Vaykheil & Psalm 18: Wings for Chariots

March 22, 2017 at 11:56 pm | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim, Vayakheil | 1 Comment
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(This is the last of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms. Next week I will begin revisiting some sparks in the ancient priestly religion described in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.)

Skilled artisans among the Israelites make all the items for the portable tent that is to be a dwelling-place1 for God in the Torah portion Vayakheil. Moses then assembles the new Tent of Meeting, the divine fiery cloud covers it, and the glory of God fills the inside in the next Torah portion, Pekudei. The golden calf was a mistake, but this time the Israelites got it right! The success in this week’s double portion, Vayakheil-Pekudei, completes the book of Exodus/Shemot.

One replica of the ark, Jerusalem

The focal point for God’s presence is the empty space above the ark inside the inner chamber of the tent.  The ark is a gold-plated wooden box holding the second pair of tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. The master-artisan Betzaleil hammers out a solid gold lid for the ark—not just a slab of gold but a sculpture, with two winged creatures rising from the lid in one continuous piece of gold.

And he made two keruvim; of gold hammered work he made them, from two edges of the lid: one keruv from this edges and one keruv from that edges. From the lid he made the keruvim, from its edges. And the keruvim were spreading out wings above, shielding the lid with their wings. And each one faced its brother, and the faces of the keruvim were toward the lid.  (Exodus/Shemot 37:76-9)

keruv (כּרוּב) = a hybrid creature with wings and a human face. Plural: keruvim (כְּרוֻבִים  or  כְּרוּוִים). (The English word “cherub” is derived from the Hebrew keruv, but a keruv in the Bible does not look like a chubby baby with stubby white wings.)

Keruvim and ark in First Temple (one interpretation)

When King Solomon builds the first temple in Jerusalem, its back room, the Holy of Holies, contains two free-standing gold-plated sculptures representing keruvim. Each is 10 cubits tall (15 to 20 feet) and has a 10-cubit wingspan. Solomon has the ark carried in and placed under their wings. (See my post Pekudei & 1 Kings: A Throne for the Divine.)

The Hebrew word keruv may come from the Akkadian word kuribu, “blessed ones”, their name for the colossal statues of hybrid winged beasts guarding doorways and gates. Commentators have speculated that keruvim might have the bodies of bulls (like Assyrian shedu) or lions (like Egyptian sphinxes or Phoenician lammasu) or humans. Raanan Eichler has made a good argument that the keruvim spreading their wings over the ark must have stood upright on two legs, and therefore probably had human bodies.

Hybrid beings with wings and human faces appear in many Ancient Near Eastern sculptures. When they are not demons battling heroes, they are either guardians of gates, or servants transporting a god. Keruvim in the Hebrew Bible are never demons, but they do appear as both guardians and transportation.

Guardians

Kusarikku from palace of Sargon II

Assyrians placed sculptures of shedu, winged bulls, as guardians at either side of a gateway into a city or palace. Another guardian figure, called Gud-alim by Sumerians and Kusarikku by later Mesopotamians, represented a door-keeper who protected a house from intruders. He stood upright and looked fairly human, except that he often had wings, horns, or a bull’s legs. In some depictions he carries a bucket.

Phoenician artworks from coastal cities west of ancient Israel and Judah also feature a pair of hybrid winged creatures on either side of a tree of life. Their tree of life is a composite of a lotus and a papyrus (borrowed from Egyptian art) and sometimes a palm tree.

Phoenician sphinxes and tree of life

Similarly, the decorations carved in the walls of King Solomon’s temple—by artisans from the Phoenician city-state of Tyre—featured keruvim and palm trees.2

In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, two keruvim serve as guardians of the way back into the Garden of Eden, where the Tree of Life remains untasted.3

One of Ezekiel’s prophesies compares the king of Tyre with a keruv that is supposed to protect its city.4  In an earlier post, Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day, I suggested that since God speaks to Moses from the empty space above the ark,5 the two keruvim are also guardians of an entrance: a portal to the invisible God.

Baal Hadad with thunderbolt, Ugarit

Divine Transportation

Tarhunz from Arslantepe, Turkey

The gods of other religions in the ancient Near East rarely rode on the backs of winged creatures; instead they used these creatures to pull their chariots. Tarhunz, the high god of the Luwian people living north of Canaan, was in charge of weather and war. He used lightning as a weapon, and rode in a chariot pulled by winged horses. South of the Luwians and north of Israel, the Canaanites of Ugarit worshiped Baal Hadad (“Master of Thunder”), a weather and war god who also wielded lightning. The Ugarit writings call this Baal “Rider of Clouds”.

The God of Israel also seems to have a chariot of clouds, in the poetry of Jeremiah and Psalm 104.6

God’s cloud chariot is pulled by keruvim in a poem that appears twice in the Bible, once as chapter 22 in the second book of Samuel, and later (with only slight changes) as Psalm 18. The speaker, King David, faces death at the hands of an enemy army, and calls on God for help. God descends from the heavens.

            Smoke went up from His nostrils

                        And fire from His mouth devours.

                        Embers blazed from Him.

