion of Jews as a people. This argument suggests that performing other-oriented mitzvot is insufficient for preserving cohesion among the people.

Like Christianity, Judaism must preserve, transform and raise to a higher level the bones and blood of the Leviticus story, but in a very opposite way to the Christian path, through service to God via service to God’s people, to God’s nation, to making that nation an exemplification of the preservation of the covenant. We have not discarded the Kohanim on the dustbin of history. These patrilineal descendants of the Aaronite priesthood are given special privileges and duties in the rituals of worship in a synagogue. Reform in rejecting the priesthood took away those privileges. They should be restored for that is how memory is preserved from generation to generation, by preserving, by raising up and putting a traditional political practice onto a bima of ritual. That is a function of ritual – to preserve, to transform and to raise up on a more formal plane what was once a core embodiment of the nation’s spiritual richness and to remove and wipe away the blood stains of its historical sins.

Should a blood inheritance be the instrument of such preservation? Or should the inheritance of the spirit of special dedication allow anyone to become spiritually a Koan? Or can we do both? Should each synagogue collectively recognize a dedicated group who are assigned the responsibility of maintaining the schedule of synagogue service on a rotating basis? We already do so without designating the group as priests. Volunteers come forth and serve that function. They should be esteemed and given recognition in what they wear and in the deeds they perform in the service.

We could consider resurrecting the Davidic practice of giving over to six families the responsibilities for two of the fifty-two weeks of the services, with one family performing those roles for each day of the week that their collectivity carries that responsibility. That means 26 x 6 = 136 families assuming very systemic and recognized roles in the life of synagogue worship.

The ritualistic practices of old can be preserved, can be transformed and, in being transformed, raised up so that the Jewish people can perpetuate itself as a people in a covenantal relationship to God.  At the same time, this restoration also requires elimination, rituals of wiping out and covering up sins by unveiling them, by eviscerating the body politic and exposing the blood stains that pollute and make impure our political life.

The Choshes – Breastplates

The Choshen: Breastplates – Terumah תרומה

Exodus 25:1-27:19

by

Howard Adelman

This portion largely focuses on the detailed architecture for the Tabernacle (Mishkan), including the chattels: the Ark, the Table and accessories (not for the tablets, but for the lechem hapanim – showbread – arranged on it in two tiers of six loaves each), the Menorah, the roof coverings, the walls, the two chambers and an outer courtyard. The Mishkan is the place to which the Israelites will bring gifts (Terumah) for God. Terumah is also translated as “uplifting.” The gifts are to be freewill offerings, not dues. The gifts may be of any kind that the heart of an Israeli moved him or her to bring and which, in turn, are intended to raise the spirit of the giver.

The initial listing of materials required includes shosham stones and gemstones for setting in the ephod (אֵפוֹד) and in the breastplate. The ephod, made of linen with gold, blue, purple and red threads, is the priestly garment which has rings sewn into it by which straps attached by golden chains to the breastplate can be tied. The Urim and Thummim, precious stones were inserted into the breastplate. Sometimes the ephod was carried and not worn (I Samuel 2:28) and scholars suggest either it was used as a packet to carry the jewels or as a talisman.

My question is why would a priest wear a breastplate? Why do we adorn our scrolls in our synagogues with breastplates? Are breastplates nt defensive armour used in warfare? Further, what does a gift or freewill offering have to do with a breastplate?

If you watched the Netflix series, Marco Polo, the Empress of Kublai Khan’s Mongol empire is seen before the critical battle to defeat the Chinese Sung empire sewing leather as a lining for the breastplate to better protect the soldiers against the Chinese arrows, especially since the leather extended upwards to protect the neck. Further, the Mongol warriors wore protective silk garments underneath as well. Covered in layers of lacquer, these breastplates were much lighter than the metal ones worn by the Mongol’s enemies and allowed the Mongols to move deftly and with skill to overpower their foes as well as reduce the weight on their horses so they could ride much faster and for longer distances.

What is a military protective breastplate doing in a sanctuary? And why is that breastplate bedecked with jewels?

