Pekudei – continuing creation gives purpose, recreating creation is our role

The book of Exodus ends with the completion of the portable Tabernacle painstakingly made to God’s exact instructions by the children of Israel. It seems that we have been reading about this building work for weeks – no other event in the journey the Israelites make in the wilderness has been told us in such detail. And now, finally, a year after Moses had told the people to prepare for leaving slavery in Egypt, the place is ready – and Moses is checking the last details, assembling the artefacts,  making sure everything is as it should be.

There is a beautiful symmetry in the torah between the events here at the end of the book of Exodus and the ones at the beginning of the book of Genesis.  And the words used in the narrative here are an echo of those used at the beginning of our text – just as Moses finishes the work he has done (va’y’chal Moshe et ham’lacha) so we are reminded that God in creating the Shabbat, also finishes the work he had done. V’y’chal elohim b’yom hash’vi’i et ha’m’lachto.

We are being deliberately reminded of the work of Creation as the Tabernacle is completed. We are being clearly prompted to understand that the creation of the sanctuary in the wilderness by the children of Israel is a mirroring of the divine creation of the universe.  In making the world God created a home for us, and in the making of the tabernacle we echoed that creation – but for whom are we making a home?  What are the responsibilities we are taking on by behaving within our microcosm like the divine creator of the universe?

When God told the people to make the tabernacle, the instruction was to build the place so that God would dwell among them. The purpose of the Mishkan wasn’t so much the place itself as the process of building with shared intention, the learning for the people was about larger issues than construction  – it was about responsibility for others, about development of relationship, about removing oneself from the centre  and instead becoming part of the whole system.

Building the tabernacle in effect transferred the power and the responsibility of creation from heaven to earth, and God was no longer simply  the Mover behind the creation of the universe, but became part of human experience – Because of the building of the tabernacle, God now dwelled among the people who were created in the image of the divinity, they had built a place for the divine presence to enter the world – not in the tabernacle as such, but in the actions of the people who worked together to bring it into being.

By the end of the book of Exodus, God and people are truly partners in creation. It is an image we continue to use to this day – the idea that the world is not yet completed, that people are completing it.  Unlike the creation of humanity at the beginning of the book of Genesis, the people are required not to be the passive consumers of the garden of Eden, nor are they to be so focussed on making a living that they cannot begin to consider other more metaphysical needs – by the end of the book of exodus we find that we are indeed to work hard in life, but for a greater cause than to earn our daily bread. Our hard work is the necessary ingredient to complete the work of creation begun with the words of God.

Something else emerges from the texts surrounding the building of the tabernacle which adds to our understanding of what it is to take on the responsibility for creation in our sphere as God does for the universe.  Even a brief reading of the stories of the time in the wilderness will reveal a people who are unhappy with their lot, who foment rebellion, who wish to return to slavery rather than face the unknown of the future land.  Already in the year before the building of the Mishkan – a year in which they had seen the terrible things done in Egypt, a year in which they had found freedom – a year in which the people were able to experience the Revelation at Sinai; already the people had rebelled, had complained, had tried to rid themselves of the leadership of Moses, and had begged Aaron to create the golden calf for them to worship.  And yet this should have been the most wonderful and undemanding year of their lives.  They were no longer enslaved, no longer routinely humiliated in the society in which they lived.  They had food every day which simply fell from heaven and lay there for them to collect, their clothing never needed mending, and their shoes never wore out.  All of their material needs were met. The leadership of Moses and Aaron and Miriam took over all their responsibilities and resolved the disputes that arose, there was absolutely nothing to worry about or concern themselves with.  Like the first humans in the Garden of Eden, everything should have been perfect – yet somehow it wasn’t.

The Midrash notes the continual stream of complaining and notes too that God responded to it compassionately – “it was because of their constant murmurings that the Holy One asked them to put their hand to the making of the Mishkan”  And the response works – the Midrash again highlights the fact that there were no complaints, no rebellions and no conflict recorded during any of the chapters in Torah that describe the building of the tabernacle: “the whole time they were engaged with the work of the Mishkan they did not grumble” (Midrash Pesikta Rabbati).

So what do we learn from this, what did God bring about in the world with this task?

