In this parashah, we embark upon a great enterprise that will concretize the relationship between God and Israel for all time: It begins with God's declaration:
"And they [the children of Israel] shall make Me a מקדש/mikdash/holy place and I shall dwell among them." (Sh'mot/Exodus 25:8)
Who is Involved?
There is so much to say about this project: As the name of the parashah implies, the materials to build this holy place were to be collected by voluntary donation. There was no tax to be levied, there was to be no pressure to contribute. The list of materials required (skins, precious metals, dyes, fabrics, stones) were to be brought by individuals as their hearts dictated. So when God declares "...they shall make Me a mikdash..." the emphasis is very much on the "they." This holy place must be an expression of the commitment and love of the people themselves. A grassroots effort.
What Will Be Constructed?
Then we come to what is being built: מקדש / mikdash means a holy place. This word is based on a root ( ק ד ש ) that is familiar to many of us in words like קידוש/kiddush (the blessing on wine which sanctifies [makes holy] the Sabbath or festival) and קדיש/kaddish (the Aramaic prayer which declares the holiness of God recited as markers between units of our liturgy and by mourners). That which is קדוש / kadosh / holy in Judaism is that which is "other", unique, set aside for a purpose like no other. Thus, Shabbat is a day like no other, set aside for rest, for appreciation of the world God created during the six days of creation, the Kaddish addresses the uniqueness of God. So this מקדש/mikdash was to be a unique place set aside for a use like no other.
What Will Happen There?
The last phrase of the verse expressed God's plan for this construct: "I shall dwell among them" ... among the people who build this place for Me. The Hebrew word is שכנתי/shachanti, based on the same root as the modern Hebrew words for neighbor (שכן/shachein), and neighborhood (שכונה/sh'chunah). God says: I'm moving in!
For weeks, we are going to read about the construction of this divine residence: we will read the "to-do list" of what to build and what materials need to be collected. We will read of dimensions, shapes and methods of construction. Then we will receive reports as each item (the tents, the implements, the altars, the accessories, the priestly vestments) are completed. Then we will read a report of everything that was made and completed just before the precincts of this area are dedicated, the priests/kohanim are trained and the first sacrifices are offered.
Very quickly, the name of this project changes. In chapter 25, in the verse quoted above, the Israelites are instructed to build a מקדש/mikdash/holy place. But in the beginning of chapter 26 (verse 1) this same project is referred to as the משכן/mishkan! It will continue to be called משכן/mishkan through the remaining 39 years or so of the Israelite journey through the wilderness.
משכן/mishkan: Based not on that root for holy (ק ד ש) but based on the root for neighbor (ש כ ן). In the space of a few verses, God's hopes for this place are embodied in its name: this is not a place for God to be separate, apart and "other" from the people. This is a place designed to bring God and the people closer together. To live in proximity through the decades of wandering to come.
Ultimately, the name מקדש/mikdash will be revived. The מקדש/mikdash will be the Temple in Jerusalem. The fixed edifice that will anchor the worship of God in the land God ordains for the Israelites. Here the dynamic will be so different: in the משכן/mishkan, God will travel where the people travel, in the מקדש/mikdash the people will have to come to God, so to speak. For all the magnificence of that Temple, for all the significance of b'nai yisrael, the childrenof Israel, returning to and settling into the land of their ancestors, there will be a certain intimacy lost with the replacement of the מכשן/mishkan with the מקדש/mikdash/Temple.
I seek the intimacy of the משכן/mishkan when I seek God with my community. This is how God first sought us, this is how we can find God: building a community together as our hearts dictate.
A friend and colleague, Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses asks a perceptive and challenging question:
"...after all the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt, the very first laws of Mishpatim concern slave ownership. Not the prohibition of owning slaves, as one might want and expect, but the rules detailing the treatment of a slave, slavery an institution that is simply presumed by the text. After all that, after all those years enslaved, after witnessing the plagues, after passing through the red sea to escape slavery, why in the world are the Israelites permitted the ownership of other human beings?" (Click here to read Rabbi Cohler-Esses' entire commentary)
I think the key phrase, in Rabbi Cohler-Esses' question is: "an institution that is simply presumed by the text." In other words, the institution of slavery was a common and integral part of ancient economies and societal structures. As common as salaries and taxes are today.
