Bemidbar: Covering the Sacred

May 24, 2017 at 7:43 pm | Posted in Bemidbar | 1 Comment
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When you have a portable sanctuary, you need a procedure for packing up the holy items when it’s time to move on. And if unauthorized contact with a holy object results in death, the correct procedure is critical. This week’s Torah portion, Bemidbar (“In a wilderness”), specifies that only the priests may wrap up the holy items. Then Levites can carry them, once they are completely concealed.

They may not come in and see the holy even for a moment, or they will die.  (Numbers 4:20)

The first holy item the priests cover is the ark itself. The ark is usually hidden even from them, behind the partition-curtain in the Tent of Meeting that screens off the Holy of Holies.

Aharon and his sons shall come, when the camp is pulling out, and they shall take down the partition-curtain, and they shall cover the Ark of the Testimony with it.  Then they shall place over it a covering of tachash leather, and they shall spread a cloth of perfect  tekheilet over that, then put its poles in place. (Numbers/Bemidbar 4:5-6)

Murex shell

tachash (תָּחַשׁ) = An unknown Hebrew word for either a treatment for leather, or the animal providing the skin.1

tekheilet (תְּכֵלֶת) = Blue dye made from a Mediterranean murex sea snail.2

Next Aaron and his sons Elazar and Itamar cover up the holy items they use regularly inside the Tent of Meeting.

Then they shall spread over the Table of the Presence a cloth of tekheilet, and they will place upon it the bowls, ladles, offering-bowls, libation jars for libations, and [that week’s] perpetual bread.  And they shall spread out over them a cloth of tolat shani, and then cover it with a covering of tachash leather, and they shall put its poles in place.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 4:7-8)

Shield lice on branch

tola-at shani (תּוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי) =  A vivid red or scarlet dye made from the unhatched eggs of shield-lice living on oak bark.

Although the table also has three coverings, the utensils—and that week’s bread!—are stored on top of the first tablecloth, then covered by the second cloth and the leather.

Next they shall take a cloth of tekheilet, and they shall cover the lampstand (menorah) of the lighting and its lamps and its wick-cutters and its ash-pans and all the utensils for its oil that they use to attend to it. And they shall put it and all its utensils into a covering of tachash leather, and they shall place it on the carrying-frame.  (Numbers 4:9-10)

The priests cover the incense altar the same way, first in tekheilet cloth, then in tachash leather.3

Finally, the priests must prepare the altar used for animal sacrifices, which is stationed in front of the Tent of Meeting for burning offerings of animals and grain products.  Even though everyone can see this altar, the priests cover it before the Levites move it.

And they shall remove ashes from the altar, and they shall spread over it a cloth of argaman.  And they shall place on it all the serving utensils which they use to attend to it—the ash pans, the meat forks, the scrapers, and the sprinkling basins—all the utensils of the altar. And they shall spread over it [the altar and its utensils] a covering of tachash leather, and they shall put its poles in place.  (Numbers 4:13-14)

argaman (אַרְגָּמָן) = purple dye made from a Mediterranean murex sea snail.

The various coverings of the holy objects are made out of wool dyed in the three most vivid colors available, and a type of leather that is only used for the Tent of Meeting and its holy objects.  Clearly the holy items must be honored with the best possible But why are different colors, in a different order, assigned to each item?

Wool dyed with techeilet

Tekheilet

Later in the book of Numbers the Israelites are told to wear fringes on the corners of their own garments, with a thread of tekheilet in each fringe, so that the sight of the fringe will remind them of everything God has commanded them to do.4 (See my post Shelach Lekha: Glimpses of Blue.) Why is turquoise the best color for the reminder?  Perhaps because it is the color of the sky, which is “the heavens”, the place God descends from.

Tekheilet is not used to cover the animal-offering altar, which stands outside the Tent of Meeting and is less holy.  But it is used for the innermost wrapping of the three holy objects placed inside the Tent, and for the outermost wrapping of the ark behind the partition.

God’s voice comes from the empty space above the lid of the ark, and the ark is sometimes called God’s throne. The Bible also pictures God’s throne in the heavens. And the pavement on which God’s feet appear in the vision on Mount Sinai is sapphire, “like the heavens for purity”.5 (See my post Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something.)  Sky blue is the color most directly associated with God.6  So surrounding the wrapped ark with techeilet cloth is like surrounding it with the sky.7

A cloth of tekheilet is the innermost cover touching the table, the lampstand, and the incense altar, the three holy objects that the priests tend constantly inside the Tent of Meeting. Although God does not speak or sit above these objects, they are still imbued with a residue of the heavens.