God understood that human beings need a sense of purpose, that we need to have a point to our existence, we need to be able to care about something and to be able to engage in meaningful activity. Without such endeavour we dissolve into bad tempered pointlessness, into destructive behaviour, into misery and self indulgent self-centredness.  Left to our own purposelessness we create a sort of human tohu va’vohu, and it becomes harder and harder for human relationships to take root and for society to develop to the benefit of its members.

If the Midrash is right, that the people complained and the society disintegrated because everyone felt superfluous and without any role or consequence, then the notion of our taking on the task of being creator of our world is even more important, and it is increasingly vital that we consider just how we bring God into our Mishkan.  How are we building the Mishkan today, creating the space for the divine to be experienced in our world? How are we making sure that everyone, not just the leadership or the elite are able to contribute to making our world a better place?  It is a question we have to ask again and again – for the Mishkan is a travelling structure, constantly taken down and put up again, reflecting the reality that we re create our world each day, in every aspect of our lives.

Tetzaveh

“And you will command the children of Israel to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for lighting, to cause a lamp to burn continually (ner tamid)” (Exodus 27:20-12)

This first mitzvah of the tabernacle is interesting for several reasons. It echoes the first words of God at creation– y’hi or – let there be light. And in a narrative dedicated to the clothing and behaviour of the priests, the command here is communal – the responsibility for an eternal light belongs to the people, not the priesthood. The lamp sits facing the ark curtain, prepared and lit by the priests each evening to burn through till the morning. In the parallel passage in Leviticus 24:2-4 the ner tamid clearly has several flames, and far from hanging over the ark as a modern ner tamid does, it is part of a lampstand on the opposite wall to the ark– the seven branched menorah. Indeed during the temple period its other name was the ner ma’aravi, the western light. It is thought that while all the lights burned through the night, only one was kept burning continually (1Sam 3:3)

Why does the bible ask us to keep a small light burning continually since clearly the function of lighting the sacred space is done by the other lights? And why must we repeatedly light more lights?  We often say the ner tamid is a reminder of God’s continuing presence in our world, a small beacon of hope that stays with us as the pillar of fire guided us in the desert. Yet this is not enough. The echo of y’hi or reminds us that we too must play our role in the creation of our world. Every day we must tend to this work. The people must bring the prepared oil – this is our job and no one else’s.

 

written for “the bible says what?” Jewish News February 2019

Vayakhel Pekudei:What women do and Why women are rewarded as they carry the burden of faith into the future

For the last few weeks it has not been easy to find the women in the Torah readings, but now in Vayakhel the women are up front and unmissable. The mishkan/tabernacle is being made as a response to the failings of the people that led to the creation of the golden calf, an idol to comfort the people in the absence of Moses while he was away on Sinai sequestered with God.

It has become abundantly clear that the people are not yet ready for a God with no physical presence or aide-memoire. The mishkan will remind the people that God is dwelling among them. It is a powerful symbol they will carry around with them as they go on their journey. It will, so to speak, keep the people on the religious straight and narrow.

The details of the mishkan have been given in the last chapters – long dry lists of materials and artefacts. Now the text warms up with the human and emotional dimension:

וַיָּבֹ֕אוּ כָּל־אִ֖ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־נְשָׂא֣וֹ לִבּ֑וֹ וְכֹ֡ל אֲשֶׁר֩ נָֽדְבָ֨ה רוּח֜וֹ אֹת֗וֹ הֵ֠בִ֠יאוּ אֶת־תְּרוּמַ֨ת יְהֹוָ֜ה לִמְלֶ֨אכֶת אֹ֤הֶל מוֹעֵד֙ וּלְכָל־עֲבֹ֣דָת֔וֹ וּלְבִגְדֵ֖י הַקֹּֽדֶשׁ:

 “And they came, every one whose heart stirred him up, and every one whom his spirit made willing, and brought the Eternal’s offering, for the work of the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the holy garments.” (35:21)

All the people for whom this project truly mattered, everyone who was invested in the creation of the reminder of the divine, brought their gifts. Gifts of valuable materials, gifts of their time, gifts of their dedication to make this work.

