Thursday, March 23, 2006

Vayakhel-Pekudei (Haftarot)

The customs concerning the haftarot for Vayakhel and Pekudei are somewhat complicated. The Sephardim read 1 Kings 7:13-26 on Shabbat Vayakhel, while for Pekudei they read 7:40-50; whereas the Ashkenazim read 7:40-50—i.e., the haftarah read by the Sephardim for Pekudei—on Vayakhel; on Pekudei they read 7:51-8:21. When, as happens most years, the two portions are combined, the haftarah read is that for the latter portion, each community according to its respective practice. In any event, between the two groups the entire section from 7:13 to 8:21 is read, with the exception of vv. 27-39 of Chapter 7: a section dealing with various aspects of the construction and completion of Solomon’s Temple, corresponding to the Sanctuary in the desert described in these two Torah portions.

The first of the passages mentioned describes how Solomon brought Hiram of Tyre—clearly a different person than the King Hiram mentioned in 5:26—to serve as chief artisan responsible for building the Temple in Jerusalem. He is filled with “wisdom, understanding and knowledge”—a clear parallel to Bezalel in Exod 31:1-10 and 35:30-36:7, who fashioned the various artifacts in the desert sanctuary. The Sephardic haftarah for Vayakhel focuses upon two items in particular: the twin pillars, Yakhin and Boaz, that framed the entrance to the Sanctuary; and the bronze “sea”—a large pool of water used for the priests’ laver, mounted upon figures of twelve bullocks (The classical question is: why was this permitted, whereas the Golden Calf was seen as the archetypal sin?).

Why was so much importance attached to these twin pillars, even to the point of their being given symbolic names—Yakhin, “He shall establish” and Boaz, “Strength is in Him”? What was their role? It is not clear whether they were purely decorative, or whether they bore some of the weight of the roof of the Temple. Two thoughts that come to mind, somewhat intuitively: I recall reading once that decorative pillars were often used in ancient architecture to mark off a portal, to draw attention to it as a transitional point, as a passage from one kind of spacial realm to another—specifically, in this case, the transition to sacred space, the “dwelling place of the Almighty.” Second, even if these pillars bore no weight in the structural sense, they may be seen as symbolically supporting the entire universe, as a kind of physical representation of the idea that “Upon three things the earth stands: upon Torah, upon acts of loving kindness, and upon the Divine Service” (Abot 1.2; rearranged for emphasis).

It is interesting that the pillars were made of bronze rather than of carved stone, as were pillars in, e.g., the classical Greek tradition. In general, bronze was the preferred material for a host of vessels used in the Temple, except for those of a particularly holy nature which were made of the precious metals, gold and silver. At that time, the technology of the Iron Age had evidently not yet taken root in Israel (we are told explicitly that such was still the case some sixty years earlier; see 1 Samuel 13:19-22), so bronze was the metal of choice for hard structural tasks as well.

In the Kabbalistic tradition, these pillars are seen as corresponding to Netzah / Hod, the seventh and eighth sefirot, a pair that is relatively little discussed compared to the triad of Hesed, Gevurah & Tiferet (Lovingkindness—Stern Judgment—Harmonious Beauty), or the axis of Yesod / Malkhut (Foundation—Kingship; the channel of Divine flow—the Divine vessels of receiving; or, most simply, Male and Female). These two are often described as the “legs” (an appropriate image for pillars) of the Adam Kadmon, the Primordial Adam, upon which the entire higher spiritual structure rests; the terms are usually translated as “Victory/Eternity” and “Glory/ Splendor/ Persistence.” They correspond to the two brothers, Moses and Aaron, the great Prophet/Teacher and Priest/Peacemaker.

I recently came across an interesting alternative explanation of these two sefirot in an unexpected source—a New Age Kabbalistic novel. They are described there as: man’s ability of man to encompass in his mind and soul the entire universe, to dare to aspire to spiritual greatness and depth of apprehension, on the one hand, and the awareness of his smallness, insignificance, vulnerability, and mortality, on the other. They might be described as the two sides of a “balancing pole” that a person needs to maintain proper balance in life. One is reminded of the two slips of paper kept in his pockets by, I think, the Kozhnitzer Maggid: “For me the world was created” and “I am but dust and ashes,” or of Maimonides’ description of the inner dynamic involved in the process of Love and Fear of God. In Yesodei Hatorah 2.2, he writes that man is fascinated by the Infinite, the overwhelming creative power of the Almighty, and wishes to know Him; but, simultaneously, he is frightened by his own audacity, remembers that he is a “mean, insignificant, small creature”—and “immediately he withdraws backwards.” Spiritual boldness, combined with humility: these are the qualities of Netzah and Hod, the “two legs” upon which the building of the human personality stands. (Interestingly, but it is Moses, the “extremely humble” man, who is Netzah. Perhaps the audacity, the daring to see all, comes from modesty, as a kind of divine reward for being very humble.”

