Moses went up the mountain, at the end of last week's reading, and stayed there for forty days and nights. While up there (during the readings of this week and next week), he received the commandment to build a Tabernacle -- a portable temple in the desert. While he's up there, receiving all of these instructions, the Jewish people build and worship a Golden Calf. Moses therefore had to come down the mountain to deal with it, breaking the tablets of stone in the process, before going up again to secure atonement, on behalf of the people. Then he came back down the mountain, one again, with a second set of tablets, and finally, the people start to build the Tabernacle.
Rashi, by contrast, argues that the sequence of events, as described in the Torah, is completely out of order. On Rashi's reading, when Moses was first on the mountain, he received all of the laws of the Torah, except for the instructions regarding the Tabernacle. Then the Jews worshiped the Golden Calf, forcing Moses to come down, and it was only on his second time up the mountain, in response to the sin of the Golden Calf, that Moses received instructions to build a Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was a response to the sin.
So, according to Rashi, this week's reading is in some sense out of place. The commandment to build the Tabernacle is presented, this week, before we're told about the sin of the Golden Calf, but, in actual fact, the commandment wasn't really received until after that sin.
If you read the text closely, through the eyes of Rashi, what emerges is that there was always going to be Torah-sanctioned sacrifice and worship. Indeed, immediately after the first revelation at Sinai, before the sin of the Golden Calf, God commanded us to build altars, and sacrifice on them (Exodus 20:21-22). But these altars were to be made of earth or rock, rather than the wood and copper altar of the Tabernacle (Exodus 27:1-8). Moreover, these earthen or rocky altars never seem to be built. If anything, they seem to be superseded by the commandment to build a Tabernacle.
On Rashi's reading, it seems that the precious metals, including copious amounts of gold, and the ornate materialism of the Tabernacle, were introduced as a compromise with the human need for a tangible connection; a human need that was all too clearly manifest in the sin of the Golden Calf. Sacrifice and worship were always going to be mandated in some form or other. But the razzmatazz of the Tabernacle was a compromise.
Rashi's reading constitutes a midway point between the more radical positions of Maimonides, on the one hand, and Nachmanides, on the other. According to Maimonides, the entire institution of animal sacrifice, and even the institution of organised worship, were commanded as a compromise with the human needs of a particular culture at a particular time. For Rashi, by contrast, it is only the architecture and the choreography of the Tabernacle that constitute a compromise, not the notion of sacrifice itself.
For Nachmanides, on the other hand, and in line with a simple sequential reading of the Torah, there is no part of the Tabernacle or the institution of animal sacrifice that constitutes a compromise, concession, or reaction, to contingent human needs. On the contrary, the Tabernacle was a necessity after the revelation of Sinai. The people could never leave Mount Sinai if it meant leaving behind the Divine presence that they had witnessed there. Instead, they would build a Tabernacle that would function as a portable Mount Sinai, to continue the encounter between Israel and God, as they journeyed on. This was always the plan, calf or no calf.
Much could be -- and has been -- written about the contours of this medieval debate. But the two basic positions, (1) Tabernacle as plan A, and (2) Tabernacle as a response to the Golden Calf, are represented in the Midrash. And yet, in its Midrashic setting, the debate is transformed. Instead of a debate about the nature and value of animal sacrifice and organised worship, the Midrashim, on both sides of this debate, seem more interested in using it as an opportunity to explore the relationship between God, the Torah, and the people.
If Rashi is right, and the Tabernacle was a response to the Golden Calf, then a simple reading of the chronology of the Torah's presentation of events cannot be trusted. Could the Torah be that deceptive? Enter the Midrash:
When was this section of the law, dealing with the Tabernacle, conveyed to Moses? On the Day of Atonement [following the sin of the Golden Calf], even though the section [is presented] before the sin of the Golden Calf. [This accords with] Rabbi Judah son of Rabbi Shalom [who] said, "There is no before or after in the Torah [which is to say, the Torah's narrative is not chronological]. As it is said: "Her path meanders for lack of knowledge" (Proverbs 5:6). These movements are the paths of Torah, and [the ordering of] her sections. And so it was on the Day of Atonement that Moses was told, "Make me a Tabernacle".
