Thursday, March 10, 2005

Parashat Pequdei - In the Presence of the L-rd


Pequdei - the word comes from the Hebrew root PQD - peh, kuf, daled - and has a long history. We see it, for instance, in Bereshit 21:1, the Torah reading for Rosh HaShana - "And G-d remembered / visited Sarah..." In this week's parashah, it is used in the sense of "reckoning" - an accounting, for the parashah begins: "These are the reckonings of the Mishkan," and goes on to enumerate the articles and components that make up the Mishkan. The Parashah will end, and with it the Book of Shemot, with the erecting of the Mishkan and with Moshe installing the articles of Avodah. Finally, the glory of G-d will descend in a cloud, and no one will be able to enter or approach. All will be in place, Bnei Israel will have their dwelling place for G-d, who will fulfill the promise and dwell in the emptiness in our midst.

What is the meaning of the word Mishkan? How many layers of meaning does this word bear, and what is the significance lent to this word by the text itself?

It is a basic principle of Torah exegesis that, in order to assess the meaning of a word in context, it is necessary to view that word in its first occurrence, for contexts accrete, and words such as Mishkan carry layers of nuance. In the case of Mishkan, in fact, the word carries many generations of meaning.

Look at the several appearances of the word ShChN, all of them, in sequence, leading up to the erecting of the Mishkan.

Bereshit 3:24 - The first appearance of the root ShChN: "And [G-d] banished Adam, and [G-d] 'yashken' stationed at the east of the Garden the cherubim and the flame of the sword..." The first and eternal Exile.

9:27 - Noach, speaking for the only time on record: "May G-d extend Yaphet, and 'yishkon' - he will dwell in the tents of Shem, and Canaan will be a slave unto them." the curse that continues to this day, the eternal strife between the descendants of Shem and the children of Canaan.

14:13 "A fugitive fled and came and told Avram the Ivri, who 'shochen' dwelt in elonei mamre..." Which is the place of circumcision.

16:12 - ".. And he shall 'yishkon' dwell in the face of all his brothers." the blessing of Ishmael, who shall live in constant opposition to his own peoples; yet who is also blessed, and who shall be great, for twelve tribes shall come from him.

25:18 - "'Vayishkenu' and they dwelt from Haviliah to Shur..." The geographical spread of the descendants of Ishmael.

26:2 "G-d appeared to [Yitzhak] and said'Do not go down to Egypt - 'shchon' dwell in the Land..."

35:22 - "And it was 'bishchon' when Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuven went and lay with Bilhah..." The Supplanter Supplanted! Yaakov inherits the blessing / covenant of Dwelling; even at the most difficult of times, he and his family are part of the Abrahamic destiny.

49:13 - "Zevulun 'yishchon' shall dwell by the shore of the oceans..." The blessing of Israel upon his twelve sons before he dies.

What do these passages have in common? They all relate to the family of Abraham - to descendants who carry a blessing. Note that there is no occurrence of the ShChN associated with Esav, for example. The first occurrence relating to Abraham is at the place - Elonei Mamre - where Abram is circumcised. It is in relation to the capture of Lot - who likewise does not rate a mention of the ShChN root; rather, we are told that Avram 'yashav' in Canaan, and Lot 'yashav' in the cities of the plain.

The ShChN root definitely combines, through these occurrences, into a thematic thread that binds the concepts of Exile and the strife between Israel and Canaan. Indeed, the later history of the Tribes reveals (Judges 1:30) that Zvulun, the only son of Yaakov to be directly given the word ShChN, fails to drive the Canaanites out of their portion in the Land. As a result, the Canaanites overpower them, and Zvulun end up paying tribute to Canaan - the curse of Noach comes full circle!

It is shocking and bizarre to realize that Noach is silent the entire time he is on the page; that the only words we hear from his mouth are the cursing of Canaan, followed by a roundabout blessing on his other sons, which reinforces and reiterates the curse. Noach blesses only G-d; he asks a blessing upon Yaphet, and asks once again that Canaan be cursed by being a slave to his uncles, Shem and Yaphet. Yaphet is to dwell in the tents of Shem. Clearly, it is Shem who comes out on top.

But a blessing, or a curse, is only a condition. In every generation, in everyone's life, all these elements must be worked out, must be applied consciously. The Blessing of Noach - of G-d and of Torah, for that matter - are there for us to take. But it is not enough to contemplate the blueprint of the Mishkan, not enough to fabricate the components. We must team together and, acting as a unified people, assemble and erect the structure. Then we must put it into use. And we must use it every day. Each day the lamps must be lit - the ner tamid, the 'eternal flame', is not a flame that burns non-stop; rather, the Torah tells us that Aharon must clean the menorah and re-kindle the lamp each day; tamid, Rashi explains, means 'constant' in the sense of each day no matter what else happens, the lamp must be cleaned, refilled and re-lit. Thus, even Eternity only exists by our involvement. The Zohar states that the world remains in existence only for the sake of young children learning words of Torah.

Now watch:

When the ShChN root first appears, G-d stations the kruvim at the entrance to the Garden to keep us out. The Mei HaShiloah - the Izbotzer Rebbe - tells us: when we first entered the Midbar, the entire wilderness was the place where we encountered G-d. After the Mishkan was finally erected, the only place we could encounter G-d was in the designated are, within the Kodesh, facing the Aron HaEdut - the Ark of the Testimony. And let us recall what part of the Mishkan, what part of this whole vast structure makes it possible for us to communicate with G-d: in Parashat Terumah, Shemot 25:17-22, G-d describes the Aron to Moshe, explains exactly how it is to be structured. "You shall make two kruvim of gold," G-d commands, "... make one keruv... at one end and one keruv ... at the other end." And verse 22: (my own free translation) "And I will make my appointments [meetings] with you there and I will speak with you from above the kapporet from between the two kruvim that are on top of the Ark of the Testimony..." The kruvim stand before the gate. The gate is either a passageway into Exile, or a way to redemption from Exile. Everything in the world of space, time and motion exists in dual aspects. Torah is the way to discernment. It is we who must decide.

* * * * *

I am troubled by the notion of Canaan being eternally cursed. As a modern American urban Jew with a solid liberal upbringing, the notion of irredeemability sticks in my craw. I do not always make excuses or apologies for Chazal, nor am I comfortable with much of what I continue to study and learn and absorb. But I have made a life commitment to Yiddishkeit. For me, that means meeting our tradition on its own terms and struggling with the meanings that arise.

What is the nature of Amalek? For these parshiyot - Vayakhel / Pequdei - are read right before Purim. And Purim is the apotheosis of the war between Torah and Amalek. Chazal tell us that the nature of Amalek, and why G-d must have war with Amalek throughout the generations, is that the hatred of Amalek for Israel is beyond the bounds of human hatred. Amalek is so bent on destroying the Jewish People that he will go to any length to achieve his goal. Specifically, Chazal tell us that Amalek's hatred of Israel is so great, his thirst for destruction so insatiable, that he will willingly destroy himself in order to kill us. It is chilling to contemplate words two thousand years old side by side with today's headlines.

I wish I could offer a solution. Alas, the Torah recognizes that there are human beings who are not capable of teshuvah - repentance. Those who remain in that state continue to call down upon themselves the curse of Noach. There is a certain sense in which all of us, even the most pacifist and the most compassionate, must heed G-d's call to Yitzhak: Shchon ba'aretz - remain in the Land. At our core, there must be a constant dwelling steadfastness.

yours for a better world

shabbat shalom


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