This week's parashah / Torah reading and many other passages as well, contain rules for the Israelites regarding the treatment of the Hebrew slave (eved ivri) as well as non-Israelite slaves. These passages make it clear that the slave held by an Israelite master was never to be treated with the harshness and cruelty that the Israelite slaves experienced at the hands of Egypt's taskmasters:
2-3: When you will buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work for six years, and in the seventh year he shall go out liberated for free. If he will come by himself, he shall go out by himself, if he is a woman's husband, then his wife shall go with him."
7-8: And if a man will sell his daughter as a maid, she shall not go out as the slaves go out. If she is bad in the eyes of her master who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall not dominate so as to sell her to a foreign people in his betrayal of her.
26-27: And if a man strike his slave's eye or his maid's eye and destroy it, he shall let them go, liberated for his eye. And if he will knock out his slave's tooth or his maid's tooth, he shall let him go liberated for his tooth. (translation by Rabbi Richard Friedman)
For certain, there are passages in the Torah about the treatment of slaves that seem brutal to us and repugnant in what we deem our holy text. (A master is, for example, allowed to strike a slave, but not, as we've seen, cause any lasting bodily harm. In a related verse, a slave is referred to as the master's money or asset.) All this is a reflection of the reality of the time and place in which the Torah was revealed.
I recently saw a TV advertisement in which a person in very authentic-looking medieval dress hands another person a very modern-looking television remote control. The recipient of the gift expresses very understandable confusion.
If the passages of Torah reflected our 21st sensibilities towards slavery, toward the basic economics of debt service and even employer-employee relations, the response at the time and place of revelation would have been profound confusion. There would have been no collective of people to accept the Torah and declare "na'aseh v'nishma" / "we will do, we will obey" because there would not have been a human alive at that time who could understand and commit to implement those laws.
The power of our tradition, right from the very beginning, has been our commitment to connecting our faith, our religious commitments, our observances to the myriad of times and places in which we have lived. We have demonstrated, time after time after time, that the covenant, laws, mitzvot of our tradition travel with us, reflect and inform the realities of our lives wherever and whenever we live in Jewish community.
This makes looking back confusing at times . . . as if we, in our 21st century culture and dress were handed a medieval farming implement and were expected to use it. These anachronistic moments, though, serve to remind us that our faith, our brit/covenant with God, is always about the lives we are leading right now.
It is hardly an astonishing assertion to state that this week's פָרָשָה / parashah / Torah Reading marks a turning point in the relationship between God and b'nai yisrael / the progeny of Israel. It is in Yitro that Moshe will climb the heights of Sinai and return with luchot hab'rit / the tablets of the law. The brit / the covenant between God and Israel is forged at this moment.
This moment of the revelation of the Torah is not the first time that Moshe has experienced unique, intense communications from and, indeed, conversations with God. From the opening chapters of the book of Sh'mot / Exodus, with the iconic moment of the burning bush, God and Moshe are in almost constant communication.
This moment of revelation of the Torah is, however, the very first time that Israel experiences revelation as a community. The passages of this week's parasha relate: "And Moses said to the people, 'Don't be afraid, because God is coming for the purpose of testing you and for the purpose that His awe will be on your faces so that you won't sin.' And the people stood at a distance, and Moses went over to the nimbus where God was. And Adonay said to Moses, 'You shall say this to the children of Israel: You have seen that I have spoken with you from the skies. You shall not make gods of silver with me, and you shall not make gods of gold for yourselves...In every place where I'll have My name commemorated, I'll come to you and bless you.'" (Sh'mot/Exodus 20: 17-20)
As our tradition developed from sacrifice-centric Israelite biblical religion to the halachah / Jewish law- based rabbinic Judaism we practice today, the centrality of community has been a consistent and treasured dynamic of our people. There are so many elements of Judaism that guide us into community: We need 10 adult Jews to conduct a service. We need 10 adult Jews to read from the Torah scrolls. We need a cemetery, which only a community can maintain. We need kosher food, which requires a critical mass of Jews to sustain. We welcome a new child into the world as a minyan, representing the entire Jewish people embracing this new child as one of "ours." When one of our community passes away, we surround the mourners and help them bury their dead, we sit with them for a week (during shiva) and make sure they have company, meals and community support to say kaddish.
