Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Parashat Vayakhel - The Consequences of Creation

b"h

"And all the congregation of Bnei Israel departed from before Moshe."
(Shemot 35:20)

The Mishkan is viewed as a re-enactment of the original Creation of the World -- a making concrete, and in human terms, of the ultimate First and Only Making. The Rabbis of the gemara have laid this out clearly, and there are markers in the text that make it explicit.

But remember: our whole approach to Torah is to understanding this text through its own eyes -- through the approach I call The Consequences of Creation. We see in Parashat Bereshit that, almost right off the bat, the world of time, space and motion starts behaving differently from the way it is intended to behave. The ultimate culprit in this all is, of course, humans. ("We have met the enemy, and it is us...") And, for those who require a more traditional rabbinic source for my flights of Sinaitic fancy, remember what Rashi says on Bereshit 1:11: G-d commands the earth to bring forth 'etz pri -- literally "tree of fruit", which Rashi says means the tree itself is to taste of the fruit. In the next verse, though, the earth actually brings forth "trees bearing fruit", which is not in accordance with G-d's explicit demand. Rashi links the disobedience of the trees to the curse of Adam and Eve -- they sinned through a tree...? -- my question is: if the command is "Let the earth bring forth..." Then why do we say it is the trees that are cursed? Should it not rather be the earth itself?

One of the primary consequences of the act of creation is that the physical created Thing is going to be different from the envisioned image, the plan of the Thing. One might argue that, in G-d's perfect creation, there is nothing that differs from G-d's concept -- which is what makes G-d's creation different, and perfect by definition.

I would argue that G-d's creation is "Perfect" in the Platonic sense: in that this universe contains everything that can possibly exist. And, of course, disobedience and error also exist as part of the perfect universe. We know from Chazal that "G-d and G-d's Torah are one". But there are many other currents running through the rabbinic literature -- not to mention the text of Torah itself, that seem to imply there might be the occasional disconnect between what G-d had in mind, and the actual outcome. This will not be the first time I have gotten myself in trouble for approaching Torah as a fascinating narrative in which G-d is the central character.

The test of Perfection, then, may be how closely the actual Mishkan corresponds to the plan of the Mishkan enunciated in Terumah and Tetzaveh.

What happens in this week's parasha?

Our focus is the making of the physical components of the Mishkan. Yet, the parasha opens with the laws of Shabbat. Recall that, according to Rashi, the laws of Shabbat are given to us at the Waters of Meribah, immediately after we leave Mizraim. That is, we are given Shabbat and its commandments before we receive the Torah. Is Shabbat somehow a precondition for Torah? Is the message that, as the gemara states, keeping Shabbat is equivalent to keeping all the other Mizvot of Torah? In a halachic sense, we are told repeatedly that Shabbat is of paramount importance. In a homiletical sense, we are being told that, yes, for those who despair of being able to keep all the mitzvot, Shabbat is a good stand-in. Shabbat gives sanctity to the other days. And if we strive only to keep Shabbat properly, the Kedushah -- sanctity -- that we create for that one day will necessarily spill over into the rest of our lives.

The mishna in Pirkei Avot admonishes: Distance yourself from an evil neighbor. Why? One reason is that we are influenced by those around us. So too, Shabbat influences the rest of our time, even if we do not plan it that way. How many Ba'alei teshuvah -- Jews who return to religion -- start out by keeping Shabbat? It is the gateway to all practice. It is probably safe to say that far more Jews come to religious observance through Shabbat observance than through all other roads. Because when we keep Shabbat, we enwrap ourselves in G-d's Torah. We sense it viscerally, as though enfolding ourselves in a vast and comforting tallit.

And then the work of making the Mishkan begins.

First, Moshe gives a quick encapsulated run-down of the objects to be made. He introduces this by addressing "Every wise-hearted one among you..." At the beginning of Parashat Terumah, G-d instructs Moshe to address "... Each one whose heart moves him / her to generosity..." The word yidvennu comes from a root meaning To be generous. But it also means To be noble. Thus, it may also mean, All persons whose heart ennobles them... What is significant is that Moshe has received this phrase from G-d, but we have no record that he spoke to the people about it until this week's Parasha -- Vayakhel. And how does Moshe phrase G-d's command?

