Archive for February, 2013

February 28, 2013 12:02 pm CDT

Ki Tisa–You Broke, You Replace

The LORD said to Moses, “Carve two tablets of stone like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke.”   34:1

God himself had carved the first set of tablets.  Rashi comments, “You broke the original ones, now you yourself carve the replacements.”

This simple act of reparation is enjoined and performed without further drama.  It may be the best lesson of the aftermath of the Golden Calf fiasco*—fix what you can, and move on.


*The beginning of the parsha tells how, when Moses saw the Israelites worshipping the molten calf, he threw down the first set of tablets in anger. 

February 28, 2013 12:01 pm CDT

Ki Tisa–A Cathedral in Time

[God said,]  “Look, I am about to seal a covenant . . . Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even in plowing time and in harvest time you shall  rest.” (Ex. 34:10, 21)

It is natural to hear echoes of the episode of the molten calf in the terms in Ex. 34, since that episode is why the covenant needs to be renewed in the first place.  One obvious resonance is the prohibition against “molten gods” (Ex. 34:7).

We can also see an opposition or antidote to the calf in the attention paid to sacred time in the festival calendar and, especially, the Sabbath.   We have already spoken of how the interiority of the mishkan (abode, tabernacle) contrasts with the calf in terms of sacred space, a place we can enter.  Here, the emphasis is on sacred time, which is even more important in Judaism.  We are always in time.  To sanctify its rhythms of labor and rest, of seedtime and harvest, directs us away from projecting our fantasies and fears onto a fetish and toward the liberating awareness of God that is the aim of the covenant.  We carve, as Heschel puts it, a “cathedral in time,” built of the very stuff of our lives.

February 21, 2013 1:31 pm CDT


[The daily morning and evening sacrifices] shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at  the door of the tent of meeting before the LORD, where I will meet with  you, to speak there to you.  There I will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified  by my glory.  Ex. 29: 42-43

In the previous parsha we were introduced to the sanctuary compound (mikdash “holy area”) and the mishkan (“abode,” which can refer either to the entire sanctuary compound or the covered structure within it). This parsha introduces us to a third term, “tent of meeting” which also refers either the sanctuary or the covered structure.  This term emphasizes the Tabernacle as an oracle site.  The word translated “meeting” (mo’ed) derives from a verb that means to meet at an appointed place.  The Tent of Rendezvous.

In the midrashim, this encounter involves the radical decision of God to “downsize” to human scale.  “When God said, “make me a Dwelling place Moses wondered, and said, “the glory of God fills the upper and lower worlds, and yet he says to me, make me a dwelling place.”  God said, “not as you deem so do I deem, but 20 boards to the north, and 20 to the south, and eight to the west (are enough for me).  And not only that, but I will come down and confine my Shechinah within a square yard.”  God does this to be near his children, out of love: “See how potent was the love of God for Israel in that this divine glory was constrained, so was to appear speaking from the Mercy seat between the two cherubim.”

February 21, 2013 1:28 pm CDT

Tetzaveh–The Inner Point

I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar . . . And I will dwell among the people of Israel, and will be their God.  And they shall know that I am the LORD their God.    (Ex. 29:44-46)

For the late 19th century Hasidic teacher known as the Sefat Emet, the place of the divine/human encounter is the nekuda, the innermost point. The nekuda of the world is its “truest existence. . . . the source and true essence of all that is. Everything else is near garb, the infinitely daily costumes with which this point that animates all being has chosen to cloak itself.” (Arthur Green, The Language of Truth, xxxii)

There is a corresponding nekuda in us, capable of realizing the nekuda of creation.   “All things are brought into being by him. But the point is hidden and we have to expand it. This depends upon the point within us, for the more we expand our own souls, the more God is revealed to us in every place. This is the meaning of “when Yahweh your God widens your border (Deut. 12:20): when the point spreads forth and expands throughout the human soul.”

February 13, 2013 7:10 pm CDT

Terumah–Interior Space

“You shall make the enclosure of the Tabernacle”  Exod. 27:9

The word translated “Tabernacle” is mishkan, literally “abode,” what we could call God’s dwelling.  Its cognate verb, shakhan, appears first at the end of the previous parsha—”the Presence of YHWH abode on Mt. Sinai”—and at the beginning of this one: “make me a sanctuary (mikdash, holy place) that I may abide with them.”

The laws for building the Tabernacle immediately precede the incident of the Golden Calf; the actual construction of the Tabernacle immediately follows it.   Both the mishkan and the molten object are attempts to map the experience of God on to physical objects.  Apparently, there is a right way and a wrong way.