And then comes the strangest of verses.  (35:22)

וַיָּבֹ֥אוּ הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֖ים עַל־הַנָּשִׁ֑ים כֹּ֣ל ׀ נְדִ֣יב לֵ֗ב הֵ֠בִ֠יאוּ חָ֣ח וָנֶ֜זֶם וְטַבַּ֤עַת וְכוּמָז֙ כָּל־כְּלִ֣י זָהָ֔ב וְכָל־אִ֕ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֵנִ֛יף תְּנוּפַ֥ת זָהָ֖ב לַֽיהוָֹֽה:

And they came, the men upon the women, as many as were willing-hearted, and brought nose-rings, and ear-rings, and signet-rings, and girdles, all jewels of gold; even every man that brought an offering of gold to the Eternal.

The construction of the verse is notable and odd. The phrasing “hanashim al hanashim – the men upon the women” suggests that the women carried the men, brought them along with them, that they came first with their jewellery, and only then did the men bring their gifts. All of the emphases on the voluntary nature of the donations, the repetitions that only those who wanted to give did so, culminates in the idea that it is the women who are keen to give their valuables in the service of God, that the men were carried along by the enthusiasm of the women.

The role of the women is reinforced a few verses later:

וְכָל־אִשָּׁ֥ה חַכְמַת־לֵ֖ב בְּיָדֶ֣יהָ טָו֑וּ וַיָּבִ֣יאוּ מַטְוֶ֗ה אֶֽת־הַתְּכֵ֨לֶת֙ וְאֶת־הָ֣אַרְגָּמָ֔ן אֶת־תּוֹלַ֥עַת הַשָּׁנִ֖י וְאֶת־הַשֵּֽׁשׁ: כו וְכָ֨ל־הַנָּשִׁ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר נָשָׂ֥א לִבָּ֛ן אֹתָ֖נָה בְּחָכְמָ֑ה טָו֖וּ אֶת־הָֽעִזִּֽים:

And all the women who were wise-hearted did spin with their hands, and brought that which they had spun, the blue, and the purple, the scarlet, and the fine linen. And all the women whose heart stirred them up in wisdom spun the goats’ hair. (35:25-26)

The vignette continues with yet another verse emphasising the role of the women in this work:

כָּל־אִ֣ישׁ וְאִשָּׁ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר נָדַ֣ב לִבָּם֘ אֹתָם֒ לְהָבִיא֙ לְכָל־הַמְּלָאכָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר צִוָּ֧ה יְהוָֹ֛ה לַֽעֲשׂ֖וֹת בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁ֑ה הֵבִ֧יאוּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל נְדָבָ֖ה לַֽיהוָֹֽה:

Every man and woman, whose heart made them willing to bring for all the work, which the Eternal had commanded by the hand of Moses to be made, the children of Israel brought a freewill-offering to the Eternal v29

The repetition of the activities of the women, of their enthusiasm, their public role in both providing materials and in working those materials for use in the mishkan is surely telling us something important.

The commentators of course have noticed this. While Rashi in the tenth century plays down the idea of ha’anashim al hanashim meaning anything more than the men came with the women, the tosafists of the 12th and 13th century build on the idea of the women carrying the men along. They note the list of jewellery described were essentially feminine possessions and say that the verse is alluding to the men taking the women to bring their jewellery under the impression that they would not want to give it away. Imagine their surprise then when the women are not only willing to give their jewellery for the mishkan, they are actually pleased to do so. This stands in direct opposition to the earlier incident when jewellery was given to the priesthood – the incident of the golden calf, when the midrash tells us – and the tosafists remind us – that the women did not want to give their jewellery to such an enterprise, seeing through the project for the idolatry it was, and the men had torn the jewellery from the ears, fingers and necks of their reluctant womenfolk.

This midrashic interpretation places the women in the role of truly understanding the religious response, and the men showing less emotional intelligence. It is supported some verses later in the creation of the mishkan when the women give their mirrors for the copper washstand.