            He tilted the heavens and descended,

                        And a thundercloud was beneath His feet.

            And He drove a keruv and flew,

                        And He soared on the wings of the wind. (Psalm 18:9-11)

I use the pronoun “He” in this translation because God is presented as if “He” were Baal Hadad from the Canaanite pantheon of male and female gods. Psalm 18 continues with imagery of dark clouds, hail, thunder, and arrows of lightning. God then stages a dramatic rescue, and David wins the battle.

A Chariot Throne

The ark with its two keruvim is often considered God’s throne in the Bible—the authoritative location where God sits like a king. But sometimes this throne is movable, like a chariot.

Before David conquers Jerusalem, when the ark is housed in a temple at Shiloh, the Israelite army decides to carry it with them into battle against the Philistines, hoping that God will fight for them.

And they took away from there the ark of the covenant of God of Armies Sitting on the Keruvim … (1 Samuel 4:4)

Although the Israelite forces carry God’s throne, they lose the battle. The Philistines capture the ark, then later abandon it in Israelite territory. When King David retrieves it for his new capital in Jerusalem, it is called

the ark of the god whose name was invoked, the name of God of Armies Sitting upon the Keruvim.  (2 Samuel 6:2)

The title is also used in psalms 80 and 99.

            Listen, Shepherd of Israel, You who lead Joseph like a flock!

                        Sitter on the keruvim, shine forth!  (Psalm 80:2-3)

           God, King, the peoples will tremble!

                        Sitter on the keruvim, You will shake the earth!  (Psalm 99:1)

The Babylonian army razed the first temple in Jerusalem in 579 B.C.E., burning it to the ground. The army carried off some of its gold items as booty, but the ark and its keruvim disappeared from history. When some of the Israelites returned to Jerusalem under Persian rule and built a second temple, they left the Holy of Holies empty.

Ever since the destruction of the first temple with its ark and gold keruvim, God’s throne could only be an abstraction or a vision. The prophet Ezekiel reports two mystical visions of hybrid winged creatures during the exile in Babylon (Ezekiel 1:4-28; Ezekiel 10:1-22 and 11:22-23). In his second vision he identifies these creatures as keruvim.

Ezekiel’s Vision, by Matthuas Merian 1670 (some assembly required)

In both visions, the glory of God (not God Itself) appears as a fiery figure on a throne that looks like sapphire, suspended above four keruvim, each of which is accompanied by an interlocking wheel covered with eyes.  Each keruv has a single leg ending in a calf’s hoof, a human body, four wings, a human hand below each wing, and a head with four faces: one human, one lion, one eagle, and one that is called the face of an ox in the first vision and the face of a keruv in the second vision.

The keruvim and their wheels move up and down as well as in all four directions, and the throne suspended above them moves along with them. Although Ezekiel does not call this arrangement a chariot, subsequent Jewish writers developed a school of mysticism based on the merkavah (מֶרְכָּבָה = chariot) in the book of Ezekiel.

Clouds by John Constable

Even without a temple, even without keruvim, the human mind needs poetic images to think about God. Today many of us no longer need to assign God a face, a hand, or a body in robes; we can handle the paradox of God as both invisible and manifest in everything we see. Yet poetic images still well up around the notion of God:  clouds, beams of light, opalescent radiance, perhaps even wings. They are not God, yet God is in the imagery.

When God Itself seems too abstract, perhaps we can think of something like a keruv, a creation that pulls the presence of God toward us when we need rescue, and that stands at our gateways when we need a guardian.

1  (See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home.)

2  In the first (Israelite) temple in Jerusalem, keruvim and palms  are carved in relief on the wooden walls and two sets of double doors (1 Kings 6:29, 32, 34). Keruvim, palms, and lions are engraved on the stands for ten bronze wash-basins (1 Kings 7:36).

3  Genesis 3:24.

4  Ezekiel 28:14, 16.

5  Exodus 25:22, Numbers 7:89.

6           Hey! Like clouds it ascends;

            Like a whirlwind is [God’s] chariot;

            Lighter than eagles are His horses.  (Jeremiah 4:13)

In Psalm 104, God’s cloud chariot is pulled by the wind:

            Setting beams for [God’s] roof chambers in the waters [above the sky],

                        Making the clouds His chariot,

                        He goes on the wings of the wind.  (Psalm 104:3)

 

Haftarat Vayekheil—1 Kings: Symbolic Impressions

March 3, 2016 at 2:44 pm | Posted in Kings 1, Vayakheil | 2 Comments
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Vayakheil (Exodus 35:1-40:38). The haftarah in the Sefardi tradition is 1 Kings 7:13-26. (The haftarah in the Ashkenazi tradition is 1 Kings 7:40-50.)

Both Moses’ tent sanctuary and Solomon’s temple have a place for priests to wash their hands and feet before they enter the holy building. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil, the master craftsman Betzaleil makes a simple but symbolic wash-basin. (See my blog post Pekudei: Basin of Mirrors.)

Kiyor on stand, stone, Megiddo

Kiyor on stone stand, Megiddo

And he made the kiyor of bronze and its stand of bronze from the mirrors of the army of women who mobilized at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (Exodus 38:8)

kiyor (כִּיִוֹר) = basin, laver.

