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  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Vayikra: Making space

Updated: Mar 26, 2020

Tractate Gittin

In their first comment on Tractate Gittin, the Talmudic volume devoted to the laws of divorce, the medieval commentators known as the Tosafists ask a question: why must a Jewish bill of divorce be twelve lines long? They answer, in the name of the great Rabbi, Saadya Gaon, that the twelve lines of a divorce bill correspond to the twelve blank lines in a Torah scroll that divide the books of the Pentateuch [excluding, for various reasons, the gap between the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy]. I've always found that idea enchanting. It's as if the books of the Torah are really supposed to form a single unity; perhaps a single thought. But for the sake of humanity, the Torah has to be divided into words, and verses, and books. But the division isn't straightforward. It actually does violence to something. It's as if the Heavenly Torah has to be ripped asunder in order to take on a form that humans can grasp. The books are not divided. They are divorced.

This week, I want to explore a Midrash that seeks to repair the breach between the book of Exodus and the book of Leviticus; a Midrash that seeks to transcends those blank lines of divorce.

The book of Exodus ends with a powerful scene. The Israelites, in the wilderness, had just completed the construction of the Tabernacle. God's presence descended into it, in a cloud. So filled up was the Tabernacle with God's presence that nobody could enter. Not even Moses. Then there's a gap in the text, and the book of Leviticus begins. It starts with God calling Moses, in order to instruct him, regarding various laws concerning the sacrificial service in the Tabernacle. Where was Moses, when God called him?

What happens when you close the gap between these books? Read in that light, it becomes natural to read the sequence of events as follows: (1) upon completion of the Tabernacle, God's presence filled the Tabernacle, such that nobody could enter, not even Moses, and then (2) God called Moses by name. Where was Moses at that time? He was still standing by the Tabernacle, unable to enter. Read in that light, God's call to Moses can be read more like an invitation; an invitation to enter.

In other words, if you read the start of Leviticus in the light of the end of Exodus, the following narrative emerges: there was no room in the Tabernacle for Moses at the end of the book of Exodus; then, at the beginning of the book of Leviticus, God made space for Moses, and invited him in.

The Midrash that presents this reading, contains a parable that I take to be of tremendous theological significance.

First, the Midrash points out that, in last week's reading, as the Tabernacle was being built, we heard an almost constant refrain, after the completion of any given element of the construction, that it was done "as the Lord had commanded Moses." The Midrash continues to compare this to:

A King who commanded his servant, and said to him, "Build me a palace!" [As his servant built this palace], he wrote on each and every thing that he built, the name of the king. When he built the walls, he wrote the name of the king upon them. When he stood up [the] pillars [of the palace], he wrote upon then the name of the king. When he was fixing the roof beams, he wrote upon them the name of the king. After some time, the King came into the palace. On each and every thing upon which he glanced, he found his name written. He said, "All of this honour my servant did for me, and I am inside [the palace] whilst he is outside? Call to him, that he should enter the inner sanctum."

Note what's going on here. The King told the servant to make a palace. He didn't tell his servant to write the King's name all over it. The servant did that all of his own initiative. When the King enters the palace, he has no intention of calling his servant in. But then, he sees the initiative that his servant took; only then does the King decide to invite his servant in; for how could the King stand in there alone? The Midrash continues:

So too, when the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, "Build me a Tabernacle", about everything that [Moses] made, he wrote, "as God had commanded Moses." The Holy One, blessed be He said, "All of this honour has Moses done for me, and I am inside, whilst he is outside! Call him so that he should enter the inner sanctum." Therefore it is said, "And the Lord called to Moses..." (Leviticus 1:1).

As is often the case, I want to focus on the obvious mismatch between the parable and the Biblical story. But before I do that, there's a looming theological issue that we can't ignore. It is a foundational tenet of Orthodox Judaism that the Five Books of Moses (and especially the first four books of it) were given to Moses by God. The final book of the five, Deuteronomy, is slightly different, since much of it is, quite explicitly, the record of the words of Moses. But this Midrash suggests that Moses wrote things in the book of Exodus of his own accord. Indeed, it was Moses's idea to write the refrain, right throughout the end of the book of Exodus, "as God had commanded Moses." This seems to contradict, outright, the Talmudic pronouncement, recorded in Tractate Sanhedrin 99a:

And even if [a person] said that the whole of the Torah is from Heaven, except for a particular verse, which was not said by the Holy One, blessed be He, but by Moses of his own accord, he is included under the scope of [the verse] "Because he has despised the word of the Lord" (Numbers 15:31).