The second selection, that read by the Ashkenazim for Vayakhel, is almost exclusively technical, and is a kind of inventory of all the objects made by Hiram. The third haftarah of this group, 7:51-8:21, read by the Ashkenazim on Pekudei, describes the completion of the work, the celebration and sacrificing of numerous animals that accompanied the Temple’s dedication, and the shorter prayer and blessing of the people recited by Solomon on that occasion. (The much longer prayer, 8:22-53, and blessing, vv. 54-66, which also contain some important theological statements about the function of the Temple as a kind of conduit for the prayers recited in every place [vv. 27-30, 38, 44, etc.] is not included in any haftarah.)

One verse here has always puzzled me. “God has said that He wished to dwell in thick darkness (‘arafel; like a cloud or mist); I have built You an exalted house, an eternal dwelling place” (8:12-13). It seems almost like a celebration of obscurity; that the darkness of the holy of Holies, an inner chamber without windows, somehow conveys a symbolic recognition of the ineffable nature of God. Unlike pagan deities, whose temples center around a prominent (and well-lit) statue, the God of Israel dwells in a place where He cannot be seen—perhaps to discourage pagan-like identification of God with any particular corporeal representation or image. Interestingly, the Septuagint adds to this verse an element of contrast: “Though God has set the sun in the heavens, He has said that He wished to dwell in thick darkness.” He creates a universe filled with luminaries and clarity, but His own essential Being, the First, “Inner Point“ that precedes the hewing out of the cosmos, can not be known by man.

Parshat Hahodesh

This week being Shabbat Hahodesh, the last of the four special sabbaths preceding Passover, the haftarah read in fact is from Ezekiel 45:16-46:18 (or 45:18-46:15, in the Sephardic practice), a passage about various festival and other observances in the Temple, including that of Passover. But the text is replete with problems. As we mentioned in Tetzaveh, this entire bloc of chapters in Ezekiel (Chs. 40-48) differs substantially from the parallel laws in the Torah.

In terms of the observance of Passover, our haftarah omits entirely the Korban Pesah, the paschal offering. This sacrifice, offered by each family or clan, who then eat it together as a unit, is the main feature of the festival in the Torah (and specifically in our maftir, Exod 12:1-20). Here, mention is made only of a public sacrifice, a single bullock offered by the Nasi, the “prince” (Is this the king? the high priest?) on behalf of “himself and all the people of the land” (45:22). Apart from that, mention is made only of the eating of matzot for seven days (v. 21), and what we would call the ”additional” or Musaf offering brought on each of the seven days of the festival, whose details also differ from those given in the Torah (vv. 23-24; compare to Num 28:16-25), Moreover, Ezekiel has a ceremony of purgation or purification of the Temple, reminiscent of Yom Kippur, specifically on the 1st and 7th days of Nissan (45:18-20). In fact, neither Rosh Hashana, nor Yom Kippur, nor Shavuot, are mentioned here at all. The only holidays which are mentioned here, apart from Sabbaths and New Moons, which are given here a central role, are the two major pilgrimage festivals, Pesah and Sukkot (though not called by those names). Why?

Other facets of the sacrificial system here also differ from those familiar to us from the Torah: e.g., the grain and oil offerings that accompany the various sacrifices deviate from those specified in the Torah, as do the special offerings for Sabbath and New Moon. Even the corner stone of the Temple service, the daily offering (Tamid), differs: one lamb is to be offered each morning (46:13-15), without any mention of that offered in the afternoon to close the day’s service.

There are various possible lines of interpretation of this strange phenomenon. The modern school of historical Biblical criticism would no doubt say: the details of the Temple ritual had not yet been crystallized at Ezekiel’s time, and this was simply another codex that existed alongside the Book of Leviticus. Alternatively, one might argue that this represents a kind of prophetic vision of a future Temple, with its own set of rules. But what happens in that case to the immutability of the Torah, what Maimonides formulates as the principle that there shall be no new revelation of law, even by a prophet? For that reason, the Sages worked hard to attempt to square these chapters with the accepted halakhah, resorting at times to what may seem far-fetched midrashic readings. Thus, Menahot 45a manages to reconcile three or four difficult verses here with the Torah. But Rabbi Yohanan, in the same passage, so to speak throws up his hands in despair, concluding simply that “we cannot know until Elijah comes.” That is, he acknowledges the grave difficulties here, while at the same time expressing a kind of mystical acceptance of the ultimate unity of all of the Sacred Scriptures, despite their internal contradictions.