Wool dyed with tolaat shani

Tola-at shani

Scarlet is the color of fresh blood.  In the Torah, blood represents the soul that animates the body, and therefore the Israelites are forbidden to eat or drink it.8 (See my post Reih: Don’t Be a Soul-Eater.)

Later the book of Numbers describes how a perfect red cow is slaughtered, then burned with other red objects:  cedar wood, hyssop, and shani tola-at. The ashes are mixed with water and sprinkled on anyone who has touched a corpse, in order to make them ritually pure again.9 (See my post Chukkat: Blood and Ash.)

The table in the Tent of Meeting is spread first with a cloth of techeilet, the color of the heavens. Then its utensils and the usual twelve loaves of bread are set out on the blue tablecloth. Even while the table is being carried through the wilderness, the “perpetual bread” is there as a human offering to God.  But the grain to make the bread is God’s offering to humans.  Our bodies cannot live without the food that God provides, so the priests add a cloth of tola-at shani, the color of life-blood.

Cloth dyed with argaman

Argaman

A combination of blue (tekheilet), scarlet (tola-at shani), and purple (argaman) yarns are used to weave or embroider all the cloth walls and door-curtains of the Tent of Meeting, as well as the sashes of all the priests, and several items in the high priest’s costume.

The innermost cover over the ark is the partition-curtain that screens off the Holy of Holies when the Tent of Meeting is assembled. This curtain is woven out of tekheilet, tola-at shani, and argaman. Thus all three colors of holiness are touching the ark while it is being carried.

Cloth woven of only argaman wool, which the priests use to cover the outside altar, appears elsewhere in the Bible as a sign of wealth and royalty. Kings of Midian wear purple robes10, King Solomon sits on purple wool11, and the proverbial “woman of valor” dresses in purple.12

Why is the copper altar used to burn animal parts covered with the argaman of wealth? Perhaps turning the fat parts of cattle, sheep, and goats, or sometimes entire animals, into smoke for God is an expression of gratitude for the abundance that makes this offering possible.

Tachash

The word tachash occurs in the Bible only as a type of skin or leather. In this week’s Torah portion, tachash leather is the middle layer of wrapping for the ark, and the outer layer covering the table, lampstand, and both altars when these holy objects are carried to a new campsite. Tachash leather is also the top layer of the roof of the Tent of Meeting.13

The only other appearance of tachash leather in the Bible is a description of God dressing Jerusalem in embroidered garments, fine linen, silk, jewelry, and sandals of tachash. (Ezekiel 16:10)  The analogy makes Jerusalem not only God’s bride, but also a holy place.

While tachash leather separates Jerusalem from the earth in Ezekiel, it separates the Tent of Meeting from the heavens in Exodus. When God wants the Israelites to remain encamped, a pillar of cloud and fire rests over the Tent of Meeting, above the tachash leather roof. When God wants the Israelites to move on, the pillar ascends, and the priests must cover the holy objects with tachash leather so they can be safely transported. The Levites carry these carefully wrapped items above the earth and below the heavens.

*

Today we move not only to new geographical locations, but to new positions in our interior lives.  When we reach a new insight, or enter a new stage of life, it helps to remember the beliefs in our old lives that helped us to be grateful or ethical. Even as we outgrow some old beliefs, we can reframe the ideas that still inspire us, and carry them into our new lives.

When Jews today finish reading from a Torah scroll, we cover it with a garment that both protects the hand-lettered parchment, and prevents us from taking the scroll for granted.  Similarly, we can wrap our own sacred ideas and imperatives in garments that preserve them and prevent us from treating them too familiarly.

What colors do you need to cover your own sacred ideas?  Sky blue, to remind you of everything beyond your horizon?  Scarlet, to remind you that you owe your own life to living things you did not create?  Purple, to remind you of an abundance you may not have noticed? Or the unknown color of tachash, the skin separating heaven and earth through a divine mystery?

(An earlier version of this essay was published in May 2010.)

1  Those who guess tachash is a treatment for leather translate it variously as tanned, blackened, dyed blue, and dyed ochre.  Those who guess tachash  is the name of the animal providing the skin translate it variously as badger, ermine, wild goat, wild ram, sea cow, narwhal, dolphin, or seal.

2  Although the hue varies according to the amount of exposure to sunlight during the process, modern dye from the same species of murex used for the fringes on prayer shawls, is turquoise.

3  (Numbers 4:11-12)

4  Numbers 15:38.

5  Exodus 24:10.

6  19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that “תכלת, ‘sky-blue,’ is the color that points to the limits (תִּכְלָה) of our horizon, to what lies beyond our field of vision—i.e., to the hidden to the Divine.” (Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Shemos, English translation by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2005, p. 542 on Exodus 26:14.)

