By Dr. Benjamin Sommer | Professor of Bible, JTS
posted on April 7, 2009 / 13 Nisan 5769
What is the book of Exodus about? At first glance, the answer seems easy. As the English title states, it tells the story of the exodus from Egypt, the story of how God rescued the Israelites from slavery by defeating Pharaoh and his armies. A second glance, however, shows that this answer cannot be right. The book has forty chapters, but the story of the exodus from Egypt concludes in chapter 15, well before the halfway point. The next nine chapters describe the first few months of the nation's trek through the desert toward the Promised Land, focusing on the revelation and lawgiving at Sinai. Thirteen of the remaining chapters deal with the Tabernacle (mishkan) or Tent of Meeting (ohel mo'ed). First, the parashiyot named T'rumah, T'tzavveh, and Ki Tissa (in Exodus 25–31) give instructions concerning how the Tabernacle should be built, its furniture constructed, and its priests' clothing made. Then the parashiyot named Va-yak•hel and P'kudei (Exod. 35–40) narrate how each specific instruction was carefully carried out. Three other chapters in Ki Tissa tell the story of the Golden Calf, including a second lawgiving that followed Moses's destruction of the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments.
The amount of space the book devotes to the Tabernacle is almost as long as the amount of space devoted to the story of the exodus. "The Book of the Tabernacle" would be almost as justified a title for this book as "The Book of Exodus." Perhaps the most accurate title might be, "The Book of the Exodus, the Revelation at Sinai and Laws Given There, the Tabernacle, and Some Other Stuff." (Our Sages in talmudic times avoided the whole problem by naming each book in the Torah after its first significant word, so that they call Exodus Sefer Shemot, "the book of Names.")
Given the diverse nature of the topics covered in the book, we might begin to wonder whether any topic holds the book together as a thematic unit. Is Sefer Shemot really a book at all? Or is it a somewhat random collection of material, all of it important, but not adding up to a unified whole? This question becomes even more acute when we realize that the book ends in midsentence, as the brilliant biblical scholar Baruch Schwartz, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (and a graduate of JTS's undergraduate college, we can add with pride), has pointed out. The first word of the book of Leviticus, vayiqra, is a verb form used to continue a sequence of events within a sentence, not a verb form that normally begins one. The last verses of Exodus tell us that God's Presence or kavod covered the Tabernacle, entered it, and took up residence in the Holy of Holies; the first verse of Leviticus goes on to tell us that God then called to Moses from the Holy of Holies and revealed the laws of sacrifice. All this prompts the question: are the divisions among the five books of the Torah significant, or might they simply reflect some ancient scribal convention, perhaps emanating from a time when it was more convenient to write the Torah on smaller scrolls than we use today?
This week's Torah reading, Parashat T'tzavveh, provides a surprising answer to these questions. The parashah informs us of the purpose of the Tabernacle—and also of the exodus, thus linking the first and last parts of the book. In Exodus 29:42–46, God speaks of the Tabernacle and says,
There I shall meet with you and there I shall talk to you . . . I shall dwell among the children of Israel, becoming their God; and they will know that I, Hashem, am their God, who brought them out of the Land of Egypt so that I might dwell in their midst; I, Hashem, am their God.
This passage not only tells us that the purpose of the Tabernacle is for God to dwell among the Israelites (which we already knew from Parashat T'rumah in Exodus 25:8 and 22)—it also tells us that the construction of the Tabernacle was the very purpose of the liberation from slavery itself ("I . . . brought them out of the Land of Egypt so that I might dwell in their midst"). God liberated Israel so that God would have a personal relationship to a group of humans. That group would then follow highly specific rules to build a structure that would accomplish something paradoxical: it would allow the transcendent God, a being who by definition stands outside the world this God creates, to become immanent, or present in that world.
Now, we know from many places in the Bible that God's Presence is extraordinarily powerful and dangerous, and for this reason the structure that provides God an earthly home has to be built according to specifications that only God can provide. The book of Exodus, then, is the story of a transcendent God who deeply yearns to become immanent. Hashem is a being whose very essence goes beyond the world and is completely different from what is in the world, but Hashem nevertheless wants to be near the creatures Hashem created. The liberation from Egypt, then, was part of a much larger plan. It was the key to allowing God to come into the world and to dwell among humanity.
At first this may sound surprising, but hints of this plan are found earlier in