The Tabernacle shows us the plan of the right way first, a blueprint that Moses can view on high.  This seems to me to preclude the view of some interpreters that the Tabernacle is a kind of “plan B,” a lower form of religion introduced after Israel displays its spiritual immaturity in making the Golden Calf.

But how is the Tabernacle different from the Calf?  One could point to several differences, but the one that struck me was that the Tabernacle has interiority.  It is not a monument but a dwelling place.  You experience it by going inside.  It contains lavish decorations, but also empty space (mostly the latter, in fact, as any diagram of the Tabernacle will illustrate).  Together, they are a springboard for the worshipper to fill the rooms with our awareness, our response.

Whatever spaces we create to cultivate a sense of holiness, and however we fill (or not) those spaces, that is our mishkan.

February 13, 2013 7:05 pm CDT

Terumah–The Veils

You shall make a curtain of blue, purple, and crimson yarns,  and of fine twisted linen; it shall have a design of cherubim  woven into it.  You shall hang it on four pillars of acacia overlaid with  gold, which have hooks of gold and rest on four bases of  silver.  You shall hang the curtain under the clasps, and bring the ark of the covenant in there, within the curtain; and the curtain shall separate for you the holy place from the most  holy.  Exod. 26:31-33

The mishkan is divided into three areas: the enclosure (i.e., courtyard), the holy place, and the holy of holies.   Each is separated by a screen or curtain, made of fine materials as befits a sanctuary.  The degree of sanctity increases as one moves further in, and the material and design for the curtains becomes even finer (as witnessed by the silver bases and the woven cherubim in the curtain for the Holy of Holies).  The curtains demarcate the space; the arrangement creates a boundary, an awareness of other-ness, but at the same time invites entry.  We are drawn in towards the innermost chamber.

In similarly designed Temples in the Ancient Near East, there would be a statue of the deity in this innermost chamber.  But here, there is no image of the deity, and God dwells in darkness.  We are aware of power and beauty as we are drawn in, but at the heart, a mystery.

I am reminded of this teaching (which I first read decades ago in Nahum Glatzer’s wonderful Jewish Reader: In Time and Eternity)  ascribed to the Baal Shem Tov: “The end-all of knowledge is to know that we cannot know anything. But there are two sorts of not-knowing. The one is the immediate not knowing when a man does not even begin to examine and try to know because it is impossible to know. Another, however, examines and seeks, until he comes to know that one cannot know. And the difference between these two – to whom may we compare them? To two men who wish to see the King. The one enters all the chambers belonging to the king. He rejoices in the kings treasure rooms and splendid halls, and then he discovers that he cannot get to know the king. The other tells himself: “since it is not possible to get to know the king, we will not bother to enter, but put up with not knowing.”

February 7, 2013 7:16 pm CDT

Mishpatim–Coming to our Senses

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the  elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement of lapis lazuli, clear as the sky itself.  God did not lay a hand on the leaders of the people of Israel. They gazed on God; they ate and drank.   Exod. 24:9-11

Among the various traditions that were woven into the Torah’s Sinai narrative, there seems to have been one where the encounter with God was described exclusively in sensory terms.  Tigay calls it “a visual encounter, experienced in different degrees by the people, the leaders, and Moses.”

Even in this visual encounter, the text is reticent in describing God, focusing on what was “under his feet,” implying that even here they did not see God directly but from below, through the clear blue pavement.  The encounter was close enough to be dangerous, but at the same time the text emphasizes that the leaders were completely safe.   Their concord with God is expressed by eating a meal in the Presence, under the eye of the Holy One.

Imagine a Sinai encounter apart from the giving of the law.  Let the sensory elements of that extraordinary encounter sharpen the sensory elements of the moment right now, as you the feel of your weight on your chair, the smell and the taste of your bowl of soup, the patterned detail of threads in your shirt.  Gaze on God.

February 7, 2013 7:12 pm CDT

Mishpatim–Feedback Loop

All that YHWH has spoken we will do, and we will listen.  Ex. 24:7

This could be seen as verbal hendiadys: “we will do and we will listen” = “we will faithfully do.”  But Jewish tradition classically “over-interprets” the verbal sequence: the people commit themselves to act on God’s word (“we will do”) before they know what it is (“we will listen”).

Like the tradition, I also “over-interpret” this verse, but in a slightly different fashion.

“We will do”: the beginning of wisdom is action, involvement.

“And we will listen”: But it doesn’t stop with the doing.  After we do, we listen. Did our actions bring about the consequences we wanted?  If not, do we “try, try again”?  tweak the mitzvah?  or pursue an entirely different means to the right and holy ends we desire?  The history of Judaism gives ample evidence of all of these approaches.

The verse thus understood assumes that we will only understand as we perform, but it does not recommend blind obedience so much as it creates a feedback loop.  We will do, and after we do, we will listen.