Solomon’s temple has ten such basins, cast out of regular molten bronze rather than mirrors, perched on elaborate wheeled stands. But King Solomon also has his master bronze artisan cast a water container so huge it is called a sea.

Then he made the yam of cast metal, ten cubits from its [lower] rim up to its circular rim, five cubits high, and a measuring-line of thirty cubits around its circumference. (1 Kings 7:23)

yam (יָם) = sea; in Canaanite religion, the name of the god of the sea.

This tub of water would be more than 14 feet (4 meters) across and more than 7 feet (2 meters) high. Since it would be impossible to climb into for bathing, commentators have concluded it had an outlet like a spigot at the bottom, to pour water into a shallower container for washing.

Bronze "Sea", artist's rendering from Encyclopedia Judaica

Bronze “Sea”, artist’s rendering from Encyclopedia Judaica

And gourd ornaments were below its rim all around the circle, ten per cubit, encompassing the yam all around; two rows of the gourd ornaments, cast in one piece with it. It was standing on twelve oxen: three facing north and three facing west and three facing south and three facing east. And the yam was on top of them, and all of their hind parts were inward. (I Kings 7:24-25)

The most striking difference between the yam in front of Solomon’s temple and the kiyor in front of Moses’ tent sanctuary is that the yam rests on twelve bronze cows—probably life-size—instead of on an ordinary framework.

Moses discourages the molding of any real animals (as opposed to the keruvim, the composite fantasy animals whose wings are spread over the ark). He smashes and grinds up the golden calf that Aaron makes in the book of Exodus. In a passage after this week’s hafatarah, the first book of Kings criticizes King Jereboam of Israel for putting golden calves in temples at Dan and Bethel.

Hathor

Hathor

This may have been a reaction to cow-worship in other religions. The religion of the Hittites to the north included a pair of bulls who carried the weather god Teshub on their backs. To the south, Egyptians worshipped the bull as Apis, the avatar of the gods Ptah and Osiris, and the cow as the goddess Hathor.

Yet throughout the bible, the twelve bronze oxen supporting the yam in front of Solomon’s temple are treated as perfectly acceptable.

Is the huge tub of water in front of Solomon’s temple called the yam simply because it is so large, or does it evoke the Canaanite god named Yam? Are the twelve oxen simply decorative, or do they inspire awareness of bull and cow worship?

Throughout history, people have viewed symbols of the divine in two ways.  Some people consider a symbolic object or building as a way to evoke the ineffable. Its beauty and impressiveness are like an arrow pointing to the divine, and its specific details (such as fruit, water, architecture that reaches toward the sky) allude to ideas about the divine.

Other people see symbolic things in a more concrete way.  A god visits a building or enters a statue. Carrying out rituals in sacred buildings with sacred objects is essential for pleasing the god.

Either way, symbols are important—and often enduring. Even today, Mormons conduct baptisms and sealings in copies of the yam perched on twelve oxen.

One question remains, for King Solomon and for us today:  Which symbols from other cultures and from the history of our own culture or religion can enhance our lives, and which symbols should be discarded?

Anyone want a bronze ox?

Vayakheil: Holy Time

March 8, 2015 at 12:47 pm | Posted in Vayakheil | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Holy time is more important than holy space. Jewish commentary through the millennia has drawn this conclusion from several key passages in the Torah, including the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil (“And he assembled”):

matchAnd Moses assembled the whole community of the Children of Israel, and he said to them: Six days you shall do melakhah, and the seventh day there shall be holiness for you: a shabbat shabbaton for God. Anyone who does melakhah on it shall be put to death. You shall not kindle a fire in any of your settlements on the day of the shabbat. (Exodus/Shemot 35:1-3)

melakhah (מְלָאכָה) = tasks, job, crafts; creative work, productive work; project, enterprise.

Shabbat (שַׁבָּת) = day of rest, day of stopping. (From the root verb shavat, שָׁבַת = stop, cease, desist.)

shabbat shabbaton (שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן) = day of absolute stopping.

Immediately after this, Moses hands down God’s directions for making the portable sanctuary—the most holy type of melakhah humans can do. According to most of commentary, Moses first makes it clear that the work of making the sanctuary must be confined to six days a week, then tells the people what to make.  The holy day of Shabbat trumps the holy sanctuary.

As confirming evidence, the commentary points to the first mention of any form of the root shavat in the Torah—after God spends six “days” creating the heavens and the earth and everything in them.

God finished on the seventh day Its melakhah that It had done, vayishbot on the seventh day from all Its work that It had done. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy… (Genesis/Bereishit 2:2-3)

vayishbot (וַיִּשְׁבֹּת) = and he/it stopped, ceased, desisted.

God made the seventh day holy long before making the sanctuary (or any other place) holy.

In between the beginning of Genesis and the ending of Exodus, the Torah gives us more information about Shabbat and melakhah in the fourth of the Ten Commandments.

