When I helped guide a young Christian business associate through a spiritual crisis, little did we know that it would result in a life-altering book. The Weight of Gold brings out the Torah’s universal messages for personal growth and social justice, showing that the Torah is indeed the User’s Guide to the human soul. Follow this blog each week for new insights into this ancient text. The book is now available through Amazon and in select bookstores. All profits from book sales are contributed to charity. See at: https://tikkunolam613.com
I have finally found a place to live
Just like I never could before
And I know I don’t have much to give,
But soon I’ll open any door
This week’s portion opens with the laws of the Sabbath, then shifts to a detailed description of the making of the Tabernacle’s elements and furnishings. The Sabbath is the crowning moment of Creation; it is reflected in the Tabernacle, the fulcrum that brings humans into partnership with God. God makes time, which we sanctify by observing the Sabbath. God also makes the world of space and motion, where we now build a physical Tabernacle that will be sanctified by God’s Presence. The Tabernacle’s parts are listed here, and they will be fastened together and the final structure erected in the next Torah portion. Thus, the Tabernacle reenacts Creation as the concrete enactment of our partnership with God.
The Tabernacle differs from the Creation in Genesis. There, the consequences of Creation play out as the world of space, time, and motion starts behaving differently from the way it is intended to behave. This is every creator’s experience – and every parent’s. We envision a perfect design; which, however, never quite translates into execution. Disorder is an unavoidable concomitant of every creative act, and of God’s Creation no less than ours.
This may not always be obvious to us in the natural world, but it emerges blatantly once humans enter the picture. The natural world’s constraints of sequence force us into the thornbush of free choice, where to choose one thing is necessarily to forsake another. We cannot both stand still and move at the same time; we cannot be both asleep and awake; we cannot both slay and protect, cannot both speak and be silent. This interplay of desire paired with loss, of success tinged by eternal disappointment – longing for what can never be – lies at the heart of the human condition.
The primary consequence of every human act of creation is that the physical, created thing is going to be different from the envisioned image and plan. This same tension plagues God’s Creation, with the highest level of misunderstanding, of disobedience and error, reserved for humans. Unlike God’s act of Creation, which it reflects, the Tabernacle will be perfect in every dimension, unerringly balanced and exquisitely executed. Paradoxically, the Torah uses this state of perfect equilibrium to underscore the superiority of God’s perfect Creation: balance equals stagnation; a perfectly balanced Creation is the result of artifice. God creates, while humans merely make. We take finished pieces of God’s creating and fashion them into an immovable piece. The very exactness with which the Tabernacle is executed announces its inferiority. God’s creative force flows eternally through all things; the creative work of building the Tabernacle takes place once, during the lifetimes of its builders. They die, and the structure remains because, in a cosmic sense, it too is dead.
The Tabernacle is the focal activity by which the Israelites bind themselves to God in the wilderness. By reenacting God’s work of Creation, we both embrace and enact our eagerness to take on what the rabbis call the yoke of Torah, our acceptance of our obligations as God’s servants.
The Sabbath is the focus of Creation, perhaps even its ultimate goal, and it is the core defining practice of Judaism. The Sabbath was given to Israel in the wilderness before the revelation and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. One of the major liturgical poems sung at the inauguration of the Sabbath every Friday evening states this explicitly with the verse “Last in realization, first in conceptualization.” The Sabbath imbues human time with sanctity. In Hebrew, the names of the days of the week reflect that all time emanates from the Sabbath: first day, second day, third day (Sunday, Monday and Tuesday), and so on up to sixth day, the eve of the Sabbath.
The Sabbath is the touchstone for human creation as well. Mystics tell us that human activity on earth causes activity in heaven. Just as heaven reaches down to sanctify the Sabbath, our actions on the Sabbath touch heaven itself. This relationship of the Tabernacle to the Sabbath, and to God’s act of Creation, is more than metaphorical. The Sabbath is the day on which we return the world to God’s keeping.