The Midrash then goes on to detail the way in which the Tabernacle functions as an atonement for the Golden Calf.
The Holy One, blessed be He, said, "Let the gold of the Tabernacle atone for the gold with which the Calf was made. For it is written [regarding the calf]: "And all the people broke off the golden rings..." (Exodus 33:3); therefore they atoned with gold, "And this is the gift that you should receive from them: gold, silver, and copper" (Exodus 25:3)."
What I find most remarkable about this Midrash is its throwaway reference to the book of Proverbs. In order to establish that the sequence of the Torah's narrative cannot be uncritically accepted as a faithful representation of the chronology of events, the Midrash seizes upon a verse in Proverbs about meandering footsteps, and argues that it's referring to the text of the Torah. To appreciate the audacity of the Midrash, one has to turn to the relevant chapter of Proverbs, and study its context. Here it is:
My son, listen to my wisdom; Incline your ear to my insight, that you may have foresight, while your lips hold fast to knowledge. For the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey; Her mouth is smoother than oil; But in the end she is as bitter as wormwood, Sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to Death; Her steps take hold of the grave. She does not chart a path of life; Her course meanders for lack of knowledge. So now, sons, pay heed to me, And do not swerve from the words of my mouth. Keep yourself far away from her; Do not come near the doorway of her house.
The chapter is disturbing for its embrace of the misogynist trope that paints the woman as a temptress. But it would be helpful to put that to one side, perhaps encouraged by the fact that the other main character of this chapter is wisdom, who is also personified as a woman in the book of Proverbs (and more so in Wisdom of Solomon). What's most remarkable about this chapter, once we read it through the eyes of our Midrash, is that the temptress who would lead us so terribly astray is, according to Rabbi Judah son of Rabbi Shalom, nothing other than the text of the Torah.
What's going on, it seems, is that the Midrash is something of a polemic against Sadducees, or Karaites, or any other movement who would deign to deny the authority of the Oral Torah. It is the wisdom and the traditions of the Rabbis that inform us of the true chronology -- that the laws of the Tabernacle were given after the sin of the Golden Calf. A simple reading of the Written Torah would lead you astray on that front. And thus, our whole topic is transformed. The focus is no longer the local issue of the Tabernacle and its relationship to the Golden Calf. The focus is now the Written Torah. It too can become a Golden Calf. Like the Sadducees and the Karaites, one can be tempted to worship the written word, rather than the wisdom that hides behind it; a wisdom that one has to be careful to listen to, and heed.
There is a constant danger that religion will devolve into idolatry. This relates to the dangers of theological certainty and fanaticism that we spoke about last week. The Midrash that teaches us about the real chronology of Biblical events also contains a coded message against that very danger.
There are also Midrashim that take the side of Nachmanides. According to them, the Tabernacle wasn't a reaction to the Golden Calf, and -- at least at this juncture -- the sequence of the Biblical narrative is faithful to the sequence of actual events. Just as Nachmanides would argue, the next Midrash conceives of the Tabernacle as a natural consequence of the revelation at Sinai. But in the hands of the Midrash, this natural consequence has little to do with the merit of the Jewish people. Instead, it has to do with God's relationship to the Torah.