Remember the day of the Shabbat to make it holy. Six days you shall serve and you shall do all your melakhah. And the seventh day is Shabbat for God, your god; you shall not do any melakhah—you or your son or your daughter, your male slave or your female slave or your livestock or your resident alien who is within your gates.  Because [for] six days God made the heavens and the earth, the sea and everything that is in them, vayanach on the seventh day; therefore God blessed the seventh day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)

vayanach  (וַיָּנָח) = and he/it rested.

Here the Torah introduces the idea of stopping as resting. People, animals, and even God must periodically stop and rest. We know that our physical bodies need rest to rebuild energy. Do our souls also need rest to re-energize? During Moses’ first 40 days on Mount Sinai, God says:

The Children of Israel shall guard the Shabbat, to make the Shabbat for their generations, a covenant forever. Between Me and the Children of Israel it is a sign forever, because for six days God made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day shavat, vayinafash. (Exodus 31:16-17)

shavat (שָׁבַת) = he/it stopped, ceased, desisted.

vayinafash (וַיִּנָּפַשׁ) = and refreshed his/its soul, and recovered himself/itself, and re-animated himself/itself. (From the same root as nefesh = soul, the soul that animates the body, inclination, appetite.)

Since the divine life of the universe pauses periodically for refreshment and redirection, so must our own souls. (See my earlier post, Shabbat in Yitro, Mishpatim and Ki Tissa: Soul Recovery.)

One divine inspiration can trigger human beings to engage in a lifetime of holy work; but if we do not stop regularly to rest and listen with our souls, our work will never be animated by new inspirations.

When Shabbat comes up again in this week’s Torah portion, the Torah adds a new detail:

You shall not kindle a fire in any of your settlements on the day of the shabbat. (Exodus 35:3)

Kindling a fire is the archetype of a human activity that is creative and useful, and enables further creative and useful work. Many ancient cultures considered kindling fire the beginning of civilization.

fireI would add that God manifests in the Torah as a sound, a cloud, or a fire. So fire can stand for our own holy work, as well as for God’s presence. And fire represents change and activity; flames are always moving, never stopping, until the fire has burned down to an ember.

I learned a hard lesson from preparing this blog post: as I suspected, I have been cheating myself.

It is a pleasure to refrain from doing drudgery on Shabbat. And during the years I worked at a job that was not my calling, I was always glad to take Saturday off.

But now I love my melakhah, my creative work of learning, pondering, and teaching Torah through my adult education classes, my Torah monologues, the services I lead, and this weekly blog. I love the work so much that it is hard to make myself take a vacation. I know I should rest on Shabbat, but after all, studying Torah is an approved Shabbat activity.  So what if I put sticky tags next to passages I want to copy onto my computer the next day? So what if I take notes on Shabbat afternoon, even though the Talmud (in Shabbat 73a) includes writing in its list of melakhah forbidden on Shabbat?  I decided long ago that I never wanted to be so strict in my observance that Shabbat became a punishment.  Why not write down any ideas about the Torah that come to me?  After all, studying Torah is holy work.

So was making the items for the sanctuary.

Rereading the portion Vayakheil this year, I can understand the value of stopping even holy work, once a week. My work makes me feel happy, but also driven. Every day that I have the blessing of time to work on Torah, I quickly kindle my inner fire. So far I have not run out of insights and observations—perhaps because I have 60 years of life to reflect upon. But I do run out of energy. I am starting to worry that my fuel supply is dwindling, and if I go on this way, I will burn out.

I need to rest more. I need to re-animate my soul. I need a regular day of shabbat shabbaton, absolute stopping. The Torah is right.

So I am going to start obeying the fourth commandment. I will still lead a Shabbat service now and then, having prepared the week before. But I will rest every Shabbat, and refrain from working on my next holy project. It will not be easy for me.

 

Vayakheil and Ki Tissa: How to Be a Holy Artist

February 17, 2014 at 9:39 pm | Posted in Ki Tissa, Vayakheil | Leave a comment
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What does it take to create something that will help people feel the presence of God?

Aaron tries to do this when he makes the Golden Calf in last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa. At first, the people are ecstatic over the idol, bowing down to it and singing and dancing. But this simple and undisciplined religious outlet does not last. When Moses returns and grinds the calf into gold dust, nobody protests. Moses stirs the gold dust into water, and they all meekly swallow it. Aaron’s creation turns out to be a failure.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil (“And he assembled”), the master craftsman Betzaleil begins making the holy objects for the new sanctuary. The completed creation is so successful that it sustains the religion of the Israelites for several centuries, until King Solomon replaces it with the temple in Jerusalem.

The key difference between Aaron and Betzaleil as creators of religious objects appears in the Torah twice, repeated word for word. In the portion Ki Tissa, God says it to Moses. In this week’s portion, Moses says it to the Israelites:

See? God has called by name Betzaleil, son of Uri, son of Chur, of the tribe of Yehudah. And [God] has filled him with ruach of God, with chokhmah, with tevunah, and with da-at, and with every craft. (Exodus/Shemot 35:30-31)

ruach (רוּחַ) = wind; spirit, motivation, overwhelming state of mind.