The commandment to “rest” on the Sabbath entails desisting from a range of activities derived from the work of making the Tabernacle and its furnishings. Thus, prohibited “work” on the Sabbath includes such activities as farming, because animals were shorn and skinned, and their wool and hides fashioned into curtains and coverings within the Tabernacle; wheat was harvested to bake bread that was offered in the Tabernacle, and plants were grown and their fibers used for weaving and their colors for dyes. Kindling and maintaining a fire are prohibited, because the priests maintained a constant flame on the altar, and because the eternal light burned in the Menorah. Cooking is prohibited because it requires the use of flame, and breads were baked and animal offerings burned in the Tabernacle.
Underlying all this is a fundamental restraint from intervening to change God’s world. On the Sabbath, the mechanism of running the world – and all choices and decisions – reverts to God. For a night and a day, we suspend human striving and dwell as recipients of God’s graciousness, grateful and humble, meditative and prayerful.
Now Moses commands, “Let all whose hearts are generous bring it, a donation for God…. And every wise-hearted one among you, let them come and make what God has commanded: the Tabernacle and its tent and its cover” (35:5, 10). We have emphasized the words generous and wise to bring out the Torah’s message: generosity provides the raw materials, a bounty of gold, silver, and copper, of animal skins and dyed wool, of wood – rare in the desert – and spices, oils, and pigments. Tempering generosity, wisdom provides the work of turning these raw materials into the Tabernacle and its furnishings. Every proper act of creation balances giving and holding back, excess and restraint.
Every act of creation is fundamentally an act of generosity, the ability – or the compelling urge – to share what is most precious to us, to give it over to someone else. In God’s case, before the act of Creation, there was no one else. Some hasidic masters describe Creation as a pure expression of God’s generosity. The only one of God’s infinite aspects that does not completely fulfill itself is generosity, which by definition requires an Other to give to. God’s Creation is the ultimate act of generosity, creating both what is shared and those with whom to share it:
And all the congregation of Israel departed from before Moses. And everyone whose heart inspired them came; everyone whose spirit moved them to generosity brought a contribution for God for the work of the tent of meeting and its service, and for the holy garments. And the men came as well as the women, everyone of generous heart brought bracelets and nose-rings, and rings, and body-ornaments, all ornaments of gold, everyone who lifted up an offering of gold to God. (35:20–22).
Not every Israelite returns with gifts, though many do, contributing so much that there is an imbalance of overflowing generosity. The words “generous” and “bring” resound in these verses. Biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman notes a foreshadowing of the book of Leviticus, where overwhelming generosity will collide with God’s restrictive specifications and result in the death of Aaron’s two sons. The verse (35:29), “Every man and woman whose heart moved them to bring for all the work…”, twice juxtaposes the Hebrew words nediv, “generous”; and heviu, “they brought.” These are the Hebrew roots of the names of Aaron’s oldest sons, Nadab and Abihu, who will feature in the central episode of the book of Leviticus – what I will argue is, in fact, the central episode of the entire Torah.
As we said at the beginning of this piece, after restating the laws of the Sabbath, Moses lists the items to be brought for the Tabernacle. Then he pauses to go up the mountain and receive the first set of tablets, as if to say, Be wise, don’t act without thinking through the consequences of your actions; then take action. Measure twice, cut once. He instructs the people, Bring out of generosity tempered with wisdom. Bring prudently. Be not like the one who loved not wisely, but too well, for in that way lies tragedy.
Moses already took God’s Torah and destroyed it once, then rewrote it as a book to live by. Now Moses takes the essence of God’s command – that we give our all for God and for Torah – and frames a legalistic concept of restraint. Our noble sentiments, sparked by the experience of spiritual loftiness as we carry out God’s command, express themselves in generosity. But generosity must be kept within proper bounds, lest it become excess. This theme of unthinking kindness becoming a destructive force plays out repeatedly throughout the Torah.