Armour to protect the chest is almost a constant all over the world. Currently police and tactical units wear kevlar sleeveless jackets or vests. You can buy a Coolmax bullet proof vest currently for only $US210. Body armour is no longer the exclusive property of the upper guardian class to reduce damage caused by impact or limit the penetration of a bullet, spear or arrow. Because of UEDs, kevlar vests now extend to cover the torso. Kublai Khan wore a breastplate. Alexander the Great did so as well.

Soldiers in armies, ancient and modern, all over the world have worn breastplates. Sarmatians advancing westward out of Eastern Iran from the time Athens was becoming a centre of civilization until the 4th century when they joined the German Goths and Vandals advancing from the north to harass the Roman Empire, wore breast plates. When soldiers in armies did not wear breastplates, such as the Khmer soldiers from the Cambodian empire centred at Angkor, they were slaughtered by the Mongols in spite of the protection of their jungles. The absence of personal armour, as well as theory and discipline to fight strategically, doomed the military might of the Angkor Empire.

In contrast, William the Conqueror, the only military leader who ever conquered the British Isles, wore chainmail as a breastplate. But it has been shown that the Mongol glaive, a polearm with a blade at the end, could plunge through chainmail armour cutting not only through the armour and the sternum, but piercing right through to the spine and smashing it as well. However, the Danish axe, if it could get behind the glaive, could cut it off, making it useless. The Norse depended on their aggressive weapons more than on their defensive armour, and even more on the composite crossbow than the axe, for it was the crossbow that killed Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings, though this most deadly weapon was useless if it struck a breastplate.

However, the Mongol recurve bow with its faster reload time and greater penetrating power was superior. But this essay is initially about defensive armour and the significance of the breastplate. In the Philippines (The Philippine islands, 1493-1803), volume 36 describes the portrait of a monarch “on the ball at the center of the cupola, a proud and spirited figure of Monarchy – armed gracefully but heavily with breastplate…” The reality was otherwise, for the islands were marked by war and insurrection, volcanoes spewing forth ashes and famine, economic collapse and the terrible earthquake of 1644. The archipelago was not the landscape of William Wordsworth’s ode to daffodils in the British Lake District, where, walking with his sister, he saw “a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”

In times of violent conflict, as in the Philippines, breast plates also become religious garments, especially in Catholicism, to protect the breast from the penetrating swords of evil and the arrows of a life that is nasty, brutish and short. “We put on Your righteousness, O Christ, as our breastplate. And the hope of salvation, As a helmet for our head. Father we take up faith, As a shield which is able to put out, All the fiery darts of the enemy.”

We are approaching St. Patrick’s Day, 17 March, celebrating the patron saint of Ireland. St. Patrick’s most famous prayer is one in celebration of a breastplate. For the breastplate was the protector against seduction and evil enemies who would lure one astray.

Against the snares of demons,
Against the seductions of vices,
Against the lusts of nature,
Against everyone who meditates injury to me,
Whether far or near,
Whether few or with many.

I invoke today all these virtues
Against every hostile merciless power
Which may assail my body and my soul,
Against the incantations of false prophets,
Against the black laws of heathenism,
Against the false laws of heresy,
Against the deceits of idolatry,
Against the spells of women, and smiths, and druids,
Against every knowledge that binds the soul of man.

Christ, protect me today
Against every poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against death-wound,
That I may receive abundant reward.

In Judaism, the problem is not so much temptations and the snares of demons and that which would undermine your virtues. For Judaism is more a religion of laws than virtues and vices. By this week’s portion, the Israelites had just gone through the battles with the Egyptians. The Egyptians had worn breastplates only to be defeated by a superior defensive strategy of a much weaker foe. Brains had bested brawn and the best armoured troops of the ancient world at the time had been defeated. Those breastplates were, for the military leaders, adorned with jewels, either as a bejeweled brooch atop the breastplate or implanted into the breastplate with thematic statements drawn from Egyptian mythology and culture and serving an iconographic function.