(Usually when the ruach of God comes over someone in the Hebrew Bible, that person speaks as a prophet or leads people into battle. Exceptions are Samson, who is gripped by a murderous rage and supernatural strength; and Betzaleil the artist, who is filled with a divine motivation to create.)

chokhmah (חָכְמָה) = wisdom; inspiration.

tevunah (תְבוּנָה) = insight, rational understanding, analytic ability.

da-at (דַעַת) = knowledge.

In later Kabbalistic writings, chokhmah and binah (another form of the word tevunah) are two of the sefirot or divine powers. (See my earlier post: Vayakheil: Seven Lamps.) **** Chokhmah is the sefirah associated with the left side of the head, i.e. the left brain that popular science now associates with non-rational, intuitive, holistic consciousness. Binah (tevunah) is the sefirah associated with the right side of the head, i.e. the right brain that we now associate with rational, logical, analytic thinking. In the Kabbalist system, da-at is the product of chokhmah combined with binah.

Aaron, although he will serve as the high priest, lacks the four qualities with which God fills Betzaleil. When the Israelites are waiting at the foot of Mount Sinai in Ki Tissa, Aaron feels no ruach of God, no divine urge to create a holy object. The people decide Moses will never return and order Aaron: Get up, make for us gods that will go before us! (Exodus 32:1). Then Aaron acts, but only to satisfy the crowd.

He has no chokhmah, no inspiration nor wisdom about what to make; he merely calls for gold earrings to melt down, since the finest idols are made of gold.

He took it from their hands and he shaped it with the engraving tool, and he made it into an image of a calf. (Exodus 32:4)

Afterward, when Aaron explains to Moses what happened, he says: I said to them, “Who has gold? Pull it off yourselves.” And they gave it to me and I threw it into the fire and out came this calf.” (Exodus 32:24)

Aaron admits that he acted without any of the insight or discrimination of tevunah, and also without any da-at, any knowledge of what would emerge from the fire.

Betzaleil, on the other hand, is born betzalmeinu—in God’s shadow or image—when it comes to creativity. (See my earlier post, Vayakheil: Shadow Power.) **** He creates under the protection of God’s shadow. God “fills” him with the qualities he already has the potential and experience to develop.

Even as Moses comes down with God’s basic design for a portable sanctuary, Betzaleil is filled with a divine desire to create it. He has the chokhmah to visualize the whole thing, and to imagine beautiful and inspiring objects—from the gold keruvim (hybrid winged beasts) on top of the ark to the design embroidered in brilliant colors on the curtain at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. He has the tevunah to analyze and understand how each part can be made well and assembled into the whole. And he has da-at, knowledge, of every craft: metal-working, jewelry, wood-working, weaving, and embroidery.

Betzaleil is so filled with chokhmah, tevunah, and da-at that he and his assistant can teach other craftsmen and craftswomen among the people.

And [God] put teaching into his heart, him and Ahaliyav son of Achisamakh of the tribe of Dan. (Exodus 35:34)

And Betzaleil and Ahaliyav and everyone wise of heart to whom God gave chokhmah and tevunah for da-at and for doing all the work for the service of the Holy, they shall do everything that God commanded. (Exodus 36:1)

The sanctuary that is completed in next week’s Torah portion, Pekudei, is the product of the grand design Moses heard from God; the divine spirit, inspiration, understanding, and know-how of the master artist, Betaleil; and the enthusiasm and wisdom of the contributors in the community. No wonder it becomes a place where people feel God’s presence.

I think that the qualities God gives Betzaleil are necessary for anyone to produce truly moving art, whether its explicit goal is religious or not. I know that when I do “creative writing”, especially of Torah monologues and fiction, both my motivation (ruach) and my inspiration (chokhmah) seem to come from a mysterious place outside myself, or perhaps from some inner place so deep my conscious mind can never penetrate it. I might as well say they come from God, the great mystery.

But the most burning motivation and inspiration leads nowhere without the application of rational insight and analysis (tevunah). My own ability in this area is a talent I was born with, a gift of God, that I have developed over many years of practice. And as in Kabbalah, I have found that the combination of left-brained inspiration (chokhmah) and right-brained analysis (binah or tevunah) does indeed result in knowledge (da-at).

The final requirement for creating art is to actually do all the labor. I am grateful that the ruach that blows through me from the unknown source I call God is strong enough to motivate me to keep on working, with enthusiasm—like the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion.

May the divine spirit be strong in all artists.

Vayakheil: Shadow Power

March 8, 2013 at 8:35 am | Posted in Bereishit, Vayakheil | 1 Comment

God spoke to Moses, saying: See? I have called by name Betzaleil son of Uri son of Chur of the tribe of Yehudah. And I have filled him with the spirit of God, with wisdom and with insight and with knowledge, and with every craft. (Exodus/Shemot 31:1-3)

Moses said to the children of Israel: See? God has called by name Betzaleil son of Uri son of Chur of the tribe of Yehudah. And he has filled him with the spirit of God, with wisdom, with insight, and with knowledge, and with every craft. (Exodus 35:30-31)

Betzaleil (בְּצַלְאֵל) = In the shadow of God.           b- (=in, at, by, with) + tzeil (=shadow, shade) + eil (= god)

In the Torah portions of the last few weeks, God told Moses everything that should be included in a portable sanctuary the Israelites would make for God. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil (And he assembled), Moses passes on the lists to the Israelites, and points out (See?) that God has chosen Betzaleil to be in charge of creating all the items properly. Everyone can see that God has filled Betzaleil with a divine spirit or inspiration, so it is easy to believe God has singled him our or “called him by name”–a name that is oddly appropriate for his mission.