"In every place where I'll have My name commemorated, I'll come to you and bless you." What does "commemorating God's name mean?" I'd say it means standing together as a minyan, as a community, an uttering words that we cannot utter as individuals. It is through Jewish community that we thrive. It is almost impossible to sustain Jewish life in isolation: we need education, we need the spiritual and emotional support of those who share that brit/covenant with us.
"In every place where I'll have My name commemorated, I'll come to you and bless you." I've often said that our Jewish community is a blessing. This revelation of God's confirms just that: it is through Jewish community that we find blessing: the blessing of God's presence, the blessing of each other's presence.
Fifty years ago, two visionary religious leaders from two very different communities, developed a profound friendship. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel emerged from two very different cultures and faiths and came together to make history.
Rabbi Heschel's daughter wrote of this friendship in 2006:
The relationship between the two men began in January 1963, and was a genuine friendship of affection as well as a relationship of two colleagues working together in political causes. As King encouraged Heschel's involvement in the Civil Rights movement, Heschel encouraged King to take a public stance against the war in Vietnam. When the Conservative rabbis of America gathered in 1968 to celebrate Heschel's sixtieth birthday, the keynote speaker they invited was King. When King was assassinated, Heschel was the rabbi Mrs. King invited to speak at his funeral.*
Every year, the calendar conspires to reunite these friends: Reverend King's birthday, and Rabbi Heschel's yahrzeit (anniversary of his death) fall within days of each other. I could easily have written this message on the Shabbat of Martin Luther King weekend . . . but I feel that the greater tribute to these two great religious visionaries is paid by writing about them this Shabbat: For the Torah reading for this Shabbat B'Shallah is the long-anticipated, eternally evocative "yitziat mitzrayim" / the exodus from Egypt.
Reverend King witnessed the moment when the British colonial Gold Coast became the independent nation of Ghana. This nation's journey from subjection to independence inspired a sermon in which he concludes:God is working in this world, and at this hour, and at this moment. And God grants that we will get on board and start marching with God because we got orders now to break down the bondage and the walls of colonialism, exploitation, and imperialism. To break them down to the point that no man will trample over another man, but that all men will respect the dignity and worth of all human personality. And then we will be in Canaan’s freedom land.
Moses might not get to see Canaan, but his children will see it. He even got to the mountain top enough to see it and that assured him that it was coming. But the beauty of the thing is that there’s always a Joshua to take up his work and take the children on in. And it’s there waiting with its milk and honey, and with all of the bountiful beauty that God has in store for His children. Oh, what exceedingly marvelous things God has in store for us. Grant that we will follow Him enough to gain them.**
Every single day, our tradition guides us back to the moment of "yitziyat mitzrayim", of leaving Egypt. We rise daily and chant the highlight of this week's parashah/Torah reading "Shirat HaYam" The Song of the Sea . . . the poetic and passionate paean of praise to God for redeeming our Israelite ancestors, us, from Egyptian bondage. We speak of the exodus from Egypt twice a day when we recite the biblical passages of the "Sh'ma." We sing of the Exodus from Egypt when we sanctify the Sabbath through the chanting of the Kiddush over the wine on Friday evening. That journey was arduous: it took forty years, it took courage to wander through the wilderness, it took vision to keep going forward (and often that vision flagged). We revisit that moment every day, because we need to remind ourselves every day that God loved the descendants of Abraham enough to venture into Egypt and redeem us. It is humbling to consider that the moment of redemption experienced by the Israelites enslaved by Egypt has inspired innumerable peoples in innumerable places and innumerable generations to persevere through tyranny and to patiently, with determination and vision, journey step by step to freedom.
* Praying with their Feet: Remembering Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King, Peacework: Global Thought and Local Action for Nonviolent Social Change, From Issue 371 - December 2006-January 2007** "The Birth of a New Nation", April, 1957.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.