The Israelites won the battle against the Egyptians, not because of superiority in arms, but because, according to text with God’s guidance, superiority in strategy. They now had a decentralized system of administrative justice and a long set of laws and regulations. They had to send out the message that their essential body armor was intended to ward off assaults on its laws – hence the breastplate on the Torah in our day – and deficiencies in following those laws. The Israelites knew that the prime source of failure would come from within and, as they saw it, not by giving into desires, as was the case of the Christians who emerged later, but for failing to uphold the legal system.

Centrally located in the mishkan was the breastplate bedecked with jewels as a symbol of the centerpiece of a religion and a culture which would serve to ward off evil, a very different evil than St. Patrick described, but an evil nevertheless. In the Netflix series I discussed in an earlier blog on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the seventeenth century nun, writer and intellectual so repressed by the Catholic Church, the archbishop, as well as bishops, sisters superiors and other church officials, wore breastplates with pictures of their Lord, Jesus Christ, on them, to communicate a message that they had sworn allegiance to a higher power than the vice-regal governors who ruled over the colonies of the new world. In the power struggles with the authorities in the secular world and their own internally repressed passions, the breastplate was intended to ward of threats both from without and from within.

For the Israelites, the main domestic threats did not come from without or from within, but between, from relationships that descend from differences, disputes, conflicts and wars. The real protection against these threats were laws, so the breastplate became the talisman to signal that it was the Torah, the book of laws, that needed the most protection. For the heart of Judaism is not within but between, in relationships and in institutions that bind together a society in peaceful resolution of conflicts.

Israelites brought to the Mishkan, not just their levies for the upkeep of the Tabernacle, but freewill offerings intended as much if not more so for uplifting the spirit of the giver. Gifts that protect the institutions of law and justice are more important than any other. For Jews are not saved by giving over their life in bondage to their one Lord and God through his only so-called son Jesus, but in celebration of life and freedom from bondage in service to and protected by a set of law-based rules and institutions. These are more important than the politicians that run the state, for they are the a priori principles upon the foundation of which, any peaceful political system must rest.

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

 

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

Aaron, Moses and Donald Trump

Tetzaveh – Exodus 27:20 – 30:10  Aaron, Moses and Donald Trump 

by

Howard Adelman

Last week in the commentary on the mishkan, I suggested that the Israelites were given directions to build the portable sanctuary for two complementary reasons, so that God would no longer have to live alone on a mountain top but could dwell among his own people. The second reason was to permit God to be close at hand to observe whether the Israelites were transgressing, a suggestion which may bother those who believe God is omnipresent. Further, I also gave voice to a belief that the sanctuary was built with such richness as both a mode of wealth distribution as well as to build the assets of a central depository that could serve as the central bank for the nation, but it was built by voluntary donations, not by the payment of compulsory taxes

In this week’s portion, we move from the design of the portable building and its artifacts to the costume designer’s function for characters requiring and operating under an eternal light fed by the most expensive oil of all available to them, olive oil. The garments worn by the priests are designated as a robe and breaches made of the finest linen and traversed by a sash. Can you imagine? The Israelites were struggling to survive in the desert, yet they were obligated to find just the right dyes to colour a sash and the various vestments – blue and gold, purple and crimson. The High Priest was also to wear an efod that seems similar to the fez worn by Turks before the secular revolution in Turkey instigated by Ataturk. The clothing was intended to enhance dignity and use adornment to set the priests apart from the populace.

The costumes are intended to enhance and communicate the roles they play and the status they were to have. They are ceremonial, not functional. They are fixed and not varied and adapted for different occasions. The roles are to be as permanent in time as the eternal light. Then the portion prescribes how Aaron and his four sons, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, are to be inducted into their priestly roles and how incense was to be burned on the golden altar. All glitz and pomp, but, as I will try to show, not godawful! The alternative would turn out to be much worse.

Look at the description of the breastplate worn by the priests – trimmed in gold with four rows of precious stones, birthstones for each of the tribes – carnelian, chrysolite, turquoise, agate, topaz, onyx, jacinth, amethyst, beryl, lapis lazuli, emerald and jasper. And on the breastplate, the options in divination – Urim and Thumamin, Yes or No. Light or Night. The enlightened or the forces of darkness, despair and desperation. The irony is that these would be determinations and judgments on how to handle internal divisions and not just commandment of whether to go or not to go to war, whether God endorsed the war or not. Tetzaveh is about command and control but the stage was being set for a rebellion.

