Thursday, March 3, 2016

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

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

After the dramatic and potentially catastrophic events 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 re-giving of the Tablets, and the rays of light emanating from Moshe’s face, our parasha returns to the disrupted narrative stream: the commanding and the building of the Mishkan. While the earlier parshiyot of Terumah and TiZaveh related God’s command in donating for and building the Mishkan, Parashat VaYakhel and next week’s parasha, Pikudei, tell of the enactment of these commands, the actual donating and building that took place. This parasha, then, puts us back on the track of the dominant narrative that was so rudely interrupted.

It is remarkable that there seems to be no echo in what follows of those dramatic events that occurred between the command and its enactment. It is as if the events of Parashat Ki Tisa did not occur. 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 (Shemot, 31:5: “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…”), there would be no hint that something had happened between the two. How is this possible? How could these tragic events not leave a mark?

One way to approach this question is to reconsider the order of 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:

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 entirety of parshiyot Terumah and TiZaveh—occurred immediately before their implementation, after the events of the Golden Calf. If this is the case, it is no wonder that 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 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 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, with, “And the Children of Israel did all that God had commanded Moshe.” What, according to Rashi, is the point of such an extensive and repetitive cataloging of how they did what God had commanded?

In contrast to Rashi’s assertion that the Torah does not stick to chronological order, Ramban insists that, wherever possible, we should assume that the narrative is so ordered. Thus he 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, but he only communicated it to the Children of Israel in this week’s parasha. They then saw 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 of 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. Take, for example, a husband who has committed adultery. When his wife finds out, she 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 changing his ways, and he 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 to reaffirm their 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 possibly to allow the same betrayal to occur again, but to live with the betrayal front and center is to destroy any hope of rebuilding the relationship. The proper solution would seem to be finding a way to enact certain safeguards, certain small changes in behavior that would serve to protect against backsliding but that would not fill the relationship with guilt and recrimination. While it would be a disaster for the relationship if the wife constantly held the past over her husband, it would be understandable for her to protect herself more initially, to not be as fully giving emotionally until she felt 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 a 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 an act of contrition on the part of the Children of Israel, Moshe persuades God to resume the relationship, and God declares: “My Presence will go and I will give you rest” (Shemot, 33:14). This, however, is a little different than what God 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 would be in their midst, but here, God is promising to have God’s Presence go with them. Is this the same thing? It seems not, as Moshe is not satisfied and asks 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 committed to the 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 re-giving of the Tablets. This is a quiet ceremony, with no fanfare. Things are still a little broken, and both parties reenter the relationship with a more realistic, less idealistic or 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 of 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 detect 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 at the beginning of Parashat Terumah, but there is 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 completely absent here. Without throwing it in their face, God is making it 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 the people cannot assume that God is fully in their midst just because they have built it. 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, subtle thing, is held back. To rebuild the relationship takes time, and while the sin of the Calf is not being held over their heads, the people must work to restore the trust and 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 originally commanded it (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, by its intensity, overstep proper bounds (ha’ahavah mikalkelet et ha’shura, love destroys boundaries). Shabbat, on the other hand, represents ongoing commitment, boundaries, and rules—the reliable warmth of the relationship, not its consuming fire. The first time around, the focus was the passion that brought God and the People together. They needed to be reminded of the rules and 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 to the Calf when God or Moshe were not present, things had to change. This time, the relationship had to focus first and foremost on the rules, the boundaries, the establishment of trust, and 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 less idealistic, less romantic. After an agonizing separation, they had chosen to resume their relationship. It would resume somewhat tentatively and with an emphasis on its foundation, 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 tragedy and moved forward, it was that much stronger. It was a relationship based on true depth and commitment. It was a relationship that would outlast the test of time.


Shabbat Shalom!

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