7  20th-century Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Bamidbar, English translation by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, New York, 1993,  p. 29.

8   Deuteronomy 12:23-25.

9  Numbers 19:3-6, 19:11-22. A similar mixture of cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet dye is mixed with blood from a slaughtered bird and sprinkled on someone who has recovered from skin disease in order to return them to ritual purity. (Leviticus/Vayikra 14:6, 14:51-52)

10 Judges 8:26.

11  Song of Songs 3:10.

12  Proverbs 31:22.

13  The top of the Tent of Meeting is covered with tanned rams’ skins, and then over that goes a layer of tachash leather.  (Exodus/Shemot 26:14, 36:19, 39:34; Numbers 4:25.)

 

 

 

Vayikra: A Voice Calling

March 29, 2017 at 4:38 pm | Posted in Vayikra | Leave a comment
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Moses at the Burning Bush,
by Rembrandt

There are only four times in the Bible when Gods “calls” to Moses before speaking to him, and all four happen at Mount Sinai. God calls from the burning bush1 for their first introduction; from the top of Mount Sinai when the ex-slaves from Egypt first arrive2; and from the top of the mountain again (when it is smoking and thundering) to give Moses more instructions before the revelation known as the “Ten Commandments”3.

The fourth time, God calls to Moses from within the Tent of Meeting that the Israelites have constructed at the foot of Mount Sinai.

Vayikra to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the children of Israel and say to them… (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:1-2)

vayikra (וַיִּקְרָא) = and he/It called (by name).

This divine call opens the book of Leviticus/Vayikra and this week’s Torah portion, which is also named Vayikra. Why does God call to Moses before giving him a new set of instructions?

One answer is that God always called Moses before speaking to him, as an expression of affection or courtesy, but the Torah does not always mention it.4

Cloud resting on
the Tent of Meeting

Another explanation points out that at the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses assembles the new Tent of Meeting for the first time, and the presence of God moves from the top of Mount Sinai into the tent.

Then Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud rested on it the magnificence of God filled the Dwelling-Place.  (Exodus 40:35)

Moses is not willing to try again until God calls to him from inside the tent. When he hears this call, he realizes that his job is not finished; he must continue to serve as an intermediary between God and the Israelites.5  The only difference is that now he will hear God’s voice from the empty space above the ark in the back chamber of the tent, the Holy of Holies.6

A unique feature of the word vayikra at the beginning of Leviticus is that in every Torah scroll, the letter aleph (א) at the end of the word is written smaller than the other letters.

Six words in the first five books of the Bible (Genesis through Deuteronomy, the contents of a Torah scroll) have been written with one letter smaller than the others ever since the 7th century C.E.7  No one knows the historic reason for these miniature letters, but symbolic interpretations have been proposed for each one.

The Zohar explains the small א in vayikra as indicating a restriction in God’s summons. Earlier in the Torah, God calls to Moses in full majesty from out of fire: first from the burning bush, then from the fire at the top of Mount Sinai. Now God calls from the Tent of Meeting, from inside the Holy of Holies.8

The idea of restriction is reinforced by the fact that in the first sentence of Leviticus, the Torah says He/It called to Moses, instead of God called to Moses; the name of God is only used in the second clause, when God speaks to Moses and gives him instructions. Moses hears the initial call when he is standing outside the Tent of Meeting. Then he goes inside to receive God’s new instructions.

From that point on, although Moses occasionally prostrates himself on the ground to get a quick word of divine advice, God usually speaks to him from the empty space above the ark in the Holy of Holies.

from Vesuvius in Eruption,
J.M.W. Turner, 1817

What does it mean that God now speaks with an indoor voice instead of an outdoor voice?  I think this change is related to a change in the Israelites’ relationship with God.  In the book of Exodus, God only speaks to the people once, on the day of revelation, and the people at the foot of Mount Sinai experience thunder, lightning, heavy cloud, the blare of a horn, smoke and fire, and earthquake.9

The experience is too devastating for the people, and they beg Moses to be a go-between for them.10  Moses does so, trotting up and down Mount Sinai, speaking with God at the top and the people at the bottom.  The ex-slaves from Egypt remain passive.  Even when they are afraid Moses has died, and they want an idol to replace him as their leader, they ask Moses’ brother Aaron to make it; they wouldn’t dare make a golden calf by themselves.