Which is perhaps the answer to the question: Why do “all the congregation of Israel” depart from before Moses, but only some, “whose heart inspired them,” return? Perhaps some Israelites remember the last time they were bidden to bring precious things: they threw their gold earrings into a molten mass from which arose the Golden Calf. Those earrings, representing the very ears that heard God at Sinai, now became the instruments of abandoning God. Yet here, many people do return, bringing all manner of gold jewelry. Indeed, this is what they were about to be commanded when interrupted by the episode of the Golden Calf (ch. 33.).
Now the process unfolds according to the program. The components of the Tabernacle are made, each precisely according to instruction. By the end of next week’s portion, which closes the book of Exodus, the Tabernacle will stand and the Presence of God will fill it.
The purpose of the Tabernacle is to bring atonement for Israel’s sins, both for wrongs done to another human being and for departures from God’s ritual requirements. It is itself an acknowledgment of the overwhelming imperfection that runs through Creation. Yet its components fit together precisely as intended. Each serves perfectly its designated, role and the Tabernacle will rise exactly as planned. Exactly as commanded. From the human perspective, God’s Creation appears flawed, while our own creation is perfect.
It is far easier to make a perfect tent than to build a perfect society, far easier to make sure that pieces of cloth are all the same size than to ensure that all people receive equal treatment before the law. The Tabernacle is a metaphor for human perfection – it is critical for the fulfillment of God’s ritual commandments, but in the human sphere it is only a metaphor. The test will be, not how closely does the Tabernacle correspond to the Torah’s written plan, but how closely will our actions correspond to the Torah’s expectations?
~ ~ ~
And so we come to the final reading in the book of Exodus. The Tabernacle, so much spoken of, is raised for the first time (Ex. 40:17). The closing verses of Exodus provide a literary full stop: Moses completes the work of erecting the Tabernacle, whereupon God’s presence and glory – concretized in a cloud – cover and fill the structure so that even Moses cannot enter. Perfection, it would seem. Or is it?
If, as the rabbis say, the Tabernacle is a replay of the Creation, where does Israel stand now that they have recreated Creation? The portion opens with, and takes its title from, the most multifaceted word in the Hebrew Bible – paqad. This root gives rise to a range of words, all revolving around relationships between unequal parties: one party either takes responsibility for the other, or demands something of the other; one party bestows on the other something of great value, or requires that the other bear some obligation.
“And God remembered Sarah…” (Gen. 21:1). “And the head executioner appointed Joseph…” (Gen. 40:4). “God shall surely remember you…” (Gen. 50:25). And “I have surely remembered you…” (Ex. 50:25) when Moses and Aaron reassure the Israelites in Egypt that God has remembered them, and that the time of redemption has come.
In all these passages, the italicized words are from the same paqad root. Other meanings associated with this root include: to examine or inspect; to have a marital connection with someone; to decree upon; to command; to give or deposit something as security; to charge someone with a duty; to count, as in a census; and – notably- to provide an accounting.
“These are the accounts of the Tabernacle,” opens the portion (Ex. 38:21) “… tabulated according to Moses’ instruction…”
This closing reading of Exodus could indeed have been written by an accountant. It presents a detailed inventory of the elements of the Tabernacle and its furnishings: the garments and regalia prepared for Aaron and his sons; the Ark of the Covenant; the altars and table for bringing offerings – all these, and more. And the details are emphasized: the tent pegs, rings and hooks, the sockets, ropes and poles, the boards and pillars, and the coverings of animal skins and wool – all these are recorded. The accounting of the priestly garments includes the shoulder straps, the chains to hold the breastplate, as well as its carved stones – each by name – the materials and colors of robes, tunics, and headgear, all these are listed. The altars are recorded, together with their appurtenances of lattice-work, copper laving bowls, utensils for bringing offerings, and the incense and salves used in the Tabernacle service. True to its opening words, with the completion of the work, everything is accounted for.
In its dry and detailed listing of each element of the Tabernacle, this portion foresees the didacticism of the book of Leviticus, which is an instruction manual for the priestly service. We have told so many stories, the text seems to be saying. We listed everywhere we went and everyone we encountered; now let us also mention everything we carried with us, all that we put to use to execute the design of God’s earthly dwelling.
