We all have in memory these bar/bat-mitzvah kids struggling with this type of parasha in which are given long lists of the Tabernacle components, or details of the census of the Children of Israel. What can we say about them? And yet, as our Sages stated, there is no spare word in the Torah. Each letter can have meaning. Let us trust our Sages and follow their wisdom. Like the Rabbis in the Midrash, we are entitled to read the Torah through metaphors.
Let us read this parasha in the light of the entire book of Exodus.
Shemot starts with these words : Ve-eleh shemot benei Yisra’el ha-ba’im mitzraimah, “These are the names of the Children of Israel who are going to Egypt” (Exod. 1:1). The Etz-Hayim commentary (on page 317) adds this note : “When they were growing up, they were the sons of Jacob, not Israel. Jacob had to wrestle and change to become Israel; and his children, the children of Jacob, also had to struggle to outgrow their less admirable traits to become the children of Israel.”
At that stage, our ancestors were the benei Yisra’el, the Children of Israel. Brevard S. Child, a modern biblical scholar, has shown that in the first seven verses of the Book of Exodus, the benei Yisra’el, sons of Jacob, as a continuation of the Genesis narrative, become the Israelites, the people of Israel, a people who from now on will share a common History.1 They will go through many events which eventually will shape the people of Israel. Some of them, such as Yetzi’at Mizrayim, are part of the liturgical narrative, and they have moulded our collective unconscious.
Forty chapters later, at the end of the book, the same people gains a new name. Let us listen to the text : Ki anan Adonai al ha-mishkan yomam ve-esh tihye laila bo le-einei kol beit-Yisra’el bekhol ma’aseihem (Exod. 40 :36) : “For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the House of Israel throughout their journeys.”
The Children of Israel became beit Yisra’el, the House (or household) of Israel. A bayit, a House, is a place rooted in a soil, and is there to last. It has foundations, it uses materials, plans, well-skilled people to be built. And in itself, a house is a promise of a future.
From a group of human beings sharing common trials and tribulations, they became a more structured group; they achieved a mishkan, a place where God could dwell. Put in an other way, the mishkan represents the result of their efforts, investment, work. Everything is ready now, and the House of Israel can achieve its spiritual goal, its spiritual journey. Earlier, they were “children of”, now they are a “household” themselves, as it occurs in the human life from childhood to adulthood.
What happened ? What exactly permitted this people, Israel, to complete the transformative process from a group with a history to a group with a destiny?
They had a long journey through struggles, flights, hope and despair. A journey which will lead them through the wilderness and towards themselves. Is there any more meaningful place than the desert to have an encounter with ourselves? They faced maturation and crisis, inner withdrawal and doubts. And above all, they were alone, facing themselves and facing the Eternal in this scary empty place.
It is in this very place, like the result of a process of giving birth, that they created the mishkan, the place where the Holy One Blessed Be He will dwell, amongst His children. In one Midrash, the Sages describe the mishkan as a microcosm of the Universe, going through the 6 days of the Creation, and comparing the elements of the mishkan to different parts of the Universe: the curtain represents the heaven, the veil of the Tabernacle by the firmament, the laver the sea, the candlestick the sun and the moon, etc. (Numbers Rabbah 12, 13). That teaches us that under every tiny detail, the entire universe is hidden and accessible by anyone willing to uncover it. This teaches us also not to get jammed in the daily life, considering only the details of the routine.
This week was not an easy week for some of us in the LBC rabbinic programme. Like the Children of Israel, we are embarked on a journey with no perspective or desire of return. Most of us are living now in a foreign country, in a different culture, learning with a language not originally our own. Sometimes, our journey looks like a wandering in the desert, engaged in so many tasks but far from our relatives, family, friends. We have to face a lot of losses, and at the same time, we are engaged in a transformational process which will eventually lead us to the Rabbi we would like to be.
Rabbinical studies are far from being an easy journey. But none of us would even consider changing our minds. It is meaningful for us, even if acknowledging this does not make it easier. It is a real transformational process, and at some point, we are also building our own mishkan, a place which reflects the encounter with our own destiny, a place which is being built with efforts, doubts, struggles and sometimes pain. But this place is already there, in essence, and is only waiting to be revealed.
The wanderings of our ancestors in the desert are a relevant metaphor for our own human journeys. It is difficult, but worth the effort. It demands a lot, but the price to pay is nothing compared to the place where we are heading: the inner mishkan, a secret place of comfort and rest.
1Brevard S. Childs, Exodus. A Commentary, in : The Old Testament Library, London, 1974, p. 2
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.