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  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Vayakhel-Pekudei: who cares what people think?

Updated: Mar 18, 2020

In this week's Torah reading, Moses introduces the project of building a Tabernacle (a portable Temple in the wilderness), to the assembled masses of the Jewish people. The Tabernacle is built, and in a climactic finale to the book of Exodus, the presence of God descends and fills the home that has been built for it, in the midst of the Jewish people.

The Tabernacle has a number of names in the Bible. It is called the משכן, which means the dwelling place; since it is the dwelling place of the Divine presence. It is called the אוהל מועד, which means the tent of meeting, since it constitutes a meeting place between man and God.

Much more rarely, it is called the משכן העדת, which means the dwelling place of the testimony, or the אֹוהל העדת, the tent of the testimony; presumably because the ark of the testimony was housed within it, and the ark of the testimony houses the tablets of stone; the tangible sign of the covenant sealed at Sinai.

The first time we hear the Tabernacle described as the משכן העדת, the dwelling place of the testimony is in this week's reading (Exodus 38:21). The Rabbis of the Midrash, ignoring the simple possibility that the Tabernacle has this name because of what's housed within it, ask the following question:

What is this testimony?

The Midrash presents two suggestions:

Rabbi Shimon son of Rabbi Yishmael said that [the Tabernacle] is testimony to all that come and go in the world, that there is forgiveness towards Israel [for the sin of the Golden Calf]. Alternatively, [the Tabernacle] is testimony to the whole world that it was ordained by God [i.e., that God commanded us to build it].

Both of these suggestions are difficult. How is the fact that we built a tent in the desert proof (to unbelievers) that God had forgiven us for the sin of the golden calf? Presumably we could have built him a tent even had we not been forgiven! Moreover, we could have built this tent without being commanded. The fact that we built it, therefore, is no proof that we were commanded. The Mormons have a very big Temple in Salt Lake City. That isn't proof that God commanded them to build it!

In his well-known commentary on the Midrash, Rabbi Chanoch Zundel ben Joseph, of Bialystok, suggests that it's not really the Tabernacle, but God's presence, i.e, the cloud that descended upon it wherever it was constructed -- a miraculous cloud that contained fire at night -- that was the real evidence; the real proof.

It's not that the fact that we had a Tabernacle that proved that we had been forgiven. It's not the the fact that we had a Tabernacle that proved that we had been commanded to build one. Rather, it was the miracles associated with the Tabernacle, such as the cloud and the fire, that served as proof that God was dwelling there -- that we had been forgiven, and that this was God's will.

And yet, the Midrash doesn't mention the divine presence. The Midrash doesn't mention the cloud. The Midrash doesn't mention any of the miracles associated with the Tabernacle. Instead, I want to suggest, the Midrash really is making the puzzling claim that the Tabernacle itself, the simple structure, was a proof of our forgiveness, and a proof of its own Divine commission. The Midrash continues, and it offers us a parable:

Rabbi Yitzchak said a parable. To what can it be compared? To a King who married, and deeply loved his wife. [One day] he got angry with her and left her. Her neighbours told her that he would never return to her. After some time [however], he sent for her, and asked her to prepare his palace and to arrange the beds. On a certain day, the King came to her, and he desired her, he came into her chamber, and ate and drank with her. And her neighbours would not have believed [it were so], were it not for the fact that they smelt the fragrant spices, at that time, so that they knew that the King desired her.

Perhaps the fragrant spices were the food that they ate together; perhaps it was food that she couldn't have afforded, had it not been for the return of the king. I imagine the story slightly differently. I imagine her leaving the palace wearing an expensive perfume that she couldn't have afforded had she still been an outcast. Whatever, exactly, the details may be, the smell was proof that she had been reconciled to her husband. The Midrash continues:

So too, the Holy One, blessed be He, loved the Jewish people and brought them to Mount Sinai, and gave them the Torah, and called them a Kingdom of Priests... After forty days, they sinned. At that time, the pagans said that [Israel] would never be desired [by God] again... As soon as Moses went to request mercy for them, the Holy One, blessed be He, forgave them, as it is said: "And the Lord said, "I have forgiven, according to your word"" (Numbers 14:20). [But] Moses said, "Master of the universe, I behold that you are appeased, and have forgiven Israel, but [please] make it known, in the eyes of the nations, that you hold no [grudge] against [Israel]. The Holy One, blessed be He, replied, "By your life, I will surely cause my presence to dwell in their midst, as it is said, "And they should make for me a dwelling place" (Exodus 25:5). And they shall recognise that I have forgiven them. Therefore it is called a Tabernacle of Testimony, since [the Tabernacle itself] is testimony to Israel, that the Holy One, blessed be He, has forgiven them.

Regular readers of this series will be expecting me to find a tension in the parable; a tension between the analogy and the analogue. And they'd be right!

Of course, we could follow Rabbi Chanoch Zundel of Bialystok. We could say that it's God's presence, in the miraculous cloud, and not the Tabernacle itself, which serves as proof of the reconciliation between God and Israel. But that's not what the Midrash says.

In the story, I can see how the fragrance of the Queen could serve as evidence of her reconciliation with the King. As I imagined it, she comes out wearing a perfume that, as a disgraced out-cast, she couldn't have afforded. Her fragrance serves as testimony. Note also that she didn't ask for any proof. She seemed happy enough with the King's renewed affection, not to be bothered (at least not so far as we're told in the text) by the potential disbelief of her neighbours.

For these reasons, the story isn't fit for purpose. Unlike the fragrance, which serves as a proof of the King's renewed love; the building of a tent -- however opulent it might be -- is no proof of God's affection; no more than the Temple in Salt Lake City is a proof of Mormonism. And unlike the Queen, Moses isn't satisfied with God's renewed affection. He isn't satisfied simply with God's forgiveness. He wants more. He wants the scoffers within the community of nations to be silenced. He wants external proof.