In chapter 35, verse 10, Moshe says: "Every one among you who is wise of heart..." In other words: "If you know what is good for you..."! Through the following verses, Moshe gives a brief list of the components of the Mishkan and its furnishings. And then, the text tells us, "And all the congregation of Bnei Israel departed from before Moshe." (verse 21). The following verse states "And there came every man whose heart lifted him..." The Hebrew word nesa'o is the same word used in the previous Parasha - Ki Tissa - and has already garnered a web of multiple meanings, both explicit and implicit: count up, forgive sin, put to the test - all of them emanating from the core sense of "to elevate". This is followed in the next phrase of the verse with the expression "and all whose spirit made him generous [or: ennobled him]..."

Finally, in verse 22 we are told that the men and the women came, all together, as though undifferentiated, and the word nediv - generous / noble - appears again. And now we are told what it is they bring: all manner of gold jewelry. In short: exactly what they were to be commanded in Parashat Terumah, but what was interrupted by the episode of the Golden Calf.

And did they actually have any gold jewelry left? For did they not all come rushing to bring their gold to Aharon when he tried to stall them by asking for their gold? -- The Midrash says that Aharon specifically asked the men to bring the gold jewelry from their own wives and children in order to make the Golden Calf. Aharon reasoned that no one would want to give up their gold, especially the women, and so he would be able to stall until Moshe returned the following day. Alas, says the midrash, the people were so bent on evil that they came rushing to bring Aharon all their gold.

So where does the gold in this week's parasha come from? The answer lies in Ki Tisa, Shemot 32:2, 3. Aharon asks explicitly that the people remove the gold rings from their ears, and in verse 3 they do, and all the gold earrings are cast into the heap from which the calf is fashioned. This week, in 35:22, the text explicitly enumerates several kinds of gold jewelry EXCEPT for earrings.

Perhaps Moshe's use of the term "wise-hearted", as opposed to G-d's own term "generous-hearted" (or "noble-hearted", if you like) reveals a profound carefulness appropriate to a man who is both a spiritual and a political leader, a shepherd who must learn quickly if he is to maintain his flock.

The two meanings of the Hebrew word nediv coalesce in an ultimate scene both terrifying and tragic, and ennobling and spiritually transcendent. The oldest son of Aharon is Nadav, whose name comes from the same root, and whose excess of zealous generosity, his generosity of heart doom him. Nadav, together with his brother Abihu, will die by being consumed by G-d's fire when, out of a welling-up of spiritual zeal, they bring extra offerings to the altar. Moshe, who has already gotten used to tempering G-d's anger and G-d's lapses of self-control, changes G-d's verbiage to protect the people.

Do not bring out of generosity, says Moshe, even if that is the word G-d uses. Rather, bring wisely. Be not like the one who loved not wisely, but too well, for that way lies tragedy. Moshe already took G-d's Torah and destroyed it once, then re-wrote it so that humans could use it as a book to live by. Now Moshe is taking the essence of G-d's command - a sense we must all have of noblesse oblige, that we who have Torah do, in fact, bear a greater responsibility towards the world by virtue of that very gift - and framing a Halachah around the concept. That our noble sentiments, emanating from the spiritual loftiness of Torah, must express themselves in generosity towards the world. But that it must all be kept within proper bounds. The tragedy of Nadav and Abihu will show clearly the terrible consequences of acting from unmitigated generosity, from generosity which is not also informed by wisdom and temperance. In Torah there is certainly a concept of Too Much Of A Good Thing.

Which is perhaps the answer to the question: Why did the people all go away from Moshe? Moshe admonishes them about the laws of Shabbat; then he lists the items that Bnei Israel are to provide for the Mishkan. Then he pauses -- Be Wise, he says, Don't act without thinking. Think through the consequences of your actions, then take action. Measure twice, cut once.

Moshe then lists the items to be manufactured, and when he is done, the people all leave his presence.

Why did we need to withdraw? What were we thinking about in the time between leaving Moshe, and the very next verse, where we brought golden jewelry to offer for the creation of the Mishkan?

Did it occur to us that we had thrown our earrings into a molten mass, from which arose the sin of Avodah Zarah - Idol Worship? That the very ears that Heard the Word of G-d at Sinai now were the instruments of our falling from the spiritual heights we were on the brink of attaining?

We had just called out with one voice - "We shall do, and we shall hear!" Yet we gave up our earrings, the symbol of our Hearing, to the worship of idols. And Doing precedes Hearing. We had already determined to worship idols before we took the action of casting our earrings into the fire to be melted down. This time around, we seem to have learned a lesson. We took a moment to think it over, as Moshe advised.

And then, within this framework, within the Halachah enunciated by Moshe, we are able to in fact return to the original sense of G-d's command - for even though Moshe specifically does NOT use the word nediv, the word G-d commands him to us in Parashat Terumah, yet when we return, it is with gifts and with Generosity of Heart.