And yet, our Midrash suggests, Moses did include words all of his own. What's more, God so appreciated these additions to his text, that (at the start of the book of Leviticus), God made room for Moses in the Tabernacle, and invited him in. Had Moses not added those words, perhaps he would never have been invited in; perhaps he would have been left, perennially, on the outside of the tent; a tent that had been so full of God that it had no room for any human. Does the author of our Midrash despise the word of the Lord?!

And then we must pay attention to the discrepancies between the Biblical story and the parable in our Midrash. In the parable, the servant of the King took the initiative to write the King's name. In the Biblical story, by contrast, Moses took the initiative to write "as God had commanded Moses". A closer parable, therefore, would have had the servant writing, "by order of the King", rather than simply writing the name of the King.

Secondly, in the parable, the servant writes what he writes on the actual building and upon its artifacts. Moses, by contrast, writes what he writes, not on the Tabernacle itself, but in the book of Exodus, as that book recounts the building of the Tabernacle.

To summarise: our Midrash leaves us with a theological question (namely: how is it not heretical to credit whole phrases of the book of Exodus to the initiative of Moses), and it leaves us with various tensions to resolve between the parable and the Biblical story; between the analogy and the analogue.

The theological issue isn't too hard to navigate. Our Midrash can be reconciled with our Talmudic dictum without too much effort. Perhaps a verse that was written on the initiative of Moses retroactively becomes the word of God if and when God approves of it. In other words: if God saw the additions of Moses and chose to keep them in his Bible, then God's approval counts as an act of appropriation. Those words, which had initially been added by Moses might have become the words of God, upon their receiving God's approval; and thus we can still say that nothing made its way into the final text of the Torah that was added by Moses (only) of his own accord.

In fact, another Midrash suggests that Moses was so trusted by God, that even if he had have added words of his own, God wouldn't have minded. God appropriates what Moses says. So trusted is Moses that there's no such thing as words that were spoken only by Moses. If Moses speaks them, then so does God:

The ministering angels said before the Holy One, blessed be He, you’re giving Moses permission to write whatever he wants . . .? [God responded,] ‘Heaven forbid that Moses should do such a thing, but even if he does, he is trusted. As it says (Numbers 12:7), ‘For this is not true of my servant Moses, for he is trusted in all my house.’

God is presented as trusting Moses to write what he was commanded to write, without any alterations, but also as trusting him even if he did choose to add his own words. Little weight therefore is placed upon which of these alternatives occurs. In this way, the heretical edge of our Midrash can be softened. But what about the internal tensions that we discovered between the analogy and the analogue?

It's as if the Midrash deliberately seeks to collapse the distinction between the Tabernacle itself, symbolised by the King's palace in the parable, and the Torah's description of the building of the Tabernacle. The King's servant writes things on the building, whilst he builds it. Moses, by contrast, writes things in the Torah's description of the construction of the building. And thus, the Midrash seems deliberately to conflate the Tabernacle itself, with its description in the Torah. This is not an accident.

Second Temple

Leviticus Rabba, the collection that hosts our Midrash, was redacted in the 5th Century, CE. In other words, it was redacted long after the Tabernacle was replaced by Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, and long after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. When this Midrash was written, there was no Tabernacle and there was no Temple, but the Torah's description of the building of the Tabernacle survived. For the Midrash, that's enough. The text is (in some sense) as good as the building.

In our daily prayers, after reading Biblical verses about various sacrifices, we say: "May it be your will, O Lord our God, and God of our ancestors, that this recital [of verses, regarding sacrifices of type X] will be considered and received and deemed acceptable before you, as if we had actually sacrificed [a sacrifice of type X] in its appointed time, and place, in accordance with its laws."

Even if we live in circumstances in which our hands are tied; we may be confined to our homes in the midst of a global pandemic; we can still learn the Torah. And in so doing, we connect to something eternal, and real; we connect to something that is (in some sense) no less valuable than the things that the Torah actually describes and prescribes.

