Thursday, March 23, 2006

Vayakhel-Pekudei (Midrash)

Hur’s Reward

Last week’s Hitzei Yehonatan having been both late and lengthy, this week’s discussion will be confined to one brief midrash on the weekly portion. The parasha concerns the actual making of the components of the Sanctuary, followed by its assembly and erection; hence, a central “hero” is the artisan Bezalel. The following midrash picks up on the fact that his genealogy, both here (Exod 35:30ff.) and in the parallel statement of his appointment (Exod 31:1-11) goes back to the grandfather’s generation, rather than to his father alone, as is more usual. Exodus Rabbah 48.3:

Another thing. “See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son Hur…” [Exod 35:30]. Why did it see fit to mention here Hur? Because when Israel wished to worship idols he gave his life for the Holy One blessed be He and did not leave them be, so they rose up and killed him. The Holy One blessed be He said to him: By your life, I shall reward you.

Who was Hur? A rather obscure figure from the tribe of Judah, he suddenly appears at two important junctures in Israel’s history. First, during the battle with Amalek (Exod 17:8-16), he, together with Aaron, helps to support Moses’ hands, standing opposite Aaron. He was thus part of the little tableau of three who directed the battle from a small hill: Moses seated on a rock, with the two of them supporting his hands, which somehow tipped the balance between the warring parties. The Mishnah (Rosh Hashana 3.6 [or 8]) comments that this was not magic, but that when Moses arms were raised the Israelites looked heavenward towards God, and this gave them strength. One might also compare this to the psychological component of war: the element of morale and confidence that a true leader can inspire in a just war. (I will resist the temptation to comment on the dubious success of our leaders’ attempts to sound Churchillian in this difficult time.)

We meet Hur a second time following the Revelation at Sinai, and the subsequent covenantal ceremony described in Exodus 24. When Moses is about to reascend the mountain, to receive the details of the Torah and mitzvot, he places Aaron and Hur in charge of the people, telling the elders that “whoever has a matter [to adjudicate?] shall approach them” [Exod 24:14]. To have earned such implicit trust from Moses, Hur must have been a very wise, unimpeachably honest, and God-fearing person.

The incident of Hur’s lynching is not recorded anywhere in the biblical text, but is based on one of the well-known and widely accepted midrashim on the incident of the Golden Calf. Exodus Rabbah 41.3 and its parallels in Tanhuma and elsewhere (see Mirkin, ad loc.) relate how Satan showed Moses to the people “suspended between heaven and earth”; immediately, disheartened and thinking that he would never return, they began to seek alternative objects of adoration. Hur called them to task: “You of cut necks [i.e.: deserving to be beheaded: do you not remember the miracles that the Holy One blessed be He has done for you?!” For his efforts, the people killed him.

Part of the problematic that doubtless engendered this midrash (without rejecting its historicity out of hand) is that Hur emerges from nowhere to serve in two important, prominent position, and just as suddenly disappears from the text, never to be heard of again (except in the genealogical tables of Chronicles). The obvious conclusion is that he must have been killed; what better, more noble death for such an obviously virtuous character than to be lynched by a hysterical, crazed mob in trying to quell the sin of the Calf. The same midrash also cites his murder as a mitigating factor for Aaron, who was scared that what happened to Hur would happen to him; he therefore made the Calf to save his own life, and to buy time until Moses could return.

This is comparable to a king whose legions rebelled against him; his general stood up and made war against them. He challenged them: do you [dare to] rebel against the king? So they rose up and killed him. The king said: If he had given me money, would I not have had to repay him? How much more, that he gave his very life for me! What can do for him? Rather, all the sons who came from him, I shall make dukes and prefects. Thus, when Israel made the calf, Hur stood up and gave his life for the Holy One blessed be He. He said to him: By your life, all the sons who come from you, I will raise up with a good name in the world, as is said, “See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel… and I shall fill him with the spirit of God” [Exod 35:30-31].

This passage reflects the basic idea of the maintenance of moral balance in the world: that good and noble deeds must be rewarded. What then happens when someone dies a hero’s death, defending some noble ideal, killed in the very act of doing a great mitzvah? (It was this very problem that drove Elisha ben Abuyah over the fence into heresy) Moreover, the lives of the righteous and the heroic should not be forgotten. We are familiar, in Israeli society, with the impulse to perpetuate the memory of fallen soldiers: not only through physical monuments to the fallen of particular battles or units, but the tendency among many bereaved families to publish booklets memorializing their son’s life. In this midrash, the martyred hero’s memorial is to have a descendant who carries on his life work, sanctifying God’s name through the making and adornment of a sanctuary for the Divine Presence to dwell.

Not only that, but everyone engaged in the making of the Sanctuary, was given wisdom and understanding and knowledge by the Holy One blessed be He. As is said, “and all those wise of heart did…” [Exod 36:8]. And not only among human beings alone, but even animals and beasts, as is said, “[who were given] wisdom and understanding in them” (ba-hemah; 36:1]. It is written behemah (animal): that he placed wisdom in man and beast, and none of these was known by name except for Bezalel. That is: “see, the Lord has called by name Bezalel…”

What is the point of this last passage, apart from a rather bad pun on “in them” and “animal”? Could the idea be that “the breath of every living thing praises Your Name”: i.e., that even the animals have a role to play in the building of the Sanctuary? Far-fetched? Maybe. Or perhaps it's no more than what it seems: simple world-play.


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