What does it mean to be, or to create, in the shadow of God? Today we use the word “shadow” as a metaphor for so many things. For example, being in someone’s shadow means going unnoticed. The shadow side of a person or institution is the unacknowledged, unconscious, or repressed side. Shadowing someone is following their every move.

But in the Hebrew Bible, the meanings of the word “shadow” are more limited. The word tzeil appears 48 times, and 40 of those references are either literal (such as the shadow of a tree or a sundial) or a metaphor for shelter and protection. The first time the word appears is in Lot’s speech to the men of Sodom, begging them not to molest his two angelic visitors:

Here please, I have two daughters who have not known a man. Please let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them whatever is good in your eyes. Only don’t do a thing to these men, because they came into the shadow of my roof. (Genesis/Bereishit 19:8)

Here “the shadow of my roof” means “under my protection”. Once Lot has offered the visitors the hospitality of his house, he feels honor-bound to protect them from the mob.

Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, some people are under the “shadow” or protection of a government, and the luckiest people are in the “shadow” of God’s hand or wings.

In the shadow of Your wings I seek refuge. (Psalm 57:2)

Those of us who live in more moderate climates might not think of a shadow as a protection or a shelter, but in the deserts of the Middle East a shadow meant shade from the burning sun.

The other eight occurrences of the word tzeil, shadow, are all connected with a person’s lifespan. When that days of your life are like a shadow, it means they are brief and fleeting.

Humankind is like a puff of air; his days are like a passing shadow. (Psalm 144:4)

Both of these metaphors can be applied to the master craftsman Betzaleil. Since he is human, his life is short compared to God’s. By extension, his creations, however dazzling and holy, are a mere shadow of God’s creation of the universe.

On the other hand, Betzaleil is in the shadow of God, so God protects and shelters him as well as naming him. His inspiration for designing all the holy objects comes from the spirit of God, and therefore everything will come out right.

A literal shadow is like a silhouette; you see the outline of the original, but none of the details or colors. This kind of shadow fits the Hebrew word tzelem, which is sometimes translated as “shadow”, but more often translated as “image”. The word tzelem, which may well be related to the word tzeil, appears in the first account of God’s creation of the universe:

And God said: Let us make humankind betzalmeinu, in our likeness, and they will rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the beasts, and over all the land, and over all creepers that creep on the land. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:26)

betzalmeinu (בְּצַלְמֵנוּ) = in our image

Humans are shadows of God in the sense that we are like silhouettes of the divine. As two-dimensional images, our power, both to rule and to create, is limited yet still extensive. We cannot rule over the laws of nature, but we have a lot of control over this earth and its creatures. (We can even change the earth’s climate.) We cannot create a universe, but we can recombine existing elements to create new things within our universe. When we humans are at our best, when we are inspired to create, like Betzaleil, we shadow or imitate the divine. Only God can make a tree, but some poems are also inspiring.

So, I imagine, was the entire work of art of the portable sanctuary, and later of the temple.  It inspired the children of Israel to keep returning to their God, over the centuries, and it kept their religion alive until it could metamorphose and survive without a temple.

When God calls us by name, either to rule or to create, we are given a heavy responsibility. We humans have more power than we think, for good and for ill. May we use it wisely.

Vaykheil-Pekudei: Witnessing the Divine

March 14, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Posted in Pekudei, Vayakheil | Leave a comment

The book of Exodus/Shemot ends this week with a double portion, Vayakheil (And he assembled) and Pekudei (Inventories).  The Israelites eagerly donate materials for the mishkan (the portable dwelling-place for God), and for ritual garments for the new priests.  They make all the parts of the mishkan, and Moses assembles them.  At the end of the book, God’s glory enters the Dwelling.

The portion Vayakheil begins:  And Moses assembled the whole community (everyone who would witness) among the children of Israel.  (Exodus/Shemot 35:1)

The portion Pekudei begins:  These are the inventories for the Dwelling, the Dwelling of the Testimony of God.  (Exodus 38:21)

kol adat = all the witnesses of, the whole community of

eidut = report of a witness, testimony (from the same root as adat)

ha-eidut = The testimony (This form is used for the testimony of God.)

In Vayakheil, the community of witnesses is also the community that donates and makes the mishkan.  Women as well as men are specifically included in this group.  In Pekudei, when Moses assembles all the parts of the mishkan, he puts God’s testimony, ha-eidut, into the ark, then inserts the carrying-poles into the rings at its corners, and puts the golden cover on as a lid.  The Torah does not specify what the testimony inside the ark actually is.  Classic commentary is divided on whether it consists of a parchment scroll on which Moses wrote down the first part of the Torah, or the stone tablets inscribed by the finger of God with the commandments (both the intact pair of tablets and the shards of the broken pair), or both the scroll and the tablets.