The most notable thing about this portion is not the presence of detailed designer’s directions, but the absence of Moses. He is not even mentioned. The name of Aaron, however, is mentioned 22 times. This requires some explanation. The sacred must be understood.

Sacred is associated with that which is worthy of worship and entitled to be venerated. Not just respected, but worshiped. Though often used interchangeably as synonyms, there is a great deal of difference between respect and veneration. Veneration and worship are actions. Respect is an attitude, like gratitude versus saying, “Thanks.” You have respect for…You do not say I have veneration for or I have worship for. The difference is significant. You respect someone for the qualities they exhibit. You venerate someone for the role they play. In respect, it is your attitude that is elevated. In veneration, it is the other who is elevated. Veneration elicits reverence which so easily slips into devotion and even idolatry. Respect acknowledges the dignity observed in the other. Parents and teachers deserve respect, but they only become recipients when they earn that recognition.

Respect entails holding another in esteem, but does not imply deference to that other. Disrespect entails a disregard for another’s authority, status or accomplishments. There is no such thing as disveneration or disworship. One pays one’s last respects to the dead; one does not (or, is not expected to) venerate or worship the dead. We are expected to respect parents and teachers, not venerate them. And the clue is that we venerate what we hold to be sacred, what is to be set aside and raised on high. And here is the heterodox suggestion. The sacred is that which is preserved and set aside as very special, but also raised high and out of reach. The sacred is something we put away, not something we want to or need to or should live with.

This is what is happening to Aaron and his sons. They are being given high honours and high formal roles and are being retired from their positions as military commanders married to religious convictions. It is appropriate preparation for the wars to come that will require professional military leadership. All Aaron and his sons can do is indicate whether God commands they go to war or not, whether God is on the side of the Israelites in a specific conflict. The execution of war will be left to the professionals.

Eventually, Jews would leave the role of priests and the need for temples far behind as rabbis were sent out to live among and with the people and teach them about the divine as He reveals Himself in the Torah. When God said he wanted to live in the midst of his people, He was confining and raising the status of the priests and honours bestowed upon them so that they could feel His presence. But if God Himself was simply confined to the mishkan, He would not really be living among the people.

God up high on the mountain top inspired awe and wonder. God living in the midst of his people risked becoming too familiar and accepted and even treated as an object of indifference, and worse, disdain. Aaron, on the other hand, as a military commander had power, and the best way to take away his power was to promote him to an honorific and ceremonial function. So as God was coming down to live amidst His people, the religious functions tied to military roles were being disaggregated. Aaron was being raised up as a mode of retiring him. What we want to retire, we preserve, put away and raise up so it can no longer threaten or impose itself upon us. We create a sacred realm and identify a sacred clan to preserve it.

So where is Moses? Why does he seem to have no part in what is going on? Moses was the one who convinced God to come down from on high. It was a gamble. To bring the sacred into the secular world was being balanced by creating a sacred world where military men who had the potential to initiate a coup could assume responsibilities for the polity, but only formal and ceremonial ones. They were not responsible either for the wellbeing of the nation or any longer for its security, except in the most general way in determining whether a war was to be sanctioned. Military power had to be neutralized by giving the generals honorific titles, costumes and roles.

So God had to come down from the mountain, not only because He was alone and needed human contact, not only so He could be the close-at-hand and observe the behavior of the members of the nation he had chosen and now was opting to live among, but to assign a ceremonial function to retired military commanders. The change would prove to be a big gamble that, as we shall see next week, almost went totally awry.

Sacred is opposed to the secular. It is also set opposite the profane. Moses was a stutterer like King George VI of Britain and was definitely not an orator. He was very flawed as an oral communicator, but the benefit, the great side effect, was that he introduced a reliance on written commands and prescriptions. The rule of law rather than the rule of power would be supreme. The threat that an Israelite like Aaron might copy the pattern of Egypt and impose the rule of force had been removed. But Moses by himself was not very inspiring. Not only could he not articulate his thoughts and instructions clearly and concisely, but he was fraught with other psychological and social disabilities.