After the splitting of the sea, when God’s miracles are once again hidden, the people accuse Moses of bringing them into the desert to perish. When Moses ascends Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, they turn to a god of gold – precisely the practice that God has explicitly forbidden in the Decalogue.
While the Tabernacle takes up much of the book of Exodus, it is receiving the Torah and God’s revelation at Mount Sinai which constitute Israel’s greatest moment in the wilderness. The purpose of the Tabernacle – and later, of the Temple at Jerusalem – is to atone for the sins of Israel. Specifically the Golden Calf, where Israel rejected God and Moses. (The same God and the same Moses that Israel could only believe in when they saw them before their own eyes at the splitting of the sea – “And Israel saw the great hand which God used on Egypt, and the people feared God and they believed in God and in Moses, his servant.”)
If the Tabernacle is the corrective for a people who are forever breaking faith with their God and with their leaders, then what message does this extensive inventory convey?
The Hebrew word for Tabernacle is Mishkan, from the verb “to dwell.” The Hebrew root first appears when God stations cherubim at the gates of Eden, to keep Adam and Eve out (Gen. 3:24), “And [God] positioned to the east of the Garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery sword turning this way and that way to guard the path to the Tree of Life.” The cherubim now return to dwell at the heart of the Tabernacle, where they become the gate providing access to God. The Tabernacle is God’s earthly dwelling – God sees that there must be a physical Divine presence in the world at all times, lest we forget, lest we despair. And though its detailed plans are given in the Torah, the many chapters devoted to the design and fabrication of the Tabernacle attest to the importance not of the structure itself, but of each individual’s contribution. The Tabernacle is not complete until every individual ha contributed.
In the aftermath of the Golden Calf, the Tabernacle is order emerging from chaos. By tying the Tabernacle to the Creation narrative, the rabbis reveal its deeper theme, the beating heart of the Torah. The two cherubim stand atop the Ark of the Covenant. Their arching wings – hovering close, yet never touching – form an emptiness from which God addresses Moses and through him, the entire nation of Israel. Unlike the cherubs placed at the gates of Eden to keep humanity out, these cherubim invite us into intimate dialogue with God. The Torah is given not only to Moses, but all humanity participates in the divine conversation. Finally, we have turned around the narrative of rejecting God’s authority. The Tabernacle brings us back to that most intimate of relationships, the face-to-face encounter with God. Eve and Adam ate the fruit, and they were banned from God’s presence. Now Israel, who worshipped the calf of gold, are invited back into God’s presence – indeed, God has taken the first step, instructing that a physical dwelling be erected.
At Mount Sinai, God’s revelation was overpowering. The Israelites cowered in fear and told Moses to go forward on his own. Now the Ark of the Covenant rests at the center of the Tabernacle, the Tablets of the Law resting within. Unlike much of the unsuccessful communication in Genesis, God has decided to limit God’s own presence to a tiny space at the heart of the complex structure of the Tabernacle. God has chosen a new way of speaking with us: maybe by communicating one word at a time, God hopes we may be able to assimilate it. Now we must meet God’s message by revealing our own inner essence. Word by word, we must make a full and honest spiritual accounting: Who am I, really? What unique gifts set me apart from all humanity, and how can I best use them in the service of my destiny? What shortcomings limit my ability to move towards that destiny, and how can I guard against them? What does God expect from me – now, and at every moment?
We are told that this world is broken. Yet we each hold one small tool, and when we know how to work in harmony, we can make progress towards repairing it. We, who could not withstand the voice of God at Mount Sinai – can it be that we are sent to save the rest of humanity? The answer is, Yes. Beginning with ourselves. Yes, the world is broken. But so are we. And it is precisely in the awareness of our own brokenness that we open ourselves to God’s wisdom. God has invited us back into Eden. In order to enter, we must give a full accounting of ourselves. For surely, God will call us to account.
Yours for a better world. Hazak!