So with all these difficulties, why was this passage chosen to be read on Shabbat Hahodesh? If no mention is made there of Passover observance as we know it, why couldn’t one or another of the other Biblical passages about Pesah have been used? The answer seems to be that all of the others were already assigned as haftarot to the days of Pesah proper, or other related days. These include both passages of a more visionary type (Malachi on Shabbat Hagadol; the dry bones of Ezekiel on Shabbat Hol Hamoed; the Song of David for the Seventh Day of the festival; Isaiah’s messianic vision from Chs. 11-12 for the eighth day observed in Diaspora), and those describing actual historical observances of Passover (the Pesah observed by the people with Joshua the year they crossed the Jordan, for which all those born in the wilderness were circumcised, read on the First Day of the festival; the Pesah celebrated by King Josiah, the “first Passover celebrated since the days of the judges,” on the Diaspora second day). Thus, our haftarah seems to have been the only remaining “default option” left. But are there really no other suitable passages in all the books of the prophets? Perhaps they could have chosen some horatory passage about the lessons to be learned from the Exodus, such as the speech of the angel at Bochim in Judges 2—but this would have been too depressing and down-beat for a pre-holiday haftarah. And Chapter 16 of Ezekiel, even if it portrays God’s “adoption” of Israel in the Exodus with words full of pathos, would have been even worse, opening as it does with the frightening words, “Inform Jerusalem of her abominations.” (In fact, in m. Megilla 4.8 R. Eliezer proscribes the public reading of this chapter; on the other hand, the late lamented Rav Kapah notes that this opinion is rejected by Rambam, and that “we” [i.e., the Yemenites] do in fact read it for Parshat Shemot).


Blogger Fern Sidman said...



Every Jewish holiday is an opportunity for growth and self-discovery. Passover is the time to experience the freedom which comes from being in a relationship with G-d. On Seder night, "every Jew must feel that he himself has gone out of Egypt." Freedom is not acquired once. It needs to be continually learned and reacquired.
The essence of slavery is self-concern. Preoccupation with ourselves, our success or failure, our comfort, and others' opinion of us rob us of our essential freedom. We become a slave to anxiety, fear, compulsion, and insecurity. We have become slaves to masters of flesh and blood.

G-d enjoins us to worship Him and Him alone. The concept is outlined for us in Parshas Mishpatim from Sefer Shmos.

Parshas Mishpatim focuses on the issues of halochos pertaining to a Hebrew slave. A Hebrew slave was someone who may have committed theft and was unable to make financial restitution. He was therefore obligated to pay off his debt by working for the person of whom he had stolen. The master is obligated to support the slave and his family and not to degrade or humiliate him. The slave is not in servitude forever. As a matter of fact, his master must encourage him to leave his master.

If the slave refuses to leave his servitude behind, he must be persistently encouraged to do so. If this is to no avail, and the slave insists on staying on as a slave, then his ear must be pierced. He is now considered to be someone who has chosen to serve a man rather than Hashem. His ear is pierced because this is the ear in which he heard at Sinai, the 10 commandments and the Torah and agreed to abide by these laws and remain committed to them for perpetuity. The slave now acknowledges by his adamant refusal to leave his master, that he has thrown off the yoke of Heaven and wishes to be enslaved to a man.

What can we learn from this? In today’s world we are are slaves to our taivas and inclinations. At times we are slaves to our yetzer hara. We make our hobbies and interests our new god. We become enslaved to people and worship them and fear them, more than we do the Almighty. Perhaps these people or interests are meeting our immediate needs and we are afraid to part with them. We forget that our needs are being met by the Almighty and the people in our lives who supply us with material and emotional comforts are sent from Heaven.

Ultimately, it is Hashem who provides for us. Once we place man ahead of G-d, once we fear man and his vacillating will above that of the Almighty, we have voluntarily thrown off the yoke of Heaven and have reneged on our committment to observe Hashem’s laws. This can only lead to depression and self destruction. We degrade and humiliate ourselves as we obsequiously grovel before human masters. The master has no respect for the people pleasing slave and even displays contempt toward him that can manifest itself in severe emotional and sometimes physical abuse.

We also bring upon ourselves the wrath of the Almighty, who will punish us for serving humans rather than Him. Every day we say in the Shma Yisroel, “Beware, lest your heart be deceived and you turn and serve other gods, and worship them, for then Hashem’s wrath will blaze against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no produce, and you will quickly perish from the good land which Hashem gave you.” This can also mean that Hashem will not reveal himself to us in our personal lives and everything that we attempt to do will be frustrated.