But when Moses passes on God’s instructions for making a dwelling-place for God, everyone with a willing heart donates materials, and everyone with a wise heart helps with the craftsmanship. (See my post Vayakheil: Will My Cup Run Over?)  In the book of Leviticus, Moses passes on God’s instructions for when and how the people should serve God by bringing their offerings, both animal and vegetable, to the altar.  Aaron and his four sons get new jobs as priests conducting sacred rituals, and at every stop on the journey through the wilderness, each tribe has a designated camping spot in relation to the Tent of Meeting.

Everyone is involved in serving God.  But only Moses and Aaron (the high priest) hear God’s voice; only they are permitted to enter the Holy of Holies.

Today we still see a difference between the organized religion of a congregation, and a lone person hearing God’s voice on a mountain-top.  People still have individual mystical experiences, usually when they are alone and confronted with a sight or sound that inspires awe.  Those experiences are precious.  But they are not sufficient for leading a good or holy life.  After all, does anyone today get explicit instructions from God whenever he or she needs them?  Is anyone today like Moses?

When we yearn for a moral compass or a way to walk with (or at least toward) God, we need help from other people.  We need a community of fellow-seekers, wise teachers to advise us, books to study, prayers to chant, rituals to perform.  We need our own equivalent of the Tent of Meeting.

If we do build a dwelling-place for God, in the right way for our own community in our own time, then we, too, can draw closer to God.  We may not hear God’s voice, but we can all feel that God is calling, and God’s presence rests in our midst.

(An earlier version of this essay was posted on March 6, 2010.)

1  And God saw that he had turned aside to look, vayikra to him, God, from the middle of the bush, and said: Moses! Moses!  (Exodus 3:4).

2  And they journeyed on from Refidim, and they entered the wilderness of Sinai, and they camped in the wilderness; and Israel camped there in front of the mountain. And Moses went up to God. Vayikra to him, God, from the mountain, saying: Thus you shall say to the House of Jacob…  (Exodus 19:2-3)

3  And God came down onto Mount Sinai, vayikra Moses, God did, to the top of the mountain.  And Moses went up.  (Exodus 19:20)

4  Rashi (12th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) on Torat Kohanim (Leviticus), after Sifra, ed. by Rav Chiyya of the Babylonian Talmud.  Also see Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar, 14:21.

5  “Moses needed constant goading because he was a humble person who instinctively withdrew from the attention and the honors that go with leadership.”  (Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, trans. by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, 1992, p. 2)

6  And when Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with [God], then he would hear the voice speaking to him from above the lid that was on the Ark of the Testimony, from between the two keruvim; and [God] spoke to him.  (Numbers 7:89)

7  During the 7th to 10th centuries C.E., rabbis arrived at a single, authoritative Biblical text derived from various copies written in consonants only. The Masoretes added diacritical marks to the text to indicate vowels, cantillation, and grammar. They also added marginal notes, and made some letters abnormal in size or position. The small letters (zeira) were among the earliest changes by the Masoretes. These six miniscule letters appear in Genesis 2:4 (ה in behibaram = when being created), Genesis 23:2 (כּ in velivkotah = and to wail for her), Genesis 27:46 (ק in katzeti = I am disgusted), Leviticus 1:1 (א in vayikra), Leviticus 6:2 (מ in mokdah = fire-place), and Numbers 25:11 (י in the name Pinchas).

8  Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, p. 3, paraphrasing the Zohar, a multi-volume kabbalistic commentary by Moshe deLeon, 13th century.

9  Exodus 19:16-19.

10  Exodus 20:15-18.

Terumah: Under Cover

February 18, 2015 at 11:36 pm | Posted in Terumah | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

How do you make a holy sanctuary, a place where God can manifest and be heard? God gives Moses instructions in this week’s Torah portion, Terumah (“Donations”). The instructions require the creation of both ritual objects (the ark, the bread-table, the lampstand, the outer altar) and the creation of ritual spaces through curtains.

The Torah uses five different words for curtains in Terumah. The name of each curtain depends on its position in a sanctuary designed so that the holier and more exclusive the space is, the more it is covered and screened off.

mishkan plan

The outer courtyard of the sanctuary is accessible to all the people, walled off by curtains but open to the sky. It measures 50 by 100 cubits (roughly 75 by 150 feet, slightly smaller than an Olympic swimming pool). Inside the courtyard stands a tent sanctuary, called the “tabernacle” in English (from the Latin word for “tent”), and the mishkan, or “Dwelling-Place” for God in Hebrew. Only priests may enter the mishkan.