Robert Adams

Philosopher, Robert Adams, argues that being a virtuous person requires that we are for the good. What it means to be for the good is to be disposed to favour the good in "action, desire, emotion [and/] or feeling." But what if a good person isn't able to act for the good? What if her hands are tied? At those times, it's still possible to be for the good, and it's still an essential part of being a virtuous person. At times when one cannot act so as to bring about good results, one must still be for the good. How? Well, one can align oneself with the good, if only through symbolic action, like prayer, or (in our Jewish context) through Torah study. In these ways a person can still be for the good, even when they are powerless to bring it about.

God knows that we can't bring him sacrifices in a Temple right now. But in learning his Torah, and in our prayers, we are able to exhibit exactly the same virtues that we would have exhibited had we been able to visit the Temple itself. Moses's writing verses about the Tabernacle are, in that sense, no different from his writing them on the Tabernacle itself. The Tabernacle and its description in the Torah are, in some sense, equivalent.

The second discrepancy between the parable and the Biblical story is that the builder writes the name of the King, while Moses writes something more like "by order of the King".

This is a Midrash about Moses taking initiative. It's a Midrash about Moses adding words to the Torah of his own accord (even if they were later adopted by God). And what were these words of initiative? The words were "as God had commanded Moses". There's a sort of irony here. Moses did build the Taberancle exactly as he had been commanded to, but, according to our Midrash, he wasn't commanded to write the words "as God had commanded Moses"; and yet he did. I think this irony is almost highlighted for us by the more straightforward parable, in which the servant writes the name of the King, not by order of the King. Moses, by contrast, writes "by order of the King", but not by order of the King!

It's as if, when Moses is taking initiative, he does so by saying "I'm not taking any initiative!" What's going on?

On the one hand, it seems as if Moses cannot enter into a completely Divine place until he adds something of his own. It is the existence of Moses's own, personal contribution, to the Tabernacle (or its Biblical descriptions) which causes God to recognise, so to speak, that there's room in there for Moses too. But what did Moses add? He added a disclaimer that nothing here was done at the initiative of Moses! Again... what's going on?

Grave of the Arizal

Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Arizal) was the founder of a branch of Kabbalistic thought. He introduced the notion of tzimtzum (meaning, contraction). The basic idea is that, in some sense or other, there was no room for God to create the world before he contracted. He had to make room for the world. I think that this notion has led to a lot of confused philosophy, but I do think that it points to a profound theological truth (for my take on it, see this paper, which I co-authored with Tyron Goldschmidt).

A Biblical hint to the notion of tzimtzum occurs at the intersection between Exodus and Leviticus. At the end of the book of Exodus, the Tabernacle was filled up with God. There was no room for Moses. At the beginning of the book of Leviticus, by contrast, God made room. He somehow contracted.

There's a sense in which we learn from God not just in what he says to us, and what he reveals to us, but also in how and why he hides from us. Indeed, psychologist, Mordechai Rotenberg argues that there's a sense in which we should mimic God's act of contraction, in order to make room for other people, in our personal interactions.

And just as God makes room for us, we also have to make room for God. Indeed, the Talmud teaches:

Rav Ḥisda says, and some say that Mar Ukva says: any person who has arrogance within him, the Holy One, Blessed be He, said: He and I cannot dwell [together] in the world...

To make room for co-existence with God, we have to overcome the vice of arrogance. But the thing is, by conquering our ego, we actually reveal something about ourselves. Just as God reveals something of himself in the ways in which he hides himself. So too, Moses shows something truly distinctive about himself, and his humility, by writing, in all humility, that everything he had done in building the Tabernacle was commanded by God. It's true. It was. But he wasn't commanded to write that down! And, by writing it down, he disavowed himself of any credit for the success and the beauty of the Tabernacle. And thus, he revealed something about his true nature. In shunning honour, he became honourable.

To build a dwelling place for God in the midst of humanity is a project that's pregnant with paradox. The world cannot exist unless God makes room for it, and we cannot have a relationship with God unless we make room for him. In other words: we are called upon to believe in a God who makes room for us, and what are we supposed to do with that room? We're supposed to vacate it! And despite the peculiarity of this arrangement, I am convinced that a religion whose God makes room for man, and whose religious leaders make room for God, is a religion that leaves no room for arrogance, chauvinism, or any of the vices that tend to characterize religion gone wrong. We arrive at a religion that makes room for grace, holiness, and compassion, and both sides of the God-human divide. And until that's what our religion lives up to, it cannot hope to co-exist with the presence of God.

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