Fox Tales: Parashat Shekalim–Up-Tempo

This week, as the book of Exodus comes to a conclusion, it does so with particular attention to the construction process of the divine “Dwelling” (sometimes termed the “Tabernacle” in English). Continuing from the previous week, where the main theme, evident in the repeated phrase “he [Moshe] made…,” is detailing the initial stages of how the cultic structure and its vessels were put together, we are treated to long descriptions of the process whereby pieces and personnel are finally assembled.

Just as striking as the details is the eventual pacing of the reading. While grammar and syntax are important components of any text, this section is notable for how it brings the reader along to the final setting up of the Dwelling. This is accomplished by the constant repetition of key imperative verbs in chapter 40. In just the first fifteen verses, there are twenty-six examples of “You are to…,” including “erect,” “place” (multiple times), “screen,” “bring in,” “put” (also multiple times), and “take”; when the text focuses on the Levites and their consecration, we hear “anoint,” “hallow,” “wash,” “clothe,” and “bring near” over and over.

This concentration on action verbs takes a more urgent turn later in the chapter. From vv. 18-33, the hearer experiences a quickening of the pace, with repeating verbs such as “placed,” “put,” and “set up,” to the point where, in modern terms, it feels like the fast- forwarding of an audio or video track. The section begins with v. 18, and if we look at the text through v. 21, for instance, we get a good sense of the pacing:

18  Moshe erected the Dwelling:
he put up its sockets,
he placed its boards,
he put up its bars,
he erected its columns,
19  he spread out the tent over the Dwelling,
he placed the cover of the tent over it, above,
as YHWH had commanded Moshe.

20  He took and put the Testimony in the Coffer [Ark],
he placed the poles of the Coffer,
he put the Purgation-Cover of the Coffer, above,
21  he brought the Coffer into the Dwelling,
he placed [there] the curtain of the screen
and screened the Coffer of Testimony,
as YHWH had commanded Moshe.

There is a sense here of almost rushing to completion, a kind of hurtling toward the goal of finishing the portable sacred structure. And the account is rhythmically punctuated by the seven-fold occurrence of a refrain-like phrase, “as YHWH had commanded Moshe” (ka-asher tzivvah YHWH et Moshe).

The practice of speeding up a final section is well-known in classical music. Beethoven uses it frequently, in works such as his “Eroica” (Third) Symphony and his last-composed overture to the opera Fidelio; another example is found in the final movement of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony. In these examples, the composer pulls together earlier thematic material in an accelerated form (marking the final bars Presto in the first two cases, and Più allegro in the third), giving the entire piece a striking and integrated ending. The effect is dramatic.

I would like to suggest that the book of Exodus does something similar. By the time we get to the summary in v. 33, “So Moshe finished the work,” we are somewhat breathless. But at this point the physical labor is complete, and what remains is for the “Glory” (kavod), the aura of God, to descend upon the sanctuary in order to accompany the Israelites on their trek through the wilderness. It is a Grand Finale to a book that could have ended with the triumph at the Reed Sea, or with the leaders feasting at Mount Sinai after the giving of the laws. Instead, Exodus, in its final chapters, focuses on the  communal effort of building something meaningful—a sacred center along with the previously acquired code of behavior. The book which began with a sense of hopelessness amid slavery rushes to end with the Divine Presence, day and night, in the midst of the traveling camp.

About the Author
I'm the Allen M. Glick Professor of Judaic and Biblical Studies at Clark University, Worcester, MA. I've published translations of The Five Books of Moses and The Early Prophets.
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