Strangely, my dvar begins and ends with two parables that involve crying men.
Here’s the first: There’s a story that the Chafetz Chaim was visiting a Jewish village. There he was greeted by the local dignitaries, who proudly told him that they actually had in their town a Society for the Keeping of the Sabbath. We are told that when the Chafetz Chaim heard this news, he burst into tears. “If you need a Society to keep the Sabbath,” he told them, “I have a feeling that you probably don’t do so.”
In this week’s parsha, Ki Tissa, we read of the building of the Temple, of the creation of the golden calf, and of the tablets that Moshe destroys in anger. In the midst of all this drama, we also see God’s insistence of the importance of Shabbat. “Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord.” And Moshe is instructed that even the building of the Holy Temple must cease on Shabbat.
Years ago, I attended a lecture that Rabbi Harold Kushner gave about the three world-changing contributions that the Jews gave to humanity. I don’t know what you might think they are, and we could certainly debate some of these points. But, for Kushner, they are: DIETARY RULES (kashrut); MONOTHEISM; and Shabbat, the holiness of a day of rest. A day that separates the mundane work week from the spiritual day that defines us as a people. There is something revolutionary about demanding a day of rest. However hard life must have been, however much the demands of the world call out to us, we are enjoined to observe/to keep the Sabbath. As God tells Moshe, it “shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel.”
And here’s the second story: The rabbis tell the story of a man who was disenchanted with Judaism. He had discovered another religion, a religion that appealed to him so much that he decided to leave Judaism and convert out. His rabbi came to see him, and pleaded with him not to abandon the religion of his family, of his birth. The rabbi told him about the joys of the Torah, about being God’s “chosen people.” The rabbi reminded him of the excitement of his bar mitzvah a few years before. But nothing moved the young man. The rabbi even told him that he would go to hell if he adopted another religion. Again, the young man was not persuaded. After hours of this, the rabbi left, giving up in disgust.
A day or so later, a friend visited the man. They were reminiscing about their childhoods, and they began to remember their experiences of Shabbat. They talked about the food they loved, the prayers they chanted, the aromas that they savored as they entered their homes. They reminisced about the songs that they would sing on Shabbat, and they began to sing some of those prayers. The young man began to cry. His memories of Shabbat made him remember that he was a Jew, and how vital that was to his sense of his own identity. He did not abandon his Judaism.
I don’t know if that story is true, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is. I am sure that we all have different Shabbat rituals, and I would guess that we can’t always commit as fully as we might like to Shabbat observance. Some people, for example, have no choice but to work on Shabbat. And I have NO DOUBT that we all reject the mandate that God gives Moshe in Ki Tissa that we should be killed if we violate Shabbat.
Even with all that, though, I do think that we all know—or, better, we all FEEL—the intense significance of this weekly day of rest. Of Shabbat. This was indeed a gift that the Jews gave to civilization, and it is a gift—a blessing—that we give to ourselves.
There is an unusual feature to the portion of this week, Tetzaveh. Moshe’s name is not mentioned at all. One explanation is that after the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses pleads to God, “Now, if you would, please forgive their sin. If not, You can blot me out from the book that you have written.” You may ask, why is this episode being invoked when we haven’t even read about it yet? (It is read in Ki Tissa, next week.) This teaches us that the narrative of the Torah is not always in chronological order.
But, back to the absence of Moshe’s name in the Parsha. We can surmise that even though God forgave the people based on Moshe’s prayer, still his words were fulfilled and his name erased from one portion of the Torah. It seems that the words of a Tzaddik are powerful and not easily retracted. Another reason given is that Moshe’s Yahrtzeit, 7 Adar, falls this week, and the absence of his name is an appropriate symbol of his passing.
Chassidic sources ask us. “What’s in a name? Who needs a name? Does a person require a name of herself or himself?” They answer, perhaps we don’t really need a name. After all, we each know who we are. So, a name is for others to call us, address us. It’s only an external device, not relevant to someone’s inner worth or identity. The essence of every person is beyond any name or title.
So, why is Moshe’s name omitted? Because he asked for it? Because he spoke with chutzpah before God?
One response is that it should not be looked at as a punishment. Maybe it was Moshe’s finest hour. Since he put his name, his very identity on the line on behalf of his people, showing total commitment to his flock, his actions may have pleased God like nothing else he had ever done.
So, we can look at the Moshe-less Parsha as an ultimate compliment to Moshe. God does address him, but not by name. God speaks to him, Atah, You. God is speaking to Moshe directly in the second person singular. No one else has ever achieved such a closeness with God, an attribute cited later in the Torah, right before Moshe’s passing.
So, Moshe’s name may be absent, but his essence is front and center in Parshat Tetzavah.
This week’s parsha is Terumah. It tells of God’s mandate to the Jews to build the Mishkan, a temporary, movable sanctuary, a Tabernacle, to be used as B’nai Yisrael travels through the wilderness. God wanted a place that would be the focus of his Shechina, the holy Presence. The portion reads almost as a blueprint for construction, including precise measurements and calls for donation of specific materials to create this sacred space. In some cases, the materials used are no longer available today or even decipherable. Our challenge is to glean a spiritual, contemporary lesson from these rather dry, archaic instructions.
