Friday, February 25, 2011

A Thought on the Parsha

Parashat VaYakhel  
The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same?

After the dramatic, and potentially catastrophic, events of the making of the Golden Calf and the breaking of the Tablets,  God's wrath and Moshe's prayer, God's revelation of God's Glory to Moshe, the regiving of the Tablets and the rays of light emanating from Moshe's face, our parasha returns to narrative stream that had been disrupted by these events - the commanding and the building of the Mishkan.   While the earlier parshiyot of Terumah and TiZaveh had related God's command in the donating and building of the Mishkan, parashat VaYakhel, together with next week's parasha, Pikudei, tell of the enactment of these commands - the actual donating and building that took place.   This parasha, then, gets us back on track to the dominant narrative, before it was so rudely interrupted.

What is remarkable is that there seems to be no echo of those dramatic events, which came between the command and its enactment, in the actual enactment itself.  It is as if the events of parashat Ki Tisa had not occurred.  If one were to jump from chapter 31, verse 18, "And God gave to Moshe when God finished speaking to him on Mount Sinai, two tablets of stone, tablets written with the finger of God." to the first verse of this week's parasha, "And Moshe gathered the entire Congregation of the People of Israel and said to them,  these are the things which God has commanded to do them," (Shemot 35:1), there would be no hint that something had happened in between the two.   How is this possible?  How could these tragic events not leave a mark?

One way to answer this question, is to rethink the order of the events.  Rashi, in his comment at the end of the verses commanding the building of the Mishkan (Shemot 31:18), and immediately before the Torah begins the narrative of the Golden Calf, states as follows:

There is no chronological order in Scripture.  The event of the Golden Calf occurred many days before the commandment of the building of the Mishkan, for the Tablets were broken on the 17th of Tamuz, and on Yom Kippur, God made peace with the Children of Israel, and on the following day they began to donate to the Mishkan, which was then erected on the first of Nissan.

That is, the commandments relating to the Mishkan - the entire parshiyot of Terumah and TiZaveh - occurred immediately before their implementation, and after the events of the Golden Calf.  No wonder why there is no hint to these events!  The implementation followed the commandment without a break.

While Rashi's approach solves the question we raised, other issues remain problematic.  First and foremost, it is hard to understand why the Torah would tell the story this way?  Why not just tell it more simply in the correct chronological sequence?  Moreover, if Rashi is right about the order, then it is even harder to understand what the two parshiyot of VaYakhel and Pikudei are doing.  Why are they in the Torah at all?   They are quite long and, to be honest, quite repetitive of the parshiyot of Terumah and TiZaveh.   The 231 verses of VaYakhel and Pikudei could have all been said in one verse,  as the Torah often does in such cases, by saying "And the Children of Israel did all the God had commanded Moshe."  What, according to Rashi, is the point of such an extensive and repetitive cataloguing of how they did what God had commanded?

Ramban, in contrast to Rashi's approach that the Torah does not stick to a chronological order, insists that wherever possible we should assume that the narrative is chronologically ordered, and thus Ramban states (in his commentary to Shemot 25:2) that the Mishkan was commanded immediately after the Giving of the Torah.  According to Ramban, then, Moshe was commanded regarding the Mishkan before the sin of the Golden Calf..  Then, in this week's parasha, communicated that command to the Children of Israel, who then carried it through - by giving their donations and building the Mishkan.  This returns us to our earlier questions - Why all these verses?  And why is there no hint to all the events surrounding the Golden Calf?

I believe that these two questions answer each other.  Our parasha provides an answer to the question of how a relationship can continue after it has suffered a serious rupture.  Imagine that a husband committed adultery, his wife finds out, is justifiably enraged, and seriously considers divorcing him.  She even briefly moves out of the house and they live apart for a while.  Then, after a serious process of soul-searching, regret, and contrition, the husband is able to fully own his betrayal, to seriously commit to change his ways, and implores his wife to take him back.  She is initially very reluctant, not only because she has been betrayed, but because she knows that this act was not out of character for the husband.  Nevertheless, she relents, because in the end she loves him, and she believes that he is seriously committed to being a different person.  They have a small, private ceremony of a reaffirmation of vows, and they resume their married life together. 

Now comes the question - do they go on as if nothing has happened, or do they continuously live with the past?  Neither solution is ideal - to continue as if nothing has changed is to possibly allow the same betrayal to occur again.  To live with the betrayal front and center is to destroy any hope of rebuilding the relationship.  The proper solution would seem to be to find a way to enact certain safeguards, certain small changes in behavior, that would serve as a protection against backsliding, but would not fill the relationship with guilt and recrimination.  While it would be a disaster for the relationship for the wife to constantly hold this over the husband, it would be understandable for her protect herself more initially, and not be as giving emotionally or as fully of herself, until she can feel confident in the relationship once again.