Is there such a thing as a sale in which the salesperson is sold alongside that which he sells? The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel, I have sold you my Torah, and I have, so to speak, sold myself [to you] alongside her. As it is said, "And they shall bring me gifts" (Exodus 25:2 [which can be read, "And they shall take me, as a gift"]). This can be compared to a King who had an only daughter. A foreign King came and married her. He wanted to go, with his [new] wife, to his homeland. The King said to [his new son-in-law]: "My daughter, who I gave to you is my only daughter. To separate from her is impossible for me. Nor can I tell you not to go with her, since she is you wife. But do me this favour. Everywhere you go, make me a small room, so that I can reside with you, for I cannot leave my daughter. So said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Israel. I gave you the Torah. To separate from her, I cannot do, nor can I tell you not to take her. Rather, everywhere you go, make me one home in which I can reside, as it says (Exodus 25:5), "Make for me a Tabernacle".
The treatment of women as chattel, in this Midrash, should not and cannot be ignored. But it would be a shame to miss the profound religious truth at its heart.
A remarkable feature of Jewish history is how we have thrived in every setting into which we've been thrust. Exile, expulsions, crusades, blood-libels, pogroms, and even a Holocaust, despite the unfathomable toll they took, failed to subdue us for long. Time and time again, Jewish communities arrived as refugees in a foreign land and thrived. You do not expect to see high rates of literacy or social mobility, let alone a disproportionate number of Nobel prizes, among the disenfranchised, or those "fresh off the boat."
What is the secret of this uncanny ability to thrive? One could look for an answer in terms of a genetic or a racial endowment. But in that direction one finds xenophobic prejudice hiding behind the veneer of science. The crucial difference between the Jewish people and others is that we have the Torah. Observance of Torah law created, in the Jewish people, a completely portable culture that placed family and education at its heart. In the words of Rabbi Sacks, it created a culture whose "heroes are teachers, whose citadels are houses of study, and whose passion is education and the life of the mind." Even after swathes of Jews became secular, the values of the Torah, such as family and literacy, remained close to their heart. We were privileged to receive the Torah, and more than we kept the Torah, the Torah kept us. As Moses told us millennia ago (Deuteronomy 4:6):
Observe [the laws of the Torah] faithfully, for this is your wisdom and your discernment in the eyes of other nations, who on hearing of all these laws will say, “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.”
I have never believed that the doctrine of the Jewish election -- that we are the chosen people -- is something to take pride in. First of all, God has a special relationship with every person, and is open to special relationships with multiple nations (see, for example, Isaiah 19:25). Secondly, the election was supposed to serve all of the people of the world (see, for example, Genesis 12:3). And there were even voices in the tradition who said that we were chosen to have the Torah because of how unruly we were:
It is taught in the name of Rabbi Meir: For what reason was the Torah given to the Jewish people? Because they are impudent...The ways of these [people, the Jews], are fire, as, were it not for [the fact that] the Torah was given to the Jewish people, [whose study and observance restrains them], no nation or tongue could withstand them [they would destroy the world].
We don't have the Torah because we're great enough to deserve it. Rather, to the extent that we manifest greatness, it's because we have the Torah. Our Midrash, about God the father-in-law, comes to drive this message home. The Torah declares that the Jews are the children of God (Deuteronomy 14:1). Our Midrash qualifies matters. We're not actually God's children. We are his children-in-law. To the extent that we manifest any greatness, to the extent that we have a special relationship with God Himself, it is because we have a relationship with God's daughter. Typically, a relationship between a father-in-law and a son or daughter-in-law is only going to flourish to the extent that the underlying relationship between husband and wife is flourishing too. We think that God wants to dwell in our midst. After all, we were commanded to build a Tabernacle. But this is only true to the extent that we hold fast to God's Torah.
We started with a debate between Rashi and Nachmanides. When was Moses told to build the Tabernacle? In their hands, the question leads to a debate about the nature, role, and value of worship. In the Midrashic imagination, by contrast, the same question comes to counsel us against chauvinism.
On the one hand, there is a religious chauvinism that looks to Scripture and takes itself to have all of the answers. But Scripture without wisdom is a dangerous temptress. On the other hand, there is a nationalistic chauvinism that looks to the election of the Jews, and to our national triumphs as sources of pride. But God isn't our father after all. He is our father-in-law. And our successes were never ours alone.