And to make abundantly clear just how mismatched the parable is, we're told explicitly, at the end of the Midrash, that the Tabernacle will serve as proof for the Israelites that they had been forgiven. But that wasn't what Moses requested. He didn't want a proof that would satisfy the Israelites, he wanted a proof that would satisfy the nations of the world.

It seems to me that, if we're to unpack this Midrash, we have to untangle a number of closely related issues. Let me share with you two things that have, at times, disturbed me about Judaism and my Jewish identity. The first source of discomfort is the extent to which Jewish law seems to worry about what other people will think of what we do.

Can you go to the bathroom in a non-kosher restaurant? Watch out! People might think that you've gone in there to eat! Can you do something on Shabbat that might look to other people as if you're violating its laws? If the concern is that you might misguide people, that you might lead people to think that a certain restaurant is kosher, when it isn't, or that a certain activity is permitted on Shabbat, when in fact it's forbidden, then I get it. But sometimes, it seems to me, Jewish law isn't merely worried about misguiding people. It goes further and mandates you to worry about what people will think of you and how people will judge you, as an ambassador of God. But, if I'm not unwittingly misguiding people about the content of Jewish law, then why on earth should I care what other people think of me, so long as I'm confident that I'm doing my best to be an upright person?

Ben-Gurion and Sharett

My second source of discomfort comes from another extreme. In his personal diaries, Moshe Sharett records an argument he had with David Ben-Gurion. Sharett had said that the State of Israel owed its existence to UN resolution 181 (II), of 1947. Ben-Gurion apparently shouted in reply. "Not at all! Only the daring of the Jews founded this country, and not some Um-Shmum resolution"; um being the name of the UN in Hebrew.

At times, world opinion has been so stacked against Israel, that Israel's leaders, citizens, and supporters, often in the face of existential threats that would have toppled many other countries, have come to disregard international opinion altogether. World shmorld! It's as if those who are most proud to be Israeli, and proud to be Zionist, have to have the least concern for how we're perceived by others.

In recent years, this attitude was vividly on show in a political advert put out by Naftali Bennet (who was, at that time, the leader of Habayit Hayehudi). In his advert, he mockingly portrayed the left-wing, secular, Haaretz-reading, post-Zionist Jew, as a person who apologizes compulsively. "From now on," he urges us, at the conclusion of the advert, "we're going to stop apologizing." In other words: who cares what other people think of us? We'll do what we think we have to do to survive. We won't care what other people think. To hell with world opinion!

So, on the one hand, there is a seeming obsession in Jewish law with what people think of us. And, on the other hand, there is a modern form of Jewish identity, and Jewish Pride, that's predicated on not caring at all what people think of us. I am troubled by both of these extremes. I take our Midrash to be offering a middle-way.

Here's one way you could read our Midrash. Moses cares too much about what the non-Jewish world will think. He asks God for a proof so that they should know that the Jews had been forgiven. God's response is to put Moses in his place. So long as the Jews know that they've been forgiven, it doesn't matter what other people think.

The Tabernacle is no proof of anything to outsiders. But if you live within the Jewish mind, and if you live your life within the symbolic landscape of the Jewish imagination, then the Tabernacle will mean a great deal to you. It will symbolise God's presence in your midst. Who cares what others think? That's what God's really telling Moses in our Midrash. That's the message.

But that reading would be too hasty. We shouldn't forget that the Midrash began with the teaching of Rabbi Shimon ben Yishmael. According to him, the Tabernacle serves as evidence for the whole world; evidence that we've been forgiven, or evidence that we've been commanded to build a Tabernacle. It's one thing to say that, in the parable, God is trying to correct the imagined attitude of Moses; an attitude that cares about what the nations think. But the attitude of Moses in that story is identical to the attitude of Rabbi Shimon; the very attitude for which the parable was brought as a proof!

It's as if the Midrash asks the question, "should we care what outsiders think of us?", and it answers with both a "yes" and a "no", in a single breath.

There are multiple reasons why a person might want people to think highly of them; or at least, why we might not want people to think falsehoods about us. It could be because (1) we're narcissistic. Everyone must love us!! Or, it could be because (2) we have very low self-esteem. We can only find worth if others give it to us. Perhaps these two options are closer than they seem. But it could be because (3) we care about people. Part of caring about them includes caring about what they think; that they shouldn't believe falsehoods. Part of caring about them includes wanting to be the sort of person that they could rightfully admire, and winning that rightful admiration. Reason 3 is a good reason to care about popular opinion.

Likewise, there are multiple reasons why a person might not care what other people think. It might be because (1) we're narcissistic, and therefore rate no opinion other than our own. Or it could be because (2) we don't care about them, and therefore we don't care about what they think, or who they admire. But it could be because (3), we're more interested in doing what's right than winning people's approval. Reason 3 is a good reason not to care about popular opinion.

And yet, there's no contradiction here.

The balance we have to strike, it seems to me, is to care about people enough that we should want their rightful admiration; but to care about doing what's right enough to disregard wrongful admiration and wrongful disdain.

We don't need to prove the truth of our theology to non-Jews. The Tabernacle signifies something to us, within our symbolic landscape; even if it's meaningless to others. But that doesn't mean we should't care about what people think about us. Rather, if we allow our own symbolic landscape to speak to us and if, in the light of that symbolism, we manage to choreograph a life that brings us into ever closer union with God, then we will become the sort of people who are worthy of the admiration of others. If we allow our religion to speak to us, then we might become the sort of people who can inspire others. And we should care what they think about us, because we should care what they think, because we should care about them, because we should care!

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