Amidst all the excitement and drama of the story of the Golden Calf, chapter 31 of Exodus can often be overlooked. Where chapters 32-34 tell the story of the people’s rebellion, Aaron’s mistake, Moses breaking the tablets, God’s punishment, and Moses seeking and finding God’s forgiveness, chapter 31 seems quaint, a quiet ending to the preceding six chapters detailing the instructions for building the Mishkan.

In chapter 31, God tells Moses that he has appointed Bezalel, and his assistant Ohaliav, as the master builders for the Mishkan. “And I will fill him with the spirit of God, with wisdom and understanding and intelligence, and with every form of labor; to think and conceptualize, to work with gold and silver and copper, with stone-cutting and wood-cutting, with every type of labor.” (vv. 2-4) They will make all the items for the Mishkan, which God proceeds to review in summary. That’s the first part of the chapter.

In the second part of this short chapter, God instructs Moses about Shabbat: “Speak to the children of Israel saying, ‘You will keep my Sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you for all time, to know that I the Lord make you holy” (v. 13). God goes on to reinforce this message about Shabbat. The chapter then concludes on a climactic, and portentous, note: “And when He had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave to Moses the two tablets of testimony, stone tablets written with the finger of God.” (v. 18)

There are a number of important things to point out here. First, as is made even more transparent at the end of Exodus, is the parallel between building the Mishkan and the original six days of creation in Genesis. Just as humans are the last beings created during those first six days, here it is the human, Bezalel (from b’tzelem elokim, in God’s Image, cf. Gen. 1:27), endowed with special capacities to operate on both the level of thought and the level of action, who is mentioned last. Likewise, Shabbat, which is mentioned last in the opening account of Genesis, is mentioned last here: “For in six days God created the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day God rested and was restored.” (v. 16) Shabbat becomes the means by which the work of making the Mishkan is made meaningful: “On six days shall labor [in building the Mishkan] be done, and the seventh shall be a holy day of rest” (v. 15), just as it is the day on which the work of creation is made meaningful.

These two observations are linked, fused, in the final verse, in which the tablets “written with the finger of God” are given to Moses. God does not create the world here; God creates a form of communication in which human beings, using all their divinely-given powers of thought, imagination, understanding, and action, can attempt to understand the nature of the world, the nature of their own existence, and the nature of God. That language is Torah. Like all language, it is the zone in which we mediate the physical and the metaphysical, the ideal and the material. The work of constructing the Mishkan is the work of life, taking physical material and putting it to useful and holy purposes. The observance of Shabbat is itself an ot, a symbo,l in the dimension of time, which changes our very interactions with the physical world: what was permitted a moment before Shabbat becomes prohibited the next, through our willing participation in making Shabbat real.

These questions, of how we relate to God through the material reality of the creation, receive their most dramatic exposition in the chapters that follow, as the people construct an idol. We are familiar with that story. But in this short chapter just before that moment, we hear an inspiring calling: to work with purpose, to rest with intention, and to allow Torah to be the language in which we explore what is true and meaningful in the world.

Shabbat shalom.

Advertisements

I had a powerful conversation with a student yesterday, the kind of conversation that reshapes things whose form has long felt static, and connects things that have been separate. Our conversation centered around what I’ve come to feel is the she’elah ha-she’elot, the question of questions: Where do you feel at home?

We had been talking about Abraham Joshua Heschel, and the idea of immanence and transcendence: Is God in the world or apart from it? When and how do we sense the presence of God? And if God is separate from the world, how do we have an intuition of God’s being in it?

As we explored the question and shared our personal stories about moments when we experienced an awareness of the divine, I observed that for me many of these questions revolve around the idea of home. Regular readers of know that I often reflect on the way in which we draw boundaries, deciding what is in and what is out, what is same and what is different. And I find that the boundaries we draw are the thresholds of home.

My student (I’m not sharing his name because I have not had a chance to talk with him about sharing his story) observed that he has a deep attachment to the economically depressed, rust-belt big city where he comes from, even though he grew up in the suburbs. “I’m proud of the city,” he said, “but I often wonder whether I really can claim to represent it. I didn’t grow up in the city and I don’t live there. Someone who is a real resident can turn to me and say, ‘You’re a fake. You’re not really one of us.’ But I’m proud of the city. I’ve worked there, I’m committed to it, I stand up for it all the time. Am I at home in it?”

From here we made a critical move, observing that his relationship with Judaism was very similar: he feels proud to be Jewish, he identifies as Jewish, but he doesn’t feel like he has the education or level of commitment to really be called Jewish. In short, he doesn’t feel Jewish enough. And then we both observed that by reflecting on his Jewish identity through the lens of his urban/suburban identity, we hit on an entirely new understanding of the term “suburban Jew”—someone who feels attachment to Judaism and the Jewish people, but is still at a remove from it, without skin in the game.