Either way, The Testimony is something the Israelites already have.  And Moses has already told the people that God is with them.  But seeing is believing.  The Israelites need to witness Moses putting God’s “testimony” into the ark, and then they need to witness God’s visible presence.  On their journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai, they followed a manifestation of God as a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.  But the pillar disappeared when they arrived at the mountain, and clouds of smoke and fire appeared only at the mountain’s peak.  This was not enough for the Israelites; when Moses was gone too long, they made a golden calf.  And soon they will have to leave Mount Sinai and journey on to the Promised Land.  How can they know God is really with them, and God’s testimony is really secure?

Their memories of God’s miracles in Egypt and manifestations after that are not sufficient.  The Israelites are like witnesses with poor recall.  In order to remain fully aware of God’s presence and God’s investment in them, they have to build a visible, tangible place for God to dwell, and then they have to witness something that indicates God’s presence in that dwelling-place.  Only then can they fend off their fear of abandonment.

This plan works.  The book of Exodus ends:

…and Moses completed the work.  The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of God filled the Dwelling … For the cloud of God was upon the Dwelling by day, and  fire was in it by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel on all their journeys.  (Exodus 40:33-38)

Today, our world has many sanctuaries designed to make people feel the presence of God, including many synagogues, cathedrals, and mosques.  (We also have a plethora of buildings intended for religious worship whose architecture is no more inspiring than a high school gymnasium—but that’s another story.)  Many religions also have fixed prayers or mantras, with words to be recited or sung at specific times, words designed to help people feel the presence of God.

Nevertheless, God’s presence is not concrete enough for most humans today to attest to it as witnesses.  And most thoughtful people know that any written “testimony” we have, however accurately copied, was written down by fallible human beings, and that means that, at best, something was lost in translation. We have no ark, we have no mishkan.  We know that if we discovered the ark, buried away somewhere, and attempted to duplicate the mishkan described in the Torah, God would not manifest in it the same way.  We live in another time, millennia away from the ancient peoples who built the Dwelling for God on their journey across the wilderness.

Yet so many people, including myself, yearn for something ineffable, something so hard to name that we call it “God”.  Some find an anthropomorphic idea of God helpful.  Some find the idea of a being who is omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-benevolent helpful.  I am one of those who use the words “God” and “soul” when we want shorthand ways to talk about the mysterious feeling that there is some huge extra meaning in the universe and in ourselves.

No matter what phenomena I observe, I can always generate counter-explanations that prevent me from being a witness for “God”, whatever that word means.  Nevertheless, I have discovered that I can help my sense of a divine presence to grow.  I can build an imaginary mishkan inside my mind, and witness some  spirit of the divine, in the form of mystery and exaltation, obscurity and light …  cloud and fire.

May we all discover some of the divinity that dwells inside us.

Vayakheil: Will My Cup Run Over?

April 15, 2011 at 3:18 pm | Posted in Vayakheil | 1 Comment

(This blog was first published on March 7, 2010.)

And they took, from in front of Moshe, all the gifts that the children of Israel had brought for the work of making (the place for) the service of the holy, in order to make it.  And they all continued to bring him voluntary gifts, morning after morning.  (Exodus/Shemot 36:3)

nedavah = voluntary gift, spontaneous generous offering

Psalm 23 travels from “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” to “My cup runs over”.  I see the same journey in the double Torah portion we read this week, Vayakheil (“And he assembled”) andPekudei (“Inventories”).  In last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa,  the people thought they had lost their leader, that Moses would never come back down from Mount Sinai.  They were so caught up in anxiety and dark imaginings that they made a golden calf and treated it like an idol.  When Moses saw them, he was so caught up in anger that he had a few thousand people killed.

In the next Torah portion, Vayakheil, the people’s hearts overflow with the desire to give materials to build a sanctuary for the God of Moses.  They donate so many materials of their own free will that they give more than enough.

How do you get from the constriction of fear and anger, the valley of the shadow of death, to the feeling that your cup is running over, that you have been given so much, you want to give to others?

For the children of Israel in the book of Exodus, the shift happens when God and Moses change their approach.  At first both are furious about the golden calf worship.  But then Moses asks God for a different vision of the divine, and receives the thirteen attributes of God, which include compassion, tenderness, patience, forbearance, and kindness.  (Exodus/Shemot 34:6-7)  Then God lets the people build a portable sanctuary despite their stiff necks and their relapse to idol worship.  As soon as Moses assembles the sanctuary, God’s presence or glory fills it.  (Exodus 40:34, Pekudei)  God also travels with the people once more as a pillar of cloud and fire, which signals when they should camp and when they should march.  (Exodus 40:36-38)

In other words, God forgives the people and acts generously.  And the people respond with their own generosity.

I wish I had a fool-proof formula for making that shift in consciousness from the valley of the shadow of death to the overflowing cup.  Sometimes, I think, the shift just happens by the grace of God.  But I’ve learned my consciousness is more likely to change if I keep practicing appreciation.

