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Shadows

This week's parashah is Pekudey, the final portion in the book of Shemot (Exodus). In this parashah we read of the actual construction of the Mishkan (tabernacle) and the anointing of Aaron and his son as cohanim (priests) by Moses. Once again in analyzing this parashah Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg brings up the image of fire as central to our understanding of the text.

Fire plays a central role in both the Torah and the midrashic interpretations of Shemot. Moses begins his career as prophet after hearing God's voice from the fire of the burning bush. A pillar of fire guided and protected the Israelites during their journey out of Egypt. Fire melted the gold and miraculously produced the Golden Calf ("I threw the gold into the fire and out came this calf!" exclaimed Aaron to Moses). Finally, as I discussed a few weeks ago, fire is used for most of the work of building the Mishkan and kindling a fire is also one of the primary prohibitions of Shabbat.

Fire is powerful and mysterious because of its ability to both create and destroy. A fire can be comforting or all consuming. Fire can light the way or blind ones vision. The dual wick of the candle used for Havdallah, the ceremony at the end of Shabbat, reminds us of the duality and contradictions inherent in fire. Refraining from lighting fire on Shabbat also reminds us how important fire is to us and how dangerous it can be. Only in its absence do we have the time to reflect on the true meaning and purpose of fire.

In this week's parashah fire does not play a prominent role. However, it does in the Midrash. Zornberg sites a midrash that states that a model of the mishkan had been shown to Moses in black fire, white fire, red fire and green fire (The Particulars of Rapture, pp. 478-79). When God tells Moses to "set it [the Mishkan] up according to the manner of it that you were shown on the mountain (Shemot 26:30)" God is referring to the fiery image that was revealed to Moses on Sinai. This verse might simply have been interpreted as telling Moses to build the mishkan as a "pedantic, mechanical imitation; or else, a minimalist sketch of the original." However, the Midrash tells us instead that it is to be a replica of the fiery model.

And yet it is impossible to replicate in actual building materials something that is shown only in fire. For fire is constantly changing color, shape and intensity. It does not hold a fixed form. According to Zornberg the fiery model may have been meant to show Moses and then the artisan, Bezalel, that they were "free to create entirely new combinations of elements, to think new thoughts whose fitness for God's presence is manifested not in the exactness of the replica but in the intensity of the vision."

And yet we know that exact instructions for the building of the Mishkan are given in the Torah. Yet, Zornberg states that the final structure difference in form from the instructions implies that there was an improvisational aspect to the building of the Mishkan. The great Hassidic rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev stated that "Moses and his generation conceived of the sanctuary by their own light, their own prophetic vision - 'and so you shall make it': through the generations, you shall make God's sanctuary according to the visions of your own time and place." It is our vision, and its intensity, that is central to the act of building sanctuary and community.

Just as Moses interpreted the fiery vision that he saw on Sinai to Bezalel, Bezalel (meaning "in the shadow of God") then formed his own vision of the fire. Being one who was in the "shadow of God" meant that the Divine light was near him, and yet if he is in God's shadow something of the Divine Presence was also blocking the light so that he was unable to see it all. He could only approximate what he believed the Divine light to be. He could only create his interpretation, his improvisation, of how the fiery Divine model of the Mishkan looked. Just as the Hasidim say that no two prophets speak in the same voice, so no two artists create the same vision. So no two people have the same experience of God or express their experience in the same way.

Just as Bezalel create the Mishkan according to his understanding of the Divine model, so too do we build our Mishkans, our sanctuaries and our communities according to our understanding. As Levi Yitzhak says, each time and place has its own visions. Each generation, each community has its own interpretation and understanding. The creative fire that burns within us has the ability to create structures and entities that express our understanding of what it means to live "in the shadow of God." We cannot see God any more than could Bezalel himself, and yet we have as much ability to envision God's model and create our own improvisational vision, as did Bezalel.

As we build our communities today we must remember that we are in the shadow of the Divine and that it is up to us to create communities and structures where God's presence and warmth can be felt. It is up to us to see that the flames continue to warm us and to warm others and that we do not allow the intensity of the flames to grow so great that it becomes destructive.

Using Torah and tradition as our guide makes it easier for many of us. But in the end, as long as we are acting as interpreters of the Divine fiery model then we are fulfilling our responsibility. We are then allowing the flame of passion for God and community to burn within us and to create new visions, new models and new worlds that will inspire us and new generations to keep the flames alive and to keep watching as the shapes and forms change with the vision so that we, and those who come after us, can create a world surrounded by the Divine presence and so that we can see all of us as creatures living in the shadow of God and using our own inner fires to create new visions and new understandings of what that means.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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