The innermost (western) chamber of the mishkan is the Holy of Holies. Only Moses and the high priest may enter the Holy of Holies, where God manifests as a voice above the ark and between the two keruvim, winged creatures hammered out of the two ends of the ark’s gold lid.

You shall make a courtyard for the mishkan; for the south side, kela-im for the courtyard of twisted linen, 100 cubits long for one side. …And thus for the north side, kela-im a hundred long…(Exodus 27:9, 11)

kela-im (קְלָעִים) = curtains, hangings. (From a root verb (קלע) meaning either “slung”, as from a slingshot, or “carved”.)

The word kela-im occurs 16 times in the Bible, 15 times to indicate the linen hangings around the outer courtyard of the portable sanctuary, and once to indicate the carved double door into the great hall of the first temple in Jerusalem.

The kela-im in this week’s Torah portion are made of a single material, twisted linen threads, undyed and therefore an off-white. The kela-im separate the outer courtyard, where all the people can gather around the altar, from the rest of the world. They are the boundary between holy space and mundane space.

There is one entrance into the courtyard, a 20-foot gateway in the east wall covered by a hanging curtain.

And for a gate of the courtyard, a masakh of 20 cubits of sky-blue wool and purple wool and crimson wool and twisted linen, the work of an embroiderer, with four posts and four sockets. (Exodus 27:16)

masakh (מָסָךְ) = hanging curtain across a doorway, portiere. (From the root word sakhakh (סכך)= block off.)

A masakh also hangs in the doorway of the mishkan, the tent inside the courtyard.

You shall make a masakh for the entrance of the tent, of sky-blue wood and purple wool and crimson wool and twisted linen, the work of an embroiderer. (Exodus 26:36)

There is only one doorway into the tent, an opening in the east wall. The curtain screening this doorway between the outer courtyard and the inner priest’s chamber has a different name.

Both of these curtains separate a less holy space from a more holy space, and both hang loose so they can be pushed aside when someone enters or exits. They are both woven from linen, like the walls of the courtyard, but a design is embroidered on them in three vivid colors of wool.

The word masakh appears 25 times in the Bible, all but three times referring to the hangings in the courtyard gate or the mishkan doorway. In the three exceptions, the word masakh is used for the cloth cover over a cistern (2 Samuel 17:19), for the metaphorical gateway to the kingdom of Judah (Isaiah 22:8), and for the cloud God spread over the Israelites when they left Egypt (Psalm 105:39).

The walls of the mishkan are made of another type of curtain.

And the Dwelling-Place you shall make of ten yeriyot of twisted linen and sky-blue wool and purple wool and crimson wool, with keruvim of weaving-work you shall make them. The length of each yeriyah is 28 cubits, and the width four cubits, one measure for all the yeriyot. (Exodus/Shemot 26:1-2)

yeriyah (יְרִיעָה), plural yeriyot (יְרִיעֹת) = curtain, panel of tent-cloth, tapestry.

Ivory from Samaria, Israel, 9th-8th century BCE

Ivory from Samaria, Israel, 9th-8th century BCE

keruvim (כְּרֻוִים) = sphinx-like creatures with lion bodies, eagle wings, and human faces.

Each yeriyah is four cubits (about six feet) wide—which was the standard width of an Egyptian loom. The linen and three colors of wool are all woven together into a tapestry with a design of mythical semi-divine creatures.

A few verses later, God tells Moses:

You shall make yeriyot of goat-hair for a tent-roof over the mishkan; eleven yeriyot you shall make. (Exodus 26:7)

Moses fastens together these tent-cloth panels into a ceiling for the tent-sanctuary. They are not as beautiful as the ones forming the walls, but they also face the holy space of the inner enclosure.

The word yeriyah appears 48 times in the Hebrew Bible, and all but three of those occurrences refer to the yeriyot of the mishkan or of the first temple in Jerusalem. The three exceptions are all poetic.  Jeremiah 49:29 and Habakkuk 3:7 use yeriyot as a poetic synonym for tents. Psalm 104  describes God as “wrapping light like a robe, spreading out the heavens like a yeriyah”. (Psalm 104:2)

The ceiling of yeriyot woven from goat-hair must be covered with another layer of roofing: a curtain of hides sewn together.

You shall make a mikhseh for the tent of skins of rams dyed red, and a mikhseh of skins of tachashim over above. (Exodus 26:14)

mikhseh (מִכְסֶה) = curtain, covering. (From the root word kasah (כּסה) = cover, conceal.)

tachashim (תְּחָשִׁים) = (Nobody knows what this word means; speculations range from badgers to giraffes to dolphins.)