I remain aware of my anxieties.  But I practice noticing how much good there is in my life, and how even in the shadow of death, the world is also filled with life and beauty and interest.  Then, sometimes, I can relax and give myself generously, without worrying.

There are many techniques for practicing appreciation.  My favorite is singing prayers.  Blessing and praising God means blessing and praising this whole abundant universe we live in, including human beings, who carry the divine inside them.  And praise flows deeper with a melody.

There is no record that the children of Israel had a formal prayer practice, at least not until after the sanctuary was built and the priests were charged with blessing the people.  Instead of giving words, the people gave animals to sacrifice to God, and materials to build the sanctuary.  In that way their own cups ran over.

May our hearts overflow as well.

Do you have a different appreciation practice?  Feel free to make a spontaneous gift by describing it in a comment on this blog.

Vayakheil: Seven Lamps

April 11, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Posted in Vayakheil | Leave a comment

(This blog was first published on February 21, 2011.)

In last week’s Torah portion, while Aaron is at the foot of Mount Sinai making a golden calf, Moses is on top of the mountain receiving divine instructions for making the sanctuary God wants.  Moses descends and destroys the calf and the people who worshiped it.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil (“And he assembled”), Moses calls together the surviving people and gives them God’s instructions for making the sanctuary.  These include God’s description of the lamp-stand (menorah), and God’s choice of Betzaleil as the master craftsman.

Moses said to the children of Israel: See, God has called by name Betzaleil …  He (God) filled him with a spirit of God in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge, and in every creative skill.  (Exodus/Shemot 35:30-31)

chochmah = wisdom, knowledge of a craft, thinking in terms of unity

tevunah = understanding, discernment, insight, thinking in terms of distinctions

da-at = knowledge, direct knowledge (either sensory or intuitive)

He (Betzaleil) made the lamp-stand of pure gold …  He make its seven lamps and its tongs and its fire-pans of pure gold.(Exodus/Shemot 37:17, 23)

The last time I wrote about the gold lamp-stand, in my blog on January 30 on “Terumah: Waking Up”, I focused on why God tells Moses to make the lamp-stand like an almond tree.  Now it’s time to ask why it has seven lamps.

Of course there are many theories.  One is that the seven lamps stand for the seven days of creation at the beginning of the Torah.  The seventh day is the sabbath/Shabbat, when God rested from the creative work.  At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Moses first tells the people to do their own creative work (malachah) on six days, but make the seventh day holy through a complete rest for God.  Only after reminding them about this rule does Moses begin to describe how they will create a sanctuary for God.

If the seven lamps reflect the seven days of creation, we also need to look at the master craftsman who creates them: Betzaleil.  Classic commentaries (from the 5th-century Tanchuma on) say that Moses could not visualize the lamp-stand from God’s original description.  But Betzaleil could.

What gave him this ability?  The Torah says God filled Betzaleil with chochmah, tevunah, and da-at.  In Kabbalah, chochmah (wisdom), binah (discernment; from the same root as tevunah), and da-at (knowledge) are three of the ten sefirot (divine powers; facets of God’s emanation, which creates the universe).  Chochmah, binah, and da-at are the three highest sefirot accessible to human beings, containing the most divine energy.

There are ten sefirot.  Once I noticed that God fills Betzaleil with the top three sefirot, I looked for the other seven.  Since divine emanation is so often symbolized by light, I thought of the seven lamps in a row across the top of the golden lamp-stand.

It’s not easy to decide which of the seven lower sefirot corresponds to which lamp.  I’d say that the three lamps on the side closer to the Holy of Holies containing the ark represent the middle triad of sefirot: chessed (kindness), gevurah (discipline), and tiferet (harmony).  The three lamps on the other side, closer to the entrance and the altar for animal sacrifices, would represent the lower triad of sefirot: netzchak (endurance), hod (beauty in physical movement), and yesod (ego).  That leaves the middle lamp for the sefirah at the bottom of the tree of sefirot, malchut (kingdom), also called shechinah.  Shechinah is the place of divine emanation of our whole physical universe, and the spirit of God in our universe. The shechinah comes closest to us on the seventh day, Shabbat!

Still, speculations about specific correspondences between lamps and sefirot are not as important as the idea that God’s blueprint for the lamp-stand calls for not one lamp, but seven.  The orthodox 19th-century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch noted that a single lamp would imply a one-sided spirit of service.  Seven lamps imply that the spirits of those who serve God must have many different aspects.

Betzaleil, the master craftsman, was filled with not one but three different aspects of the divine, three different sefirot: wisdom, understanding, and knowledge.  And in the same verse, the Torah says God filled him with ruach Elohim, which means a “spirit of God” … or a spirit of gods, in the plural.  Elohim is the word for God that appears first in the story of creation; but some Kabbalists believe the unknowable God created the universe through “gods”, through various divine powers emanating from the One God; in other words, through the sefirot.

Reading about the lamp-stand in the sanctuary can remind us that we serve God by lighting all the lamps of our spirits.  We can move toward holiness—and spread enlightenment—through discipline as well as through loving-kindness, through individual egos as well as through harmony.

May we be blessed to kindle all of our lamps.

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