In this sense, Halachah IS wisdom, for it enables us to perform G-d's command, even when we are unaware of it.

And so we are able to construct the Mishkan. The re-enactment of the Creation.

In 35:30, 31, Moshe announces to the people that Bezalel ben Uri will be the master craftsman who will create the Mishkan. Verse 31 contains the textual markers that prove the Mishkan is actually a restatement of the Act of Creation.

In the Book of Proverbs, chapter 3, verses 19-20, we are given the Bible's view of the inner workings, the essential nature of G-d's act of Creation. Freely translating:

19: "G-d with WISDOM founded Earth, established heaven with UNDERSTANDING." 20: "With G-d's KNOWLEDGE the depths were cleft and the heavens ooze dew."

The highlighted words in the translation are, in Hebrew: chokhmah (wisdom), binah (understanding), and da'at (knowledge). These words are linked in a concept known by their acronym: ChaBaD, which also became the name of the brand of Hassidut associated with the Lubavitchers. Their link to the concept, and their legitimate claim to its use, comes from their spiritual descent from Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) himself a descendant of the Maharal of Prague (1525-1609 - one of the great figures of European Jewry and most probably NOT the creator or keeper of the Golem, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel notwithstanding...). Rabbi Zalman is known variously as the Ba'al HaTanya, the Alter Rebbe, or the First Lubavitcher Rebbe (at the time, he presumably did not think of himself as first of a line. But who knows...?)

In an extremely brief synopsis: Chochmah "wisdom" is the flash of understanding, the sudden insight that opens a door in the mind. Binah "understanding" is the process whereby we analyze our insight and so come to understand it fully. Da'at "knowledge" is the process whereby our full intellectual comprehension of the concept becomes internalized, becomes embedded within our soul and thus becomes a part of our total makeup. Where intellect and emotion fuse to give birth to a higher, more powerful aspect of total immersion in the concept. We might say that, at the first stage of chochmah , we are witnessing a flash of lightning. After the final stage of da'at, we dwell within the lightning and the lightning dwells in us.

In our Parasha, in Shemot 35:30, 31, Moshe introduces Bezalal to the people with the same words:

verse 31: "And [G-d] filled him with the spirit of G-d; with WISDOM, with UNDERSTANDING, and with KNOWLEDGE, and with all work."

This is definitional: the "Spirit of G-d" is this triad of wisdom/understanding/knowledge. And these are the inner mechanism of the Act of Creation.

And so the work of manufacturing the Mishkan and its components and furnishings comes to a close. Moshe introduced us to this arduous task by admonishing us to be guided by wisdom, rather than fervor. And, wisely, we withdrew to contemplate our next act. We appear to have learned a powerful lesson from our experience of the Golden Calf - that religious sentiment alone is not sufficient for a relationship with G-. That, in fact, religious sentiment itself is not religion. Moshe brings us, if not The Answer, a guidepost. Halachah. Moshe enunciates a basic halachic principle, but it must then be worked out in the details of observance.

Only once we have contemplated the requirements of halacha can we begin to engage with G-d. Halacha is G-d's spoken language. So many of us recite prayers whose meanings we do not fully comprehend. Halacha is very much like that: we are bidden to behave in certain ways in order to fulfill G-d's will. We are not like those spiritual seekers who believe that spiritual yearnings and feelings are sufficient to guide us. We have seen where that leads, and human history is none the better for it. But neither are we like those who believe that rigid and unquestioning adherence to behavioral rules is an obligation. We have also seen where that leads.

The Jewish way, the Torah way, is to explore Torah, explore mitzvot. Is to explore human life through the vehicle of Halacha - with Torah study being the single highest halachic value. It is not to discount the need for morality - chas veshalom! But those who say they do not need Halacha because they are already leading a moral life miss the point entirely. The ultimate purpose of Halacha is to enable us to enter into a dialogue with G-d. Living a moral life is a Torah imperative. But so is keeping kosher.

The reflective and inner transformative process of ChaBaD - of wisdom, understanding and knowledge - is described as working on all levels, both human and Divine. It is as if to say G-d, too, planned out Creation. I:indeed, Creation is anything but random. The very first Midrash describes G-d's Act of Creation as the work of a contractor building a house from a blueprint. "G-d looked into Torah" the Midrash says, "and created the world."

Gevalt! So, even G-d plans first, then acts?

If you think your feelings are telling you the right thing, perhaps - before you act, before you jump to conclusions - it is time to withdraw and ponder.

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