The word mikhseh occurs in the Bible thirteen times, twelve times as the outer layer of the roof over the tent-sanctuary, and once as the roof over Noah’s ark. It serves as a sort of waterproof tarpaulin, covering and protecting the tent-cloth ceiling underneath.

Model of Mishkan

Model of Mishkan

The fifth kind of curtain in the sanctuary is the partition that screens off the Holy of Holies from the priests’ chamber inside the mishkan.

You shall make a parokhet of sky-blue wool and purple wool and crimson wool and twisted linen, the making of a weaver; it will be made with keruvim. (Exodus 26:31)

And you shall place the parokhet beneath the hooks; and you shall bring in there, into the house for the parokhet, the Ark of the Testimony; and the parokhet will make a separation for you between the Holy [space] and the Holy of Holies. (Exodus 26:33)

parokhet (פָּרֹכֶת) = curtain, woven partition. (The word is related to the Assyrian parraku = a chamber or shrine that is shut off.)

The word parokhet occurs 25 times in the Bible, always in reference to the partition screening off the Holy of Holies.

The parokhet is woven of the same materials, with the same motif, as the walls of the mishkan. But it hangs so that Moses, Aaron, or the high priest after Aaron, can push it aside to enter the Holy of Holies and speak with God.

By using five different words for curtains, the Torah portion Terumah emphasizes the importance of the different levels of holiness of each space that is partitioned, blocked from view, or protected.

I think people also have zones of intimacy, each protected by its own barrier. To the outer world of strangers, we present a face like the blank white kela-im of the outer courtyard, without any designs or colors showing—except in the gateway, where our bland, socially acceptable surface is embroidered with a colored design indicating what our personalities might be like inside.

When we make friends, we admit them through the gate into our outer courtyard, where they can see the sanctuary protecting our true selves. Our friends get a glimpse of our own vivid colors, and the mythological animals that indicate our particular life stories.  But our inner self is still hidden and protected by yeriyot panels and by a mikhseh, a roof covering we hope is disaster-proof.

Some people have never been inside the tent of their inner selves; they live only according to social roles and expectations, and find self-examination difficult. Others discover they have an inner priest who can enter the inner self and see what is inside. There, besides working with their own lamps and bread tables, they see the parokhet that screens off the Holy of Holies, where God might speak to them.

These self-explorers might invite one or two people into the priestly level of intimacy. But only the individual can walk through the parokhet and see their own ark, and the keruvim that inspired all their woven and embroidered designs.  Only an individual can see the empty space where the voice of God might manifest.

Some individuals would prefer never to enter their own Holy of Holies, never to risk hearing a voice that comes from a deep place beyond the knowable self.

How intimate do you want to become with yourself?  With God?  Which curtains will you pass through, and which will block your passage?

 

Korach: Early and Late Bloomers

June 17, 2014 at 4:47 pm | Posted in Korach | 3 Comments
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When people do the wrong thing in the Torah, God gets angry and kills a bunch of them. This happens over and over again in the books of Exodus and Numbers. We see the same pattern today when parents (standing in for God) overreact to children’s mistakes and lash out at them. And it happens when individuals do something they regret and then cut themselves down.

Does this approach lead to reform and improvement? Rarely. Does the Torah offer a better approach?

In this week’s Torah portion, Korach (“bald”), a Levite named Korach, his 250 followers, and two leaders from the tribe of Reuben, all rebel at once. Their common goal is to depose the leader Moses and high priest Aaron, and take over their jobs. The God-character in the Torah takes this rebellion personally, since God chose Moses and Aaron.  Rebelling against their God-given authority is tantamount to rebelling against God.

First God responds the usual way, with overkill. The ground opens and swallows not only the two Reubenites and Korach, but also everyone in their families who did not run away. Fire pours out from God’s sanctuary and kills Korach’s 250 followers who wanted to be priests. The next day, the Israelites blame Moses and Aaron for all the deaths, and God sends with a plague that kills 14,700 more people. (See my earlier post, Korach: Saying No, Saying Yes.)

At this point, everyone even slightly involved in the attempted coup has suffered one of three kinds of horrible deaths.  The surviving Israelites become meek and passive for a while, but fear rarely motivates inner change. Later in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, a number of Israelite men disobey God again, by worshiping Ba-al Pe-or.

However, the Torah portion Korach also provides a counter-example. After all the killing, the God character responds to the attempted coup with a more positive teaching.

God tells Moses to take a staff  from the chieftain of each of the twelve tribes of Israel.