Moses was a man full of inner rage, both at his sense of personal abandonment while not fully being accepted as a royal, though raised as a royal with a sense of entitlement. But this was married to a sense of injustice and resentment that exploded like a volcano when he saw how an ethnic cousin was being treated by a member of the Praetorian guard. His response was not so much of empathy, but an automatic response because of projection and identification. Moses, however, was a coward and ran away rather than either face the music or lead a rebellion.

Moses ran off and married a shiksa. After a dozen or so years, he abandoned her and their two children to return and lead his people in battle against their oppressors. He had to lead, not by example, but by magic, by wonders that inspired awe in his own people as well as in the hearts of his enemies. As a leader, Moses proved very dependent on others, especially on Aaron as his Commander-in-Chief, and on a foreigner who happened to be his father-in-law. What kind of leader delegated legal enforcement and interpretation to others?  What kind of leader could he be when he could no longer lead with shock and awe to back him up, no longer lead with the high religious authority or the prowess in commanding soldiers to guard his backside? What kind of leader would he be when he was unavailable to the ordinary Israelite to hear complaints and mediate interpersonal conflicts up until 2:00 a.m. in the morning?

Well a challenger would emerge propelled by bombast and bluff and with no respect given to what was considered sacred by the upper echelons of the nation. But what would be the appeal? The challenger would have to be one of their own, not a cross-breed or rather a cross-bred. He would have to be raised from among their own kind, one with whom they felt they could identify, even if he happened to be wealthier. But not a plutocrat, not one of the ones who donate their wealth to the mishkan to give the retired would-be powers fancy clothes and fancy titles. The Israelites had to be writhing with dissension and despair. After all, however bad it was in Egypt and however discriminated against they had been, they had lived side-by-side the Egyptians. They had been carpenters and stone masons, primitive plumbers and hard-working labourers, seamstresses and nannies. Now who were they – refugees without jobs, without any use for their skills, without self-respect?

In the meanwhile, one of their own had surrendered to the plutocrats and agreed to be installed as part of a new Camelot, primitive perhaps in comparison, but intended to rival that of the Pharaoh. Further, what had been promised them would not be delivered later that year, but it would take two generations. They would not see the benefits of such radical change in their lifetimes. They were ripe for the politics of envy and resentment, given fuller acceleration by a shift from oral rule by a chief to that of the written law. This communication revolution was powerful and disrupting, for no longer could they go to the sheik and speak to him personally to ask for an intervention to help deal with a problem. And who was their leader? A multicultural Moses without deep roots in the society in which they were raised!

They no longer had to fear the power of Aaron. He had been made impotent. Their rich compatriots had bet on him rather than them and built a portable Pharaonic throne. They were now irrelevant. Sacrifices had to be made of bull and ram, and of a lamb every single morning and evening. All that excellent food for the priests and a God they could not see nor even get near for the priests were intermediaries. Moses had consolidated his political power only to now appear naked before them without awe and wonders to intimidate them. Further, they were about to face real enemies who would challenge them directly and threaten to destroy them. Were they not better off retreating into a self-protected enclave manned by defensive barriers? The politics of nostalgia for a lost world was growing at the expense of hope for a new one.

Is it any wonder that they might look for a new god, a new order, one far more visible than the invisible hand that seemed to be controlling their lives? Is it any wonder that they might appreciate a new leader who spoke their language of resentment? Is it any wonder they might be ready to shift their loyalties to someone who promised to restore a semblance of their previous security? The Israelites were refugees, homeless wanderers in social disarray and suffering enormous psychological stresses. If our contemporary refugee camps are any indication, the Israelite camps were being infiltrated by small groups from the surrounding areas even poorer than they were and under greater threat. They were facing an unknown and very threatening future and had lived through a traumatic past. Sure, Moses had provided food and water when it was most needed. But would this welfare continue? How could it continue? Would Moses retain his magic powers? And why go to war against Canaanites? They were just defending themselves. It was a foreign war they had no business engaging in and, anyway, would likely lose. And all this because they were being led by a half-bred foreigner, but one no longer in possession of the power to impose his will.