וַיַּ֗עַשׂ אֵ֚ת הַכִּיּ֣וֹר נְח֔שֶׁת וְאֵ֖ת כַּנּ֣וֹ נְחֹ֑שֶׁת בְּמַרְאֹת֙ הַצֹּ֣בְאֹ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֣ר צָֽבְא֔וּ פֶּ֖תַח אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד:

And [Betzalel] made the washstand of copper, and the base thereof of copper, of the mirrors of the Tzevaot/ legions of serving women that did service at the door of the tent of meeting. (Ex 38:8)

Who were these women who did service at the door of the Tent of Meeting? What was the service that they did? And why did they have copper mirrors?

They appear also in the Book of Samuel (1Sam:2:22) Now Eli was very old; and he heard all that his sons did unto all Israel, and how that they lay with the women that did service at the door of the tent of meeting.

In both occasions the women are at the door of the tent of meeting, the place where people brought their vows, where the priesthood purified themselves before entering, a liminal space of enormous importance.  The verb צֹּ֣בְא֔ tzaddi beit alef is best known to us as something God does – We often call God Adonai Tzeva’ot, the God of the Hosts/Legions – it  has a military context rather than a religious one.

But in the Book of Numbers we find the verb used to describe something else – not a military action but the service of the Levites done in and around the Mishkan. This verb is the priestly activity, a ministry, something done by the members of the tribe of Levi, whose role is to ensure that the priesthood is able to fulfil its sacred function. (see Numbers 4:23, 35, 39, 43 and 8:24)

So while there is a tendency in tradition to see these women as low status, cultic prostitutes or camp followers, the text does not support this view and indeed it is possible to read it quite differently. The women who give their mirrors to have the polished copper washstand that is so important in the system of ritual purity are women of status and dignity, whose work in ministry is more important to them than what are often seen as the more usual girly activities of makeup and grooming.

The midrash (Tanhuma) again picks up the story of the mirrors, and while it does not give the women any status in the priestly activities (instead ignoring their position at the doorway), it does give them some real honour by telling the story that in Egypt, after the decree of Pharaoh that all baby boys would be killed, the men became despondent. Slavery had sapped their strength and their emotional resilience and they had decided not to create a stake in the future but to live separately from their wives and desist from intercourse or procreation. The women however were not prepared for this to happen, and so they used their mirrors to make themselves as beautiful and irresistible as possible, then going to their husbands in order to seduce them and become pregnant.

It was the role of the mirrors in this activity that is so important. The women had used them in order to show their faith in the future, they were a symbol not only of sexual attractiveness and sensual preparations, they were a symbol of faith, of resilience, of the emotional and religious intelligence sadly lacking in the men.

Rashi quotes this midrash at this verse, and goes even further. He says that Moses [and Betzalel] did not want to take the mirrors (they are listed separately from the earlier donations), presumably because they associated them with sensuality, with women’s actions to initiate sex, but Rashi tells us that God ordered him to take them.

It seems that God is less fearful of women’s bodies and sexuality than Moses was. Indeed God is reported to have said “These mirrors are more precious to Me than anything else”

Because the mishkan is said to have been dedicated on Rosh Chodesh Nisan (the beginning of the new month of Nisan), there is a tradition that the women should be rewarded for their faith, their resilience, their innovation and proactive donations, and given a special holiday on Rosh Chodesh Nisan. Over time it appears that every Rosh Chodesh has become  women’s special days, when no work is done and women celebrate and enjoy the time.  Many women and women’s groups celebrate Rosh Chodesh together, but I wonder how many realise that the root of this tradition is the power and resilience of the women when the men failed to live up to what was necessary. I wonder how many women realise that the ease  which the women had to initiate intimacy, the ministry which they offered at the liminal border between the sacred space and the secular space, the understanding the women showed to not offer their jewellery for idolatry but to run to offer it for the mishkan – all of this is in our tradition and deserves to be highlighted. For it isn’t only the women for whom this story is unfamiliar, it is particularly those men who have studied and who know these texts but who choose not to teach or to publicise them.

If we learn anything from these verses is that the women had a role every bit as important and active as the men, that they were not only routinely alongside but that they were also on occasions the leaders, the ones who carried the flow, the agenda setters.

Vayakhel means to bring together a community. Pekudei has a number of meanings, to visit, to account, to calculate, to encounter. When we read these texts we need to remember that a community is accounted, encountered and needs ALL its members.