You shall carve each man’s name upon his matteh. And you shall carve the name of Aaron upon the matteh of Levi, because there is one matteh for the head of each forefather’s house. Then lay them in the Tent of Meeting before ha-eidut, where I meet with you. And it will happen that the man whom I choose, his matteh will blossom. (Numbers/Bemidbar 17:16-20)

matteh (מַטֶּה) (plural mattot) = staff, branch, tribe.

ha-eidut (הָעֵדוּת) = the “testimony” of God inside the ark. (Either the stone tablets God inscribed on Mount Sinai, or a parchment scroll on which Moses wrote down the first part of the Torah, or both.)

The ark with the testimony of God resides inside the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the Tent of Meeting. God manifests in the empty space above the ark—as a voice for Moses, and as the source of the fiery glory that the Israelites see emanating from the sanctuary tent. Any miracles happening in the Holy of Holies would be a direct expression of God’s will.

The next day, when Moses came into the Tent of the Testimony, hey!—the matteh of Aaron, for the house of Levi, had blossomed. It brought forth blossoms, and it sprouted sprouts, and it ripened shekeidim. Then Moses brought out all the mattot from in front of God, to all the Children of Israel. And they saw, and each man took his staff. (Numbers 17:22-24)

shekeidim (שְׁקֵדִים) = almonds. (The root verb, shakad, means vigilant, alert, attentive.)

Almond Tree

Almond Tree

There is no question that God chooses Aaron as the high priest, and the tribe of Levi to conduct the religious service at the sanctuary.

The almond flowers and fruits also carry extra symbolism. The gold menorah (lampstand) inside the sanctuary is designed so that its seven branches and various decorative elements look an almond tree, complete with flowers and drupes (fruits containing almonds in their pits). (See my earlier post, Terumah: Waking Up.)  Lamps are symbols of enlightenment. Almond trees are the first to bloom, are called attentive and alert. Thus the tribe of Levi, and especially Aaron and his fellow priests, will be the first and the most vigilant servants of God.

What the other tribal leaders do not notice at the time is that their tribes have also been consecrated for service. The matteh that is both Aaron’s staff and the tribe of Levi becomes an early-blooming tree.  The implication is that the other eleven staffs/tribes could bloom later. They, too, have spent the night in the Holy of Holies, in front of the ark.  They, too, are confirmed as important to God. And when the 40 years in the wilderness end, and the Israelites cross the Jordan into Canaan, every tribe does its job and obeys God’s orders—as transmitted by Joshua, from the tribe of Efrayim.

Alas, in this week’s Torah portion the Israelites overlook the positive symbolism of the twelve staffs. Right after viewing the staffs, they wail: We perish, we are lost, all of us are lost. Everyone who comes close, who comes close to the sanctuary of God dies. Will we ever be done with perishing? (Numbers 17:17-18)

Maybe they are too traumatized by all of God’s death sentences to notice a gentler message. But we can be more alert. What if parents who feel frustrated by their children’s mistakes consider them late bloomers?  Instead of cutting them down, these parents might correct the children firmly but gently, and take care to nourish them until they finally bud.

What if when we get upset at our own mistakes, we remind ourselves that we are late bloomers? It is frustrating to be a bare branch—or staff—when we want to be full of flowers and fruit. But as long as we are alive and growing, we can learn better behavior. And we can learn to serve the divine with our own souls, in our own way.

May all late-bloomers be so blessed.

 

 

Pekudei & 1 Kings: A Throne for the Divine

February 25, 2014 at 10:15 pm | Posted in Kings 1, Pekudei | 4 Comments
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Canaanite temples were built according to a basic three-part plan: a courtyard in front, a main hall behind it, and a small temple 2sacred chamber at the back containing a statue of the temple’s god. There were often additional rooms at the sides of the main hall for practical use by the temple’s priests and functionaries, but religious rituals happened in the courtyard, main hall, and back chamber.

During the course of the Hebrew Bible, the Israelites construct three sanctuaries. The portable Tent of Meeting that Moses assembles at the end of the book of Exodus travels with the people from Mount Sinai all the way across the Jordan River. It is erected in several locations while the Israelites are gradually conquering Canaan: Gilgal, Shiloh, Nob, Givon, and then Jerusalem. King Solomon builds the first temple in Jerusalem in the first book of Kings, and the construction of the second temple in Jerusalem begins in the book of Ezra.

All three of these sanctuaries follow the basic three-part Canaanite plan. But since the Israelites are forbidden to make an image of God, the innermost chamber at the back cannot contain a statue of their deity. So what is inside the “holy of holies”?

This week’s Torah portion, Pekudei (“Inventories”), says what Moses put into the holy of holies in the Tent of Meeting.