Grim pessimism would replace the politics of hope. All received beliefs and entitlements were at risk. No more obeisance to the rich plutocrats who ruled over them. No more trust in the words of a God they could neither hear nor see. The Israelites were becoming tired of seeing themselves as losers when just a short time ago they had been such tremendous winners. The dream of conquering a promised land seemed totally at risk. Moses would soon be viewed as an alien and threatening outsider rather than one who delivered the people from slavery. Moses’ words would soon ring hollow.

The Israelites were ripe for an internal rebellion.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Mishkan and the Magpies

The Mishkan and the Magpies: Terumah: Exodus 25.1 – 27:19

by

Howard Adelman

For a section of the Torah that is almost all about following directions, directions for constructing the Ark for the covenant, the table, the menorah, the portable tabernacle (the mishkan), the altar, the enclosure for the tabernacle itself, after reading this section of the Torah why am I left so puzzled? It is not as if I am unfamiliar with translating design ideas, even ones not represented with detailed architectural drawings, into actual physical objects – at least overseeing that function since I have virtually no abilities as a craftsman. I may be a philosopher, but ever since my days as a student acquiring and renovating houses as residences for students for our student co-op, I have literally overseen the renovations of dozens of buildings. I love doing it. People hate renovating their own homes. For me it has been a delight. So why do I get exasperated by a section of Torah that is, on the surface at least, about architecture and design?

It is not as if this text is strange. It is so familiar. Have you ever been in a synagogue where you have not seen inscribed somewhere the words engraved in stone or on a plaque or somewhere:

“And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”

וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָם

Rashi genuinely tried to offer an explanation. The texts as inscribed are out of chronological order. The story of the Israelites making and worshipping a golden calf, an idol to worship, may follow this text in the Torah, but the events depicted preceded the building of the mishkan. God could not continue to dwell on a mountain top like Zeus or other gods. He had to descend to live among his people so the people could bask in His presence and He could ensure they did not slip into idolatry.

Thus, even though Rashi was an advocate of taking the plain meaning of the text as primary, he was no literalist. He knew that humans at the very least, not God, put the Torah together. Building a sanctuary for the sake of the Israelites so God could live amongst them did not stack up as an adequate motive. For then they make a golden calf just when God is living among them. Talk about chutzpah! Getting them to make a mishkan with the gold and silver and fine fabrics from among all the other loot the Israelites brought out of Egypt after the Israelites built the golden calf makes more sense since it takes these riches out of their possession so they cannot build another idol. And that is something God would do for He was a jealous God.

Very inventive, but not persuasive as far as I am concerned! The evidence is circumstantial rather than providing concrete literal clues to establish that the two stories were put together out of order. What would be the motive for the editor doing such a thing? Besides, the existing order makes a lot of sense on psychological grounds. When God dwelt on a mountain top, the people were full of awe and wonder. But when He deigned to live among the people, that sense of tremendous respect withered away and the Israelites could turn away from Him and adopt idol worship.

If jealousy, early warning and prevention are not adequate as motives, what could qualify? The text seems very clear – “that I may dwell amongst you.” That just begs another question, however. Why? Why does God want to dwell among His people? To be able to watch over the Israelites to observe any transgressions? At the opposite end, to share in the vibes of a growing community with a common purpose, doubly important for a disembodied being who has to live vicariously through the crazy lives of human beings? Or perhaps, somewhat related to the last, because God is lonely way up high upon the mountain top and He wants to live amongst His people, not above them. These are just some of the possibilities.