This seems to be exactly what has occurred between God and the Children of Israel.  The relationship of God and Israel is a covenantal one, based on fidelity and trust.  When the Children of Israel worshiped the Golden Calf,  either as another god, or as an idol meant to represent God, they betrayed God and committed a form of adultery.  God declares that they have shown their true character, and it is impossible to go on living with them "You are a stiff-necked people.  If I will dwell in your midst for one second, I will destroy you."   Moshe prays to God, and God chooses to resume the relationship indirectly, by sending an angel to lead them. 

This compromise, however, is not enough for Moshe, and after enormous effort, and after an act of contrition on the part of the Children of Israel, Moshe persuades God to resume the relationship and declares: "My Presence will go and I will give you rest."  (Shemot 33:14).  This, however, is a little different than what God had originally said: "You shall build for Me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst."  (Shemot 25:8).  God had earlier declared the God Godself would be in their midst, while here is promising to have God's Presence go with them.  Is this the same thing?  It seems not, as Moshe is not satisfied and ask for God Godself to be with them: "But how will it be known, then, that I have found favor in Your sight - I and your People - is it not by Your going with us?" (Shemot 33:16).  That is, we want You Yourself, not Your angel, and not even Your Presence, but You.  God does not directly respond to this request, and we are left wondering if God is as fully recommitting to this relationship as before.

This ambiguity notwithstanding, God commits to resume the relationship, and God and Israel recommit to one another with a reaffirmation of the covenant, the repetition of some of the mitzvot in Mishpatim, and the regiving of the Tablets.  This is a quiet ceremony, no fanfare,  things are a little broken, and both parties are reentering the relationship with a more realistic, less idealistic and romantic, view of the future. 

And now they are ready to move forward.  They put themselves back to the task of building the home that will house their life together - the Mishkan which will house God's presence and allow for their connection, their intimacy.  The Torah then tells us, in painstaking detail, every single task that they did to donate to the Mishkan and to build it.  The message seems inescapable -both sides are trying to proceed as if nothing has happened.  It is all the same as before, they tell themselves, and one cannot even note a hint of the previous events.

Well, maybe a hint.  For it is not what is said in this week's parasha, but what is not said.  Moshe commands that the people donate to the building of the Mishkan, just as God had commanded in the beginning of parashat Terumah, with one notable difference.  That original command ended with the climactic verse, "And they shall build for Me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst."   Such a verse is here completely absent.  Without throwing it in their face, God is letting it be known that the relationship is more tentative than before.  God is not as ready to fully give of Godself. God has promised that God's Presence will go with them, but God has not promised that God Godself will dwell with them.  They will build the Mishkan, but just because they have built it, they cannot assume that God is fully in their midst.  God's Glory - presumably equivalent to God's Presence - will descend and fill the Mishkan (Shemot 40:34), but something, it seems, even some small, little, subtle thing, is held back.   To rebuild the relationship takes time, and while the sin of the Calf is not being held over their head, the people must work to restore the trust, to rebuild the relationship.

And a safeguard is put in. For in our parasha, the commandment of Shabbat precedes the commanding of the Mishkan.  The reverse was true when God had commanded it originally (see Shemot 31:12-17).  The juxtaposition of Shabbat and Mishkan says:  "The Mishkan is the most intense connecting to God, but don't forget the Shabbat, the foundation of the relationship.  Shabbat cannot be overridden for the sake of the building of the Mishkan."  In a way, then, the building of the Mishkan represents the passion for connection, a passion that could sometimes, because it so yearns to connect, overstep its proper bounds (ha'ahavah mikalkelet et ha'shura, love destroys boundaries).  Shabbat, on the other hand, represents ongoing commitment, boundaries, rules, the reliable warmth of the relationship, not its consuming fire.   The first time around, the focus was the passion that was bringing God and the People together.  They needed to be reminded of the rules and the boundaries, but that came at the end - the relationship was defined by its passion.  However, after the passion got out of hand, and so consumed the people that they turned it to the Calf when God or Moshe was not present, things had to change.  The relationship this time around had to focus first and foremost on the rules, the boundaries, the establishment of trust, the warmth of the home.  The passion could come, and it would come, but it could not dominate. 

The second time around both God and the People were a less idealistic, less romantic.  They had chosen, after an agonizing separation, to resume their relationship.  It would resume in a subtle way somewhat more tentatively, and it would resume with a emphasis on its foundation, and the core connection of God and the People.   One could say that the relationship was less intense as a result, but one could also say that, after having survived the tragedy that it did, and moving forward nonetheless, it was all that much stronger.  It was a relationship that was based on true depth, true commitment.  It was a relationship that would outlast the test of time.

Shabbat Shalom!

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