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Torah Sparks

Parashiyot Vayakhel-Pekudei - Shabbat Parah
March 14, 2015 – 23 Adar 5775

Annual (Exodus 35:1 – 40:38): Etz Hayim p. 552; Hertz p. 373
Triennial (Exodus 37:17 – 39:21): Etz Hayim p.560; Hertz p. 379
Maftir (Numbers 19:1 – 22): Etz Hayim p. 880; Hertz p. 652
Haftarah (Ezekiel 36:16 – 38): Etz Hayim p. 1287; Hertz p. 999

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

With the Golden Calf incident behind them, the Israelites are asked to re-assemble in front of Moses, who reminds them of the requirement to observe Shabbat. The people are asked to contribute materials for the Mishkan; they bring so many that Moses must ask them to stop.

Bezalel and Oholiab are introduced to the people as the chiefs of the Mishkan’s construction. They set to work efficiently and complete building the sanctuary’s individual items.

We read an inventory of the metals used in the Mishkan’s construction. The Israelites set out to create the priestly clothing as described previously in Exodus. After Moses inspects the Mishkan’s many pieces, they are approved and assembled, in the precise manner God had commanded.

Immediately after the final touches are applied, the Divine cloud fills the Mishkan. The cloud takes up so much room that Moses is unable to enter. The cloud fills the Mishkan by day, and fire glows in it by night.

Theme #1: Mirrors

He made the laver of copper and its stand of copper, from the mirrors of the women who performed tasks at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (Exodus 38:8)

The details of the Tabernacle’s construction include a brief yet significant mention of the Israelite women’s roles in the process.

Though jewelry was accepted for the Tabernacle as it says, “They brought brooches, earrings, rings, and kumaz” (Exodus 35:22), and that kumaz, according to its midrashic interpretation, was more odious than a mirror, nonetheless the other donations were mixed together (and only then melted down). What Moses rejected was the manufacture of a specific object traceable to something made in the service of the evil inclination, until he was instructed otherwise by God Himself. -- Nahmanides

[After the anecdote of the mirrors,] never again are the women discussed in relation to the mishkan, or the Tent of Meeting. Never again do the women, capable of offering so much to God and the community, take such an active role in communal Divine service. At great length, the Torah explains the times that men are to bring offerings to God and the specific types of offerings they are to make. The women, who played such a significant role in the preparation of the community’s most holy space, are now denied access to it. They cannot approach God once God has a specific dwelling place. It is amazing that this sacred project of the entire community, once complete, becomes the exclusive property of a few of the community’s elite. -- Rabbi Nancy H. Wiener, “Of Women and Mirrors,” from The Women’s Torah Commentary, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, ed.

A tradition of female servitors apparently has been inserted here because of the connection of their bronze mirrors to the bronze of the laver. Even more perplexing has been the role that such women may have had. Most scholars are reluctant to see them as legitimate cultic functionaries, and some even have supposed they are prostitutes. More likely, because the term used to designate them is related to a word designating Levitical servitors performing menial labor, they are part of the maintenance staff of the sanctuary. Yet their position at the entrance to the tent of meeting -- a site important in Moses’ oracular interactions with God and not off-limits to women -- may be the vestige of an old tradition of gender-inclusive cultic activity. -- Carol Meyers, Exodus

Questions for Discussion:

Nahmanides understands mirrors to be made to service our negative inclinations. How do they bring out the worst in people? How might they bring out good in people? Does this concept shed extra light on the custom of covering our mirrors when observing shiva, the initial days of mourning a loved one?

Weiner utilizes the presence of the mirrors to be a spare exception to women’s exclusion from matters of the Mishkan. Does this claim help us better understand the presence of the mirrors? Even if women are not present, does the mirrors’ presence create a place for men to consider themselves? Is it possible that the mirrors might serve as a reminder of the womens’ physical absence?

Meyers notes that women, while not allowed in the Mishkan, are permitted at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. What does their presence on the periphery say about the community? Are they able to have an impact on the male-dominated community from that vantage point? Today, how much can we effect change by staying on the periphery? Is a “lurking” presence ever more effective than a more overt presence?

Theme #2: Pushing All The Right Buttons

The stones [on the High Priest’s breastpiece] corresponded [in number] to the names of the sons of Israel: twelve, corresponding to their names; engraved like seals, each with its name, for the twelve tribes. (Exodus 39:14)

The Urim and Thummim remain among the most mysterious items in the Hebrew Bible; it is understood to have provided answers; when questioned, its stones would light up in different combinations.

Also your body is Urim and Thummim. The nipples, the eyes, the nostrils, dimple, navel, mouth, your mouth -- all these blaze for me like the Priest’s breastplate, all these spoke to me and prophesied what I should do. I run away. Before your body prophesies the future, I run away. -- Yehudah Amichai, Travels

Reverend Ezra Stiles preserved Rabbi Haim Isaac Carigal’s memory by hiring Samuel King to paint a portrait of the rabbi that was hung at Yale. There is perhaps no more central symbol of the university’s early devotion to Hebrew learning than its official seal, at the heart of which are the Hebrew words “Urim” and “Thummin.” With the Latin terms “Lux et Veritas” -- light and truth -- Hebrew is given equal prominence on the University’s logo. -- Jewish Virtual Library

Important during Israel’s earliest history in discerning God’s will, the Urim and Thummim become less significant during the time of the prophets, to whom the people are now expected to turn in order that they may learn God’s will. -- Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Biblical Literacy

Questions for Discussion:

Does Amichai imply that a woman’s body has all the answers? Why, then, would he run away? What might the back story be behind this poem? Does his imagery add a layer of understanding to the concept of the Urim and Thummim, or is his understanding more opaque?

Yale University’s seal carries the words “Urim and Thummim” in Hebrew. Is this a fitting logo? If the Urim and Thummim are meant to provide Divine answers to our deepest questions, how does that connect to the goals of academia?

Telushkin speaks of a transition from seeking answers in the Urim and Thummim to a more “I-Thou” relationship between prophets and God. Is this turning to people rather than machinery the inverse of today’s technological advances? Is this an early comment on when how much we need to rely on human beings? What technological advances could we most easily do without?

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