I think it is fair to say: this has been a pretty exhilarating Season 2. No, not House of Cards – I am of course referring to Exodus, the second season of the five-part biblical epic The Torah. We must be binging on this box set for close to the two- or three-thousandth time now – and the drama has not yet got old.
The season began with the enslavement of the Hebrews in Egypt – and that story arc ended mid-season, packing in ten terrible plagues and cumlminating in the dramatic crossing of the Red Sea. Now in the second half of the season, the Hebrews are trekking across the vast Sinai Desert, and the tension is in the hot desert air. The last episode ended with something of a cliffhanger – and we wait with bated breath to see what happens next.
So, here’s what happened last time on Exodus:
At the top of Mount Sinai, God gives Moses two tablets of stone inscribed with a divine revelation. Aaron is pressured by the mob into launching a coup d’état against his brother Moses, defying God by building a golden calf for worship in his stead. God threatens to annihilate the Hebrews, but is dissuaded by Moses, who smashes the tablets and wreaks his own terrible revenge. Moses melts the calf and forces the Hebrews to drink the gold. Then he orders the Levites to massacre 3,000 sinners, turning a broiges into fratricide. Moses schleps back up the mountain and writes the Ten Commandments on new tablets. He descends, radiant, to lead the Hebrews to a land flowing with milk and honey.
Critics are sure that the season has peaked: it surely cannot get more exciting than that – and they are right. For this parashah – Vayakhel – is a disappointing anti-climax.
Instead of blood and gore, we essentially have an Ikea manual for the construction of the gaudiest and most garish porta-temple ever built: the Mishkan is a sort of St Peter’s Basilica on wheels.
The interior design of the Mishkan was evidently chosen by someone with more money than taste: it is simply oozing with gold, silver and copper; turquoise and purple wool; scarlet animal skins; acacia wood and precious stones.
Then, for the rest of the hour, we are treated to a long shot of the Hebrews assembling this – let’s face it – rather ostentatious marquee.
Vayakhel is not, it is safe to say, the most action-packed episode in the series. But what it lacks in the thrill department, it more than compensates for in subtle drama. Quite simply, this parashah is indispensible – and serves a vital narrative function, that only makes sense if watched back-to-back with last week’s Ki Tissa.
Think about it.
The Hebrews are in trauma. The anti-Moses coup backfired: they have just witnessed the slaughter of thousands of their own. The God they believed had disappeared came back on the scene with a vengeance. They are promised a return to the Promised Land, but they are still reeling from shock. They need breathing space. They need to internalise what just happened: they cannot just pick themselves up and move forward (literally, and figuratively) as if nothing had happened.
And that’s where the Mishkan comes in: before the Hebrews can get over the past, they need to build a new framework to hold this battered and bruised people together, to carry them through in their recovery from trauma.
So they build a sanctuary, marking their acceptance that things can never go back to how they were before. The world has changed: and they need a stable structure to see themselves through, or the sense of being alone in the desert will devour them.
Even the Wandering Jew needs to feel at home if the trauma is not to drive him mad.
Perhaps it is this neurotic urge to break with the past and hurry up and move on that leads the Hebrews to, well, overcompensate. They bring so much gold for the temple that Moses has to ask them to stop, to go back home and get a grip. The Hebrews are so eager to pick themselves up and move forward that their efforts appear just a bit excessive: as if they are trying too hard to please.
They are desperate to prove to others that they have moved on, but it is also to prove a point to themselves. Yet they are still in trauma: how could they not be? And so the building of the Mishkan is one massive exercise in denial: an attempt to return to normality without confronting the past, and to pretend that they have recovered from the shock when plainly they have not.
So, for the discerning viewer, Vayakhel is a breathing point: but it is also an opportunity to reflect on the fact that the extras in this drama are momentously complex human beings – and that the real drama is not in the special effects of the glowing pillars of cloud, but in the internal psyches of the tired, poor huddled masses, who are not blindly following their leader towards salvation, but are battling with their own consciences on how they can confront a dangerous and unstable world.
“They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.” Yes, but not so fast: veering back to normality without confronting ones’ daemons after a trauma only risks denying one ever the possibility of really embracing normality, if those daemons are stil there.
This episode in the grand historical drama, therefore, has resonances for our present lives. It is precisely our discomfort at the way the Hebrews try to pretend that nothing is wrong – unconvincingly, to my mind – that reminds us of the importance of dealing with our own daemons, traumas, upsets and neuroses instead of repressing those bad feelings and putting on a happy face that convinces no one, not least ourselves.
They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat – but first let’s dissect how we feel about being survivors in the first place. This is what we do around the Seder table; and it is one of Judaism’s greatest strengths. No one’s life is a fairy tale: we are all survivors of some sort. As Jews, we celebrate that fact, and constantly wrestle with the past instead of trying to forget it every happened – unlike our benighted forbears in the disturbing episode of Vayakhel.
The season is approaching its finale. Word is, the series has been renewed for a third season: if one and two are anything to go by, I’d say this drama is one to keep your eye on.
This dvar Torah is adapted from a sermon given to the Beth Shalom Reform Community in Cambridge in this week’s student-led service.