Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus


Posted on: December 29, 2011

Exodus 35:20 – 36:7
moses doré
Where are we in the Exodus narrative, which features so many ascents up Mount Sinai, so many conversations between God and Moses, and so many instructions for the building and adornment of the Tabernacle, the portable Sanctuary in the wilderness?

Well, Moses has received the tablets of the law on Mount Sinai and the Israelites have committed the sin of the golden calf. Moses has broken the first set of tablets, and gone back up Mount Sinai, returning with two new tablets.

What happens next? Moses assembles the children of Israel and explains to them the commandment to observe Shabbat. He then charges them to make donations for God, that is to say, for the building of the Tabernacle. He asks for all kinds of precious metals and
valuable textiles, but – and this is repeated several times – the donations are brought only by those with a willing heart. The donors were highly motivated and purposeful, and, besides their valuables, they offered their artistic and creative skills. The women spun fine linen and the goldsmiths Bezalel and Oholiob crafted the treasures of the Tabernacle, with wisdom, understanding and knowledge – chochmah, tevunah and da’at.

For those who were in shul on Shabbat Terumah, just three weeks ago, is there not a sense of déjâ vu? For in Exodus 25, God spoke to Moses, telling him to obtain donations from those of a willing heart: gold, silver, onyx, linen, acacia wood – the whole bag of tricks.
Bezalel and Oholiob were charged with the metalwork, just as in our reading today. After the instructions for the Tabernacle, God told Moses to teach the Israelites the commandment of the sabbath: ‘V’shamru v’nei Israel et ha-shabbat, la’asot et ha-shabbat ledorotam brit olam’.1

Precisely while Moses was receiving these commandments, the children of Israel were making and worshipping the golden calf.

The order of events can be confusing for the reader, even for those who hear these sidrot read every year. In the first instance, Moses goes up Mount Sinai where God commands him concerning the Tabernacle and shabbat, in that order. Moses comes down, sees the calf and breaks the tablets. After punishing the wrongdoers, he obeys God’s command to hew two new tablets of stone, and takes them up the mountain. This time God does not write himself but dictates Torah to Moses. Moses returns from Sinai, numinously radiant and assembles the people. He speaks to them about shabbat and the Tabernacle, in that order.

The kind of literary structure which comes up quite often in the Torah is called chiastic, cross-shaped like the Greek letter chi. The pattern is ABCBA: Tabernacle, Shabbat, Calf, Shabbat, Tabernacle. This literary device is found also in non-Hebrew ancient and epic
literature, for example in Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad.

The passage we are reading today is sometimes seen as describing the repentance of the Israelites, after the sin of the calf, as they bring their treasures so willingly and in such quantities that the wise men tell Moses ‘The people are bringing too much for the work of
the task that the Lord charged to do.’2

But the people are fickle, unreliable. We saw that they donated their jewellery for the molten calf as eagerly as they donate it for the building of the Tabernacle. They are the same multitude of people, changing their opinions and affections, sometimes for Moses and at other times against him; they worship a molten idol and afterwards they worship God.

Moses appears capable of astute political judgment, as he channels the people’s dangerous, volatile energy into building the Tabernacle, governing his unruly nation by involving them in the creation of a Sanctuary where God can dwell among them.

Either Moses knows, or the author of Exodus knows, or God knows that people need sacred objects, sacred space and even sacred land to lead fulfilled religious lives.

A problem may arise if sacredness is seen as residing in the object, rather than in the process where the sacred object plays a symbolic part. Although the children of Israel were more than willing to contribute their gold for the molten calf, their fatal error was in worshipping as a god what was merely an installation. One of the things we hope to learn from these chapters of Exodus is how to call a calf a calf.
26 February 2011

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