Mordechai Silverstein

The Blame Game

Most of Parshat Pekudei is taken up with an accounting of the accouterments of the desert Sanctuary the Mishkan:

These are the records of the Mishkan, the Mishkan of the Testimony…  (Exodus 38:21)

The sages, however, were particularly intrigued by the word “Mishkan” (Mem Shin Kaf Nun). For one midrash, this curiosity inspired an evocative and deep interpretation of past Jewish tragedies involving the Temple which bears some relevance to present current events. We must note before we begin that the sages often expressed seemingly contradictory ideas even in a single message. I would suggest that this indicates an awareness that simple explanations are rarely effective in getting at the true meaning of events.

The first part of this midrash is composed of an analogy between two verses which allows its author to identify “testimony” with the Torah, followed by a parable which expresses the deep interrelationship between God, the Torah and Israel:

The Mishkan of the testimony (edut) (Exodus 38:21). Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai said: Testimony should be understood to mean Torah, as it is said: These are the testimonies (edot), and the statutes, and the ordinances (Deuteronomy 4:45). This may be compared to a king who has a daughter for whom he built a palace which He situates in the midst of seven other palaces and makes a proclamation: “Anyone who approaches my daughter will be considered as though he approaches me.” The Tabernacle was called by two names: The Tabernacle of the testimony, which is the Torah, and elsewhere: A Tabernacle of the Lord (Leviticus 17:4). The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Anyone who loathes My daughter is considered as if he loathes Me as well. So, if a person enters the synagogue and ridicules My Torah, it is as though he arose and insulted My honor. (Tanhuma Pekudei 4)

For this teaching, the Torah (God’s testimony) serves as God’s representative and, as such, the target for those who have contempt for God. The midrash proceeds to give a concrete example of just such a “hater”:

You know this to be so for Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai said: When Hadrian entered the Temple he cursed and blasphemed [God]. Said David: Master of the World, thus, it should be counted against them as though they had hewn cedars and built ladders in order to ascend into the firmament [to rebel against You] and they ascended, as it is said: ‘It seemed like when men wield upwards axes in a thicket of trees’. (Psalms 74:5) But since they are unable [to accomplish this], they left You (God) aside and attacked us, as it said: ‘O God, heathens have entered Your inheritance; they have defiled Your holy Temple’. (Psalms 79:1) All of this [happened] because the Temple was ‘repossessed’ (nitmashkain – root letters – mem shin kaf nun)) on account of our sins. (Ibid.)

In this segment, the Jewish people and the Temple serve as God’s representatives. The “hater” is empowered not only by their his but also by the sins of God’s people. In this case the outside “hater” was the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who is ahistorically associated here with the destruction of the Temple. (Hadrian was Emperor some sixty years after the Temple was destroyed and was involved in putting down the Bar Kokhba Revolt.) The internal ‘enemy’, here, were the Jews themselves who, according to this midrash’s telling, cause the Temple’s destruction through their sins.

The impetus for this midrashic interpretation is founded on a wordplay association between the word “mishkan” and the word “mashkon” – pledge.” Hence, the Temple was “repossessed” by God (destroyed) as punishment for the nation’s sins. It is worth noting that the sages did not shy away from the realization that national tragedies could not be blamed exclusively on the nation’s enemies. They were well aware that national tragedies are also the product of national wrongdoing.

The sages discerned that hatred of the Jews was bigger than the Jews. It was clear to them that it had to do with what Jews represent, be it belief in God or God’s message to the world as represented by the Torah. But they did not let the matter rest there. They also knew the harm caused by the failure to be self-aware. A people that is incapable of self-examination is doomed.

The ability to be introspective is rare on the national and international scene, but is part and parcel of the Jewish tradition. It is a good reminder for us as Jews to be aware of this and it would also be wise lesson for our neighbors to heed as well.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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