He took and placed the eidut in the aron, and he put the poles on the aron, and he placed the cover on top of the aron. Then he brought the aron into the dwelling-place, and he placed the curtain of screening-off, and screened off the aron of the eidut, as God had commanded Moses.  (Exodus/Shemot 40:20-21)

eidut (עֵדֻת) = testimony—of a witness or of God. (The Torah often uses this word to refer to the second pair of stone tablets Moses brings down from Mount Sinai.)

aron (אֲרוֹן)  = chest, coffer, coffin; ark of the covenant

What does the aron look like? In the book of Exodus, it is a gold-plated wooden box about four feet long, with carrying-poles attached to the bottom. Last week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil, describes how the master artist Betzaleil makes the lid of the aron:

Then he made a cover of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. And he made two keruvim of gold; he made them hammered out from the two ends of the cover. One keruv from this end and one keruv from that end; from the cover he made the keruvim, from its two ends. And the keruvim were spreading wings upward, screening off with their wings over the kaporet; and their faces were toward each other, toward the cover were the faces of the keruvim. (Exodus 37:6-9)

keruv (כֱרוּב), (plural keruvim)  = a hybrid beast with wings and a face. (See my earlier post: Terumah: Cherubs Are Not for Valentine’s Day.)

What are the wings of the keruvim on the cover screening off? The space above the golden lid is empty—or, at least, nothing is visible there. But the Torah treats the aron as a throne for an invisible, although not inaudible, god.

Moses came into the Tent of Meeting to speak with [God]. Then he heard the voice speaking to him from above the cover that was on the aron of the eidut, from between the two keruvim; thus [God] spoke to him. (Numbers/Bemidbar 7:89)

The keruvim and the lid of the aron are a single piece of gold in the Tent of Meeting. But in the first temple, they are separate items. While the aron stays in the tent where King David put it, King Solomon’s craftsmen make two keruvim out of olive-wood overlaid with gold. Each keruv is ten cubits (about 15 feet) tall, with a ten-cubit span from wingtip to wingtip.

Then he placed the keruvim inside the House, in the innermost [chamber]. And the wings of the keruvim spread out so the wing of one keruv touched the wall, and the wing of the second keruv was touching the second wall, and in the middle of the chamber their wings touched. (1 Kings 6:27)

The haftarah reading corresponding to the Torah portion Pekudei is from the first book of Kings. It describes the ceremony after the first temple in Jerusalem is completed, starting with a procession as King Solomon and elders from all over Israel accompany the aron on its short journey from the tent in the old city to the new House of God.

The priests brought in the aron of the covenant of God to its place, to the back room of the House, to the holy of holies, to underneath the wings of the keruvim. For the keruvim were spreading wings toward the place of the aron, so the keruvim screened off the aron and its poles from above. (1 Kings 8:6-7)

In both the Tent of Meeting and the first temple, there is an empty space between the lid of the aron below and the wings of the keruvim above. God’s voice or presence is never located inside the aron, only in the space above it.

Yet inside the aron is the eidut, God’s testimony. Commentary on the Tent of Meeting agrees that the eidut means the second, unbroken, pair of stone tablets inscribed by God on Mount Sinai (also called Choreiv). Commentators disagree on whether the aron also contained the shattered tablets, and/or a scroll that Moses wrote.

The first book of Kings clarifies the contents of the aron in the time of the first temple:

There was nothing in the aron but the two tablets of stone that Moses placed there at Choreiv, when God cut a covenant with the children of Israel after they left the land of Egypt. (1 Kings 8:9)

The first temple was sacked several times, and when the Babylonian army captured Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. they razed it altogether. The keruvim and the aron were never recovered. So in the second temple, which was begun in 538 B.C.E., the holy of holies was an empty room. But priests still treated it as the locus of God’s presence.

After the Romans destroyed the second temple in 70 C.E., Jews had to find God’s presence in other places. Today, many of us search for God by going inside ourselves: pondering what we have learned, questioning our feelings, meditating, sinking into ritual, praying with intention, and so on. This inner journey in search of God also has stages.

If the first stage of your search is like the courtyard of the Tent or temple, does your courtyard have an altar for animal sacrifices and a basin for washing? If you push on into the main hall, does it have any of the furnishings of the Israelite sanctuaries: a lampstand for light, or a table for bread, or an altar for incense? And if you keep searching even deeper, what do you find in your holy of holies?

Do you enshrine fundamental written principles in a gold coffer? Or do you encounter fantastical creatures? If you find both in your holy of holies, are the fantastical creatures bigger or smaller than the coffer? Or is your holy of holies an empty room?

Is God present there?

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