Let me suggest why it is difficult to discern the real motive or motives. One explanation the text offers is, “That they may know that I am the Lord their God Who brought them out of the land of Egypt,” (29:46) suggesting that the point of living among them is that the Israelites not forget, and, indeed, come to know the living God who dwells in their midst. But the text continues, “that I might dwell in their midst.” (my italics) This possibly inverts the meaning to mean that God brought the Israelites out of Egypt to allow God to live in their midst. Is the purpose for the Israelites to know their God or for God to have a home among his people? Rashi emphasized the latter – the Israelites were brought forth out of Egypt so God could live among them (and could not in Egypt). Ramban leans towards the former interpretation that the Israelites will know God when He lives amongst them.

The two meanings need not, of course, be mutually exclusive. God may deeply need to leave His remote and lonely refuge and “come in from the cold.” The mishkan is the place where He can dwell both among them but separate from them. But the people of Israel also need God to be in their midst both physically in terms of a dwelling place and spiritually. God also has a deep need for physicality, for corporeality, a need which can never be satisfied if you are a Jew, for God manifesting Himself as a physical being would stand against the injunction not to make physical objects idols of worship. God needs a physical presence. The Israelites need God as a spiritual presence in a physical abode. But God inherently cannot be physical. So a mishkan is built to overcome the paradox, a place where God can dwell and be present, but not personally physically present. The motives of God and his people are complementary and fulfilled by the same construction. The two needs, both of God’s and of the Israelites, can be mutually satisfied.

But then why all the luxury? Why gold this and silver that and cloth made of goat’s hair? Look at the list: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other gemstones. Can you imagine a horde of refugees in a camp in a barren wilderness being invited to give gifts of gold and precious stones to build a home for God? For they were all refugees, including God. When the people of Israel were living in Egypt, God too was in exile as well since their destinies were mutually bound together. The exodus from Egypt is a redemption for both. But why the need for a sanctuary to serve both humans and God? And why such a luxurious building when it is presumably only a temporary structure, a portable small home in today’s parlance? But a rich one! How is luxury related to sanctifying both ourselves and God?

I could pull a Bernie Saunders. It was a way of reducing inequality. Take from the rich and build infrastructure for the whole community. Except there was no taking.  Verse 2 at the beginning of the parsha reads: “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.” The only gifts acceptable were gifts brought voluntarily. The giver had to have his heart moved to offer a donation. But that is no obstacle to the explanation. The method of obtaining redistribution need not be compulsory. Charitable giving is an effective mode of redistribution.

Why remove the wealth from the rich who were lucky enough to leave Egypt either with much of their own wealth and/or wealth stolen from the Egyptians? Because the Israelites were all in this together. It was a collective action problem. Too much inequality undercuts the morale needed for dealing with issues as a collectivity. Second, the mishkan could serve as a central bank, much as Fort Knox once did. It could guarantee the tokens of exchange when the Israelites engaged in trade with the other tribes and nations they encountered.

But the best explanation I ever heard was from an old British folktale “A Tiding of Magpies,” birds with a well-renowned and deserved reputation for collecting bright ornaments, but also one of the most intelligent animals in the world, the only non-mammal species able to recognize itself in a mirror test. It also helps to know another folktale, this time a Chinese one called The Weaver Girl and the Cowherd, a love story between Zhinü, the weaver girl, and Niulang, the cowherd. Their love was forbidden. To prevent them getting back together, they were banished to opposite sides of the Silver River (the Milky Way). But once a year, on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, a tiding (flock) of magpies formed a bridge to reunite the lovers for one day. The 7th lunar month in the Torah is Tishrei (Ethanim) according to Kings 8:2 and the Israelite rather than the Judaic calendar. Rosh Hashanah is the first day of Tishrei. The seventh day of Tishrei is the end of the first week after Rosh Hashanah. So once a year on the 7th of Tishrei counting from Rosh Hashanah, Zhinü and Niulang are reunited with the help of magpies.

Read only vertically at first. The first eight lines of the tiding of this old British folktale reads as follows in the first column:

A Tiding of Magpies

One for sorrow                        the sorrow of leaving Egypt and the trek through the desert

Two for Joy                             in the promised land that beckons

Three for a girl                        all refugees sacrifice themselves for the sake of

Four for a boy                                     future generations

Five for silver                          the means to achieve

Six for gold                             two, three and four above

Seven is for the secret

That never can be told.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman