Friday, March 16, 2007

Vayakhel-Pekudei (Rashi)

For more teachings on this parsha, see the archives to this blog at March 2005.

Shabbat and Construction of the Tabernacle

This double parasha, almost the longest Torah reading of any time during the year (only the combination Matot-Masei is longer), is also the sparsest in terms of the quantity of comments by Rashi, what one might call the “Rashi-index.” There are sections of these parshiyot where one sees the remarkable sight of page after page in Mikraot Gedolot of Torah text without a single Rashi—or any other commentator. This is for the simple reason that these two sedrot are largely repetition of the material found in Terumah-Tetzaveh, with the single change that, rather than using verbal forms of instruction or command (“You shall make an ark… You shall make the table… the lampstead…,” etc.), there are verbs in the past tense, indicating the performance or execution of those same commands (“and they made the ark… the table… the lampstead”). The chapter (and the Book of Exodus as a whole) concludes with the festive assembly and erection of the Tabernacle; Moses, like the Creator (!), seeing all that they had done and finding it good; with the cloud, sign of God’s Presence, dwelling over the Tent of Meeting.

But nevertheless, there are of course more than a few illuminating comments by Rashi. The opening three verses of Vayakhel, which precedes the subject of the Mishkan itself, deals with the observance of Shabbat, and deserves special mention:

Exodus 35:1-3. “And Moses gathered together all the congregation of the Israelites and said to them: these are the things which God has commanded that you do. Six days shall you perform labor, and the seventh day shall be holy, a Sabbath unto the Lord; whoever does labor on it shall die. You shall not kindle fire in all your habitations on the Shabbat day.

Rashi: “Six days.” The admonition concerning the Shabbat preceded the commandment of labor of the sanctuary, to say that it does not override Shabbat.

At first glance, the statement that Shabbat takes precedence over the building of the Sanctuary is a simple halakhic statement of priority: that Shabbat, the day of remembrance of God’s creation, the fixed day of rest, the holy day of cessation from labor, with all the grave sanctions related, is not to be disregarded even for the holy labor of building a “home” for God’s Indwelling on earth.

Or one might say, as Rav Soloveitchik did in one of his memorable sermons, that this teaches us that the complex of personal discipline and commitment—the Shabbat, which is incumbent upon each Jew wherever he is, which demands total abstention from certain kinds of action for a 24-hour period every single week of his life—is more important, more deeply shapes the personality of the individual, than the elaborate public ceremony and ritual focused on a particular building, with all the pomp and circumstance attendant upon it, and with all its rich materials—beautifully-dyed fabrics, gold and silver and precious stones. (And perhaps, too, there was a certain implied critique here of the over-emphasis in American Jewry, certainly in the Rav’s heyday, on the synagogue edifice as against the humble, everyday patterns shaping Jewish home life.)

But there is more to it than that: Shabbat and Mikdash are somehow also interwoven with one another—another reason for their being mentioned here so closely together. To begin with, while the construction of the Tabernacle does not override Shabbat, its ongoing ritual—the daily and additional burnt-offerings, the trimming and lighting of the candles, the passing of the incense over the fire in its altar, even the kindling of the woodpile on the altar—are all performed on the Shabbat and do override it. But more than that: the prohibited labors of Shabbat and the requisite labors of the Sanctuary are mirror images of one another. The 39 categories of labor, knows as avot melakah, which structure Shabbat observance, are the selfsame labors that were performed in either the construction or the Divine service of the Sanctuary (see, e.g., Rambam at Mishnah Shabbat 7.2; b. Shabbat 97b)—in the one case prohibited; in the other, imperative. Indeed, the number 39 is itself derived from a numerological homily (itself seemingly far-fetched) on the phrase in our opening verse: aileh ha-devarim (“these are the things”—אלה = 36; the plural form devarim= 2; the article, ha-devarim = 3= total, 39), which can be read as referring both to the immediate context of Shabbat and the construction of the Mishkan described immediately thereafter.

All this brings to mind Heschel’s memorable phrase about the Shabbat: “a palace in time.” Shabbat sanctifies time just as the Temple represents the sanctification of a particular place. And, one might add, just as Shabbat is the culmination of Creation, an everlasting reminder of Creation in the very fabric of time, so is the completion of the Sanctuary described in phrases highly reminiscent of the completion of Creation.

Space and Time. Time and Space. There is one sort of conventional wisdom—one represented inter alia by Heschel’s wonderful little book, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man—that implies that the sanctification of time is somehow more refined, less corporeal, and thereby somehow more befitting the worship of a transcendent God. Time is universal in a sense that space is not; it belongs to everyone, one cannot struggle with others, saying “this day belongs exclusively to me,” as one can over a plot of land. And then there is the opposite view: that it was the great achievement of Zionism to bring us back to the realm of space, to the concrete reality of a land, to becoming a more “normal’ nation through focusing our hearts and bodies on a concrete geographical locale, with the holiness of its unique, specific places. (But with the concrete, comes the struggle and bitterness and even the danger of real conflagration with our ”cousins,” over the conflict “to whom does this holy place belong?”—as witnessed by events of the past month or two over the area adjacent to the Temple Mount).

Are space and time somehow rival kinds of arenas, or ought they really to complement one another? We live in a universe of both space and time: we live within the one, and journey along the vector of the other. Surely, God is to be seen in both, if in different ways—and that, it would seem, is the bottom line of our verses.

The Brass Laver and the Righteous Women

In Pekudei, there is one particularly charming, interesting midrash.

38:8. “And he made the brass laver and the brass base out of the mirrors of the tzov’ot [ministering women?] who served/were mustered together {?} at the opening of the Tent of Meeting.”

Rashi: “with the mirrors of the tzov’ot.” The daughters of Israel had mirrors which they looked at while they adorned themselves, but they did not hesitate to give them as voluntary offering for the Sanctuary. But Moses had contempt for them, because they were made for the Evil Urge. The Holy One blessed be He told him: Accept them, for they are more pleasing to me than anything else, for by their means the women built up numerous hosts in Egypt.

Rashi begins with a textual difficulty: the phrase marot ha-tzov’ot is a strange phrase, indeed, a hapax lagomena. The word מראה is usually used in the Bible in the sense of “vision” or “appearance”; only here does it have the modern sense of “mirror” (and, because this is over a millennium before the invention of glass, which I believe was introduced to our region by the Phoenicians, close to the Mishnaic era, these were made of highly polished brass). The word צבאות is likewise enigmatic: what have women to do with armies or mustering? Thus Rashi, after the midrash which he quotes, suggests the possibly forced linguistic interpretation: “the mirrors used to raise up many hosts.”

The scene between Moses and God is interesting. The mirrors are objects used in connection with primping, self-adornment, enhancing ones sexual attractiveness, or even, as we shall see here, concerned with love play. Moses is shown as straitlaced, puritanical, regarding such things as unbefitting the realm of the holy. But of course: human beings often take an attitude that the transcendence of bodily pleasures is somehow holy. God, on the other hand, has a wider view (naturally, being God!), and sees these things (including their telos of bringing new life into the world) as precious and beloved. The Almighty, as it was, takes a more accepting, affirmative attitude toward sexuality and its place in the scheme of things, as elaborated in the story that follows:

When their husbands were weary from crushing labor, they would go and bring them food and drink and feed them. And they would take the mirrors, and each one would see herself with her husband in the mirror, and would seduce them with their words, saying “I am prettier than you.” And thus they would bring their husbands to desire them, and they would couple with them, and become pregnant, and bear them children. As is said, “under the apple tree I aroused you” (Song of Songs 8:5). And this is what is meant by “the mirrors of the tzov’ot.”

And the laver was made from them, for its purpose is to make peace between man and his wife, that she whose husband was jealous and suspected her of having been alone with another man might have her drink the waters. [and ascertain her innocence; see Numbers 5:11-31]

The Celebration of Marriage—and Its Obstacles

This midrash, more than anything, seems to celebrate the importance of marriage, the union of man and woman, and the bearing of children, as something in which the Almighty himself rejoices. And yet, for many people, Jewish, halakhic marriage—the path towards marriage, and its registration and performance by the Rabbinic establishment here in Israel; and even more so, the path away from it, towards dissolution in the event of intolerable unbearable marital strife and incompatibility— seems strewn with obstacles and difficulties.

One of the most painful problems in contemporary halakhah is the issue of agunot & mesuravei get—typically, of women whose husbands refuse to grant them a get, a divorce writ, despite the fact that the marriage has become, to all sides involved, a dead letter; where the couple is living separately, and are de facto as-if divorced. Often recalcitrant husbands openly use their superior bargaining business position under Jewish law—in which the man’s consent is a sine qua non for divorce—to either extort money, or to sadistically torture their ex-wives. In a supplement to this issue, which I plan to send out in a few days, I will address this painful problem in some detail.


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