Questioning faith in the parsha
Monthly Archives: February 2011
For me the key to the paradoxes that run through the passages relating to the mishkan is neatly and beautifully expressed in the words of Rabbi Tarfon quoted at the head of the Paul Goodman extract: “It is not incumbent on you to complete the work; but neither are you free to withdraw from it”.
It is not incumbent, nor indeed is it likely or even possible. “The work” is for ever ongoing, the work of building, of creating the mishkan, of welcoming and celebrating that which is greater than each one of us: the folly we commit “just to live on a little”.
Contributing to the work is voluntary, but at the same time required. The Rabbis speak, here and elsewhere, of the price to be paid not as some kind of insurance or as a quid pro quo but as a ransom, which means payment for the release of something or someone that is confined. You are not free to withdraw from it because your freedom is always relative, never absolute: you are free within set limits. Freedom is the recognition of necessity.
Now of course one man’s necessity may be another man’s open choice, but for those who identify not so much with any fixed place as with a journeying and a community of journeying, what better way of being than in the fashioning of a portable mishkan, whatever its truest shape may be.
So call in the artisans and sculptors and all whose spirit moves them.
1 Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do:
2 On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death.
3 You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day.
4 Moses said further to the whole community of Israelites:
This is what the Lord has commanded:
5 Take from among you gifts to the Lord; everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them — gifts for the Lord: gold, silver, and copper;
6 blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair;
7 tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood;
8 oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense;
9 lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and the breastpiece.
10 And let all among you who are skilled come and make all that the Lord has commanded:
11 the Tabernacle, its tent and its covering, its clasps and its planks, its bars, its posts, and its sockets; 12 the ark and its poles, the cover, and the curtain for the screen;
13 the table, and its poles and all its utensils; and the bread of display;
14 the lampstand for lighting, its furnishings and its lamps, and the oil for lighting;
15 the altar of incense and its poles; the anointing oil and the aromatic incense; and the entrance screen for the entrance of the Tabernacle;
16 the altar of burnt offering, its copper grating, its poles, and all its furnishings; the laver and its stand;
17 the hangings of the enclosure, its posts and its sockets, and the screen for the gate of the court;
18 the pegs for the Tabernacle, the pegs for the enclosure, and their cords;
19 the service vestments for officiating in the sanctuary, the sacral vestments of Aaron the priest and the vestments of his sons for priestly service.
20 So the whole community of the Israelites left Moses’ presence.
21 And everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved him came, bringing to the Lord his offering for the work of the Tent of Meeting and for all its service and for the sacral vestments.
When, following the golden calf scene, God refuses to dwell in the midst of the Israelite people lest he is moved by anger to destroy them (Exodus 33: 5), this would seem to imply at least a momentary cancellation of the project of the mishkan, where Aaron was to be clothed in God’s glory and splendour, kavod and tifaret. At the same time, God commands the people to leave off their finery. Is it far-fetched to see in this finery, besides a hint of the gold from which the calf was shaped, an echo of tifaret, splendour or adornment, translated into the High Priest’s gorgeous vestments in the Tent of Meeting?
Another Tent of Meeting presents itself, away from the encampment, where the man Moses, without mediation and without tabernacle or cherubim, knows the Lord. No wonder his face shines. It shines with the brilliance not of gold but of the divine presence, kavod.
So, rather than being in competition with each other, Moses and Aaron complement each other, as we had already seen before Pharaoh: one speaks to people, the other speaks with God.
Aaron was brought near to God by Moses, just as Aaron in turn may help to bring the people to God. But until God’s glory touches each person directly, God dwells out of reach.
His absence can be likened to a messenger without a message. Then the message arrives: “the Lord, the Lord” (Exodus 34:6).
Not only then does Moses stop God from destroying Israel; he also brings God back into the people’s midst, and into their daily lives. God “goes with us” and the mishkan is built.
And the man Moses vanished, and was not.
Dazed, like sheep that had lost their shepherd, the Israelites wandered about the encampment staring dumbly at each other. Fear sat in their eyes. One thought obsessed all of them, though they did not dare to give it utterance.
“Did Moses not warn us not to come to the mountain—neither we nor even our cattle—lest we be utterly consumed? What, then, is to become of us? Who will lead us on our way from now on? Who will defeat our enemies? Joshua went with Moses, and he too has vanished. Yes, he left us Aaron and Hur and bade us go to them in case of need. But we do not see Aaron about, and we have no word of him. He sits in his tent, with his two sons, the priests, and they take counsel about something. As for the elders of Israel, they are new men, the people do not know them yet. And even Korah seems to be in hiding somewhere, and shows himself not in the encampment.
- Moses takes a census of the Israelites and collects a half-shekel from each person (30:11-16)
- God tells Moses to construct a water basin and to prepare anointing oil and incense for the ordination of the priests. Bezalel and Oholiab, skilled artisans, are assigned to make objects for the priests and the Tabernacle. (30:17-31:11)
- The Israelites are instructed to keep the Shabbat as a sign of the convenant. God gives Moses the two tablets of the Pact. (31:12-18)
- The Israelites ask Aaron to build them a Golden Calf. Moses implores God not to destroy the people and then breaks the two tablets of the Pact on which the Ten Commandments are written when he sees the idol. God punishes the Israelites by means of a plague. (32:1-35)
- Moses goes up the mountain with a blank set of tablets for another forty days so that God will again inscribe the Ten Commandments. Other laws, including the edict to observe the Pilgrimage Festivals, are also revealed. (34:1-28)
- Moses comes down from the mountain with a radiant face. (34:29-35)