Parshat Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2) weaves together the people of Israel, the land of Israel, the Torah of Israel, and God the Creator in a powerful way. “When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the Lord.” (Lev. 25:2) Rashi observes that the Shabbat spoken of here “is like the Shabbat of Creation.” The institution of the sabbatical and Jubilee years is an elaboration of the Shabbat that informs our whole orientation to time and space, “the culmination of the creation of heaven and earth,” as we call it in the Friday evening prayer service.

Shabbat, the sabbatical year, and the Jubilee year all point us toward God’s own words: “For the earth is mine, and you are dwellers and sojourners with Me” (25:23) and its analog, “For the children of Israel belong to me. They are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt” (25:55). Our land, our bodies, our beings are of the earth but separate from it, immanent and transcendent at the same time—an image of God.

The great question for both God and humans, from Creation onwards, is, What is home? God seeks a home on earth: “And they shall make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8), a home that depends on us to create it. Likewise we humans need home, in space and time. Our notion of home is constantly being challenged, renewed, and remade as we leave home, long for home, come home, bring guests and new family members into home, and build homes together. Parshat Behar is a rich exploration of what it means to be at home in all these dimensions.

Shabbat shalom.

One of the lasting readings of the the Creation story in recent decades comes from the philosophical work Lonely Man of Faith by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (the Rav). In Lonely Man, the Rav distinguishes between the story as outlined in chapter 1 with that of chapter 2. Human beings in chapter 1 are created male and female, and given the charge of mastering the earth and ruling it. This version clearly puts humans at the apex of the creation narrative–the culmination of six days of labor, after which God can look on everything God has made and proclaim it “very good.”

In chapter 2, by contrast, human beings are created alongside the rest of the world, placed in a garden, with the simple charge of tending it. Adam is created alone, not male and female simultaneously, and God first seeks a fitting helper for him from among the other animals. Only when that option is exhausted does God take a rib from Adam to create Eve.

These two stories provide the basis for the Rav’s distinguishing between Adam I and Adam II: Adam I, the scientific man, stands over against nature, Adam II, the natural man, is part of it; the world of Adam I finds equality between men and wome,  the world of Adam II explains gender politics; etc.

This observation of the Rav’s is among his most well-known teachings, probably because it resonates so well with the modern experience, of being simultaneously part of the world and apart from it.

Yet there is an important second step, often overlooked, to the Rav’s insight. The Adam I/Adam II distinction can easily become an issue of identity–trying to describe the human condition, or what human beings are. Much of philosophy has been caught up in that discussion for decades or centuries. And yet, in a seminar this quarter on secularism and religion, I find myself growing tired of the conversation–we can never adequately explain what human beings are. It’s intersting alright, but it doesn’t necessarily lead us to improving anything. While the Rav certainly emphasized what human beings do as much as what they are, this part of his insight is too frequently forgotten.

In his books of the last decade or so, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has sought to move the conversation away from what human beings are to what human beings do. His 2007 book, The Home We Build Together, is a landmark in this regard. Sacks has been preoccupied for years with the questions that philosophers like Jurgen Habermas and Charles Taylor have asked–how can we understand the place of religion and unique cultures within a globalized world? Sacks’s contribution is to think about societies as things that all of us contribute to, instead of something that all of us take from.

His model for this is the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which was built with the contributions of “all whose heart moved” him or her. “A nation,” Sacks writes, “is created through the act of creation itself. Not all the miracles of the Exodus combined, not the plagues, the division of the sea, manna from heaven or water from a rock, not even the revelation at Sinai itself turned the Israelites into a nation. In commanding Moses to get the people to make the Tabernacle,” Sacks concludes, “God was in effect saying: To turn a group of people into a covenantal nation, they must build something together.”

We have just concluded the holiday of Sukkot, which concludes the holiday cycle begun with Passover and continuing through Shavuot. Those two holidays celebrate freedom from oppression and the establishment of law, the creation of the covenant. Sukkot is the final achievement: the creation of society through buliding, taking the contributions of the world itself to make something together. The Sukkah is our contemporary Mishkan.

At the same time, we experience this reality through the weekly cycle of work and rest, chol and Shabbat. The Rabbis of course understood that the work of building the Mishkan was the human counterpart to God’s creation of the world. The work we do not do on Shabbat is defined by the work done to create the Mishkan–and therefore this is precisely the holy work, the purposeful work, the melechet machshevet, we do during the week. The emphasis is on the doing, on the creating, on the acting–it is not simply on cogitating about being.

One of my former (and continuing) students, Jessica Fain, who is currently studying at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, wrote me a profound and wonderful line this morning in her pre-Shabbat reflection: “Rather than saying God is good, say good is Godly.  We should be looking for the Godliness in action.” Doing, creating, is how we walk in God’s ways.

Shabbat shalom.