Terumah follows on the heels of Mishpatim, the Heaven’s civil code of behavior. What connection can we draw between those laws of monetary integrity and this week’s mandate to build a Mishkan?
Perhaps the Torah is telling us that any tzedakah we give must be from monies and goods we have acquired by dealing honestly in business. What we give must rightfully be ours before we donate it to a holy cause. I’m reminded of a large donation given to the Jewish Theological Seminary by a person later convicted of engaging in arbitrage violations. These monies were summarily returned by the Seminary, as well they should have been.
This concept of justice in the giving of tzedakah is buttressed by the prophet Isaiah who prefaces his call for charitable deeds with an admonition about justice. He states, “So said God, ‘Safeguard justice and do charity’”. First justice, then charity. Elsewhere he declares, “And justice lagged behind, and charity remained standing from afar.” Once again, we see this connection. When justice is not pursued, charity is not possible.
The rabbis tell us that the Mishkan served to atone for the great sin of the construction of the Golden Calf. You may say, we haven’t even read about this sorry event, but this out-of-orderness is a prime example of the rule, Ayne Mookdahm Oo’m’oochar BaTorah, that is, that there is no linear chronology in the Torah. The Golden Calf had happened already, and God is giving the Jews a means of repentance by calling for the construction of the Mishkan.
The actual finished products of the Tabernacle, including the Aron (the Ark), the Mizbayach (Incense Altar), and the Shulchan (the Table), were all examples of Hiddur Mitzvah, of doing mitzvot in the most beautiful way and with the most beautiful objects.
Let me share with you some of the beautiful details the Torah gives us.
The Aron, for example, was built from acacia wood, overlaid with pure gold, and with a golden rim around its border. It consisted of three chests. The innermost was gold. It fitted into a slightly larger chest made of the wood, sort of like Russian babas. The second box fit into the largest outer chest of gold. In this way, the wooden box was complemented from within and without by gold, as HaShem commanded.
We are told that the Ark, the beautiful vessel for housing of the luchot haBrit, the engraved stones of the Covenant, was built before the Mishkan itself-so important was it. Commentaries suggest that the aron represents the Torah. Just as Torah , according to Midrash, preceded the Creation of the world, so did God command that the aron be fashioned before the rest of the Mishkan.
Continuing the metaphor of the aron to the Torah, we see that gold is used because Torah is likened to gold. The middle, wooden chest corresponds to the description we use for Torah when we lovingly replace it in our aronim, our Arks, that of Atz Chaim, a Tree of Life.
The ark, the altar and the table were all made of acacia wood. As we said, the Hebrew word for this wood is Shittim. Rabbeina Bachya, a medieval commentator on the Torah, tells us that this word forms an acronym for the words, Shalom, Tovah, Yeshuah, and Mechilah-PEACE, GOODNESS, SALVATION and FORGIVENESS. These four wonderful blessings were the gifts the Jews enjoyed through the use of these holy furnishings and vessels of the Mishkan, and later, the Holy Temple.
According to some, the three holy objects represent the three crowns conferred upon the Jews by God:
• The Crown of Torah, represented by the aron
• The Crown of Kehuna, of priesthood, represented by the altar for incense
• And the Crown of Malchut, monarchy, represented by the table for the Showbread
In seeking to understand these three crowns, we might be inclined to see them as equal in merit. Or, we might think that the crown of Malchut, as representative of Kingship, is the highest. But both Malchut and Kehuna result from accidents of birth and thereby exclude many people. For this reason, it seems to me that the Crown of Torah ranks above the other two. The opportunity to become a talmid chacham, a Torah scholar, is accessible to everyone. As proof texts for this statement, we see that the commandments concerning the Mizbayach, the altar and the shulchan, the table are in the singular, “and you shall make them,” since access to Kehuna and royalty is restricted. But the sentence about the Aron reads, “and THEY shall make it”, showing that God wants the entire nation to aspire to be Torah scholars.
What about our times, when we no longer have these furnishings and vessels? How can we continue to receive these gifts?
The same Rabbeinu Bachya answers us by citing a passage from the Talmud, “Now that the Beis HaMikdash is no longer standing, a person receives atonement through his, or her, own table.” Which table atones for us and brings us blessings now that we don’t have the Holy Temple? Our own dining room table! If we feed the poor, welcome the traveler and host guests at our table, then any table becomes our own personal altar of atonement.
Rabbeinu Bachya concludes on this awesome note, “There is a custom among the pious people of France to construct their coffins from wood taken from their dining-room tables.” We can just see the imagery. The people who have known the departed, who have sat and shared his table, come to his funeral and see him buried in a coffin that looks exactly like his dining room table!
The message is clear. A person takes nothing from this world to the next world, Olam HaBah, except for the Torah learned and the mitzvot performed, the tzedaka given and the goodness shared with others around the dining room table.