Once we come to the realization that it is only Hashem who we must fear, and once we have the courage and faith to take that leap will we truly free ourselves. How liberating it is, to break the shackles of human bondage and serve the One true creator, Hashem Yisborach. His kindness endures forever. His ways are the ways of pleasantness and His paths are the paths of peace.

It has been reported that in World War II, the rich suffered most in the concentration camps because they were devastated by the sudden loss of social position and respect. Their precarious sense of self could not withstand the loss of other people's esteem.

How can we achieve inner freedom? The Haggadah recounts G-d's redemption of the Jews from Egypt. The Haggadah repeatedly declares: "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but God brought us out of there with a strong hand and an out-stretched arm." The first ingredient of true freedom is the recognition of G-d's action in our lives.

Implicit in this recognition is the acknowledgment of God's immediate care and involvement with us. The Haggadah states: "The Lord brought us out of Mitzraim-not by an angel, nor by a Seraf, nor by a messenger, but the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself." G-d is directly involved in our lives, an expression of His love and caring.

Recognition of this yields the courage we need to risk freedom. When the Jews stood at the sea with the Egyptians at their backs, many of them thought the end had come. G-d told Moses to instruct the people to go forward and that He would split the sea for them. One man, Nachshon ben Aminadav, had the courage to jump into the sea. Only when the water reached Nachshon's nose, did the sea split.

From where did Nachshon get the courage to jump into the sea? The miracles of the plagues and the Exodus had convinced Nachshon that G-d intervenes for their welfare. It was not a theological point for him, but an immediate experience, which he could trust and rely on. His faith in G-d's love for him gave Nachshon the daring to take the plunge.

A significant and often skipped part of the Haggadah is the recitation of Hallel. Hallel is a series of psalms praising and thanking God. Hallel, which begins before the meal and continues afterward, is preceded by the statement: "Therefore, it is our duty to thank, to praise, to glorify, to exalt . . . the One who did all these miracles for our fathers and for us."

A relationship must be two-sided. Once we have experienced the flush and thrill of all G-d did/does for us, we must respond with acknowledgment, appreciation, joy, and love.

The introduction to Hallel ends: "We will sing before Him a new song." G-d is not interested in old songs, rehearsals of the last generation's sentiments, recitations of last year's thanks. Hallel is meant to be an outpouring of our own fresh enthusiasm once we have re-experienced God's love and intervention in our lives:

As Hallel proclaims: "How can I repay G-d for all His benefits toward me?"

The effect the Seder should produce is encapsulated in one phrase of Hallel: "Because His lovingkindness has overwhelmed us." The Seder should leave us with the feeling of being overwhelmed by G-d's love and salvation:

"If our mouths were as full of song as the sea and our tongues could sing joyously like the endless waves . . . we still would not be able to give You sufficient thanks, O G-d, . . . for even one of the thousand thousands and myriad myriads of favors which You have done for our Fathers and for us."

From the confidence of G-d's love, we gain the courage to be free.

G-d's love was also manifested in His commandment to sanctify His name and to remember the vengeance that He brought upon our enemies. We must remember His strength, glory and omnipotence by declaring these words from the Haggada, as we let Eliyahu HaNavi in our homes:

"Pour forth Your wrath upon the nations that do not recognize You and upon the kingdoms that do not invoke Your name. For they have devoured Jacob and destroyed his habitation. Pour forth Your fury upon them and let Your burning wrath overtake them. Pursue them with anger and destroy them from beneath the heavens of the L-rd."

Make no mistake about it. Passover is the ultimate demonstration of G-d's love for his people and it a holiday to remember that this vengeance is from G-d. "The L-rd is a G-d of vengeance; O G-d of vengeance, arise!" (Psalms 94). And the rabbis say: "Yes, when vengeance is needed, it is a great thing" (Berachot, 3a). Or "let the high praises of G-d be in their throat and a two edged sword in their hand - to execute vengeance upon the nations..." (Psalms 58).

Passover is a holiday that was created to commemorate the sanctity of vengeance; the punishment and the destruction of Pharoah and Egypt that mocked and humiliated G-d by crying: "Who is the L-rd? I know not the L-rd..." Vengeance so that the world shall know the L-rd and cry, "Verily, there is a G-d that judgeth in the earth..." and: "The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth vengeance, he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked" (Psalms 58). And why? For it is only vengeance that proves that there is indeed a G-d in the world, that there is good and evil and punishment for that evil.

Let us remember and speak of these holy concepts. Let us teach them to our children and our children's children. In this merit, may G-d continue to have mercy upon us and may we have the strength and faith to hasten the Final Redemption.

9:32 PM  

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