Thursday, 14 Mar 2024

Written by Rachel Berkson, LBC rabbinical student

For the last several weeks, we’ve been reading about the instructions for building the Mishkan, and then about how these instructions were actually implemented. In Parashat Pekudei, the last parashah of Exodus, we read about the records or accounts of the Tabernacle. So we might ask, what’s so important about records?

One reason is that the Israelites have willingly contributed a huge amount of money and precious materials, as well as their time and skills, to construct this holy site. They are entitled to know that their contributions have been used appropriately, according to God’s commandments, and not been wasted or even worse, gone to line the pockets of Moses and the priests. This is particularly important because the creation of the Mishkan was not just a one-off project. It is going to continue to enable God to dwell among the Children of Israel throughout their long journey through the wilderness and as they pass into the Promised Land.

When we set out to create something holy, we may be able to ride a wave of initial enthusiasm, and if we’re lucky lots of people donate money and volunteer for a new exciting project, such as building a new synagogue. But in order to have something that continues to provide spiritual meaning, we have to have a plan in place for how to sustain it, maintain it, repair it if needed. The kind of work that’s much less glamorous and exciting, much less likely to attract large donations from philanthropists, but is still completely necessary to maintain a resource for the community. Part of that unglamorous work is keeping good records. When was maintenance last carried out? What is the condition of our site or building or our precious objects? When should we arrange the next inspection or round of repairs?

The Torah gives equal weight to record-keeping with the crafting of unique, beautiful objects like the Menorah or the priestly garments. Perhaps this can serve us as reminder to appreciate and thank the people who work behind the scenes doing the paperwork and bureaucracy that keep our communities going. It can inspire us to see the holiness in what may seem like mundane, even boring tasks.

The word Pekudei does not only mean records, though. It’s connected to the concept of memory, and even of redemption. A related word is used of Sarah in Genesis 21, ‘God remembered Sarah’ to give her the miracle of becoming pregnant with Isaac in advanced old age. It’s a key word in the story of Joseph who was put ‘in charge of’ Potiphar’s house, and again offered a significant role in the administration of the prison where he was jailed after Potiphar’s wife’s false accusation. This is a kind of foreshadowing of Joseph taking charge of the collection of grain during the years of plenty in order to distributed food during the years of famine. In Genesis 41 he suggests that Pharaoh should ‘appoint an overseer’ (both words coming from the same root as Pekudei), and that food should be set aside as a ‘reserve’.

In the last chapters of Genesis and in the story of the Exodus, we are told several times of God ‘remembering’ the people. In this case the verb doesn’t just mean that God made an accurate record of what happened to them, it means that God cared about them and took action to redeem them from slavery in Egypt. This is perhaps similar to the sense in which God ‘remembered’ Sarah, remembered that she needed something and therefore acted to provide it. The word is also used in the Ten Commandments, where God is described as remembering the sin of the fathers down to the third and fourth generation. In this sense, the idea of memory or recording is linked to punishment as well as redemption, and again, it’s about taking stock of the situation in order to take appropriate action.

God is perhaps the ultimate recorder, an image that echoes through the High Holy Days where we think of people being recorded in the Book of Life so that consequences can match their actions. Even in our ordinary human lives, the choices we make about what to record and how, where to focus our attention and where to take action, can have deep moral consequences. We need good records of hate crimes and discrimination to be able to do something about these problems; the choice of how, or even whether, to record such incidents can be highly political. Incorrect information entered into, say, medical records can have devastating or even life-threatening results. The Post Office scandal has been in the news again recently; computers recorded information incorrectly, and those in charge did not check the records against reality, and as a result many innocent employees suffered greatly from false accusations based on bad record-keeping.

Over the past 80 years, many organizations have devoted themselves to creating and preserving accurate records of the Shoah. This is vitally important work, alongside preserving the individual human stories, and very necessary to combat Holocaust denial. Yad Vashem is perhaps the pinnacle of this recording effort. Listed among their Righteous Among the Nations is a Dutch resistance fighter, Willem Arondeus

[https://collections.yadvashem.org/en/righteous/4043044]

He is remembered because he and his comrades successfully infiltrated and blew up the Amsterdam Municipal Records Office in 1943, preventing the Nazis from using the records to identify Jews and detect forged identity cards. The records had been collected before the war for innocent administrative purposes, but had become a weapon in the hands of the Nazi occupiers. Arondeus, a gay man, was captured and executed, declaring at the time of his death that his actions demonstrated that ‘homosexuals are not cowards’.

Arondeus, like Moses, understood that records are not mere bureaucracy, but can be a matter of life and death. May his memory be a blessing, and may his record inspire others to holiness.

 

Rachel Berkson, LBC rabbinical student

Photo by Mr Cup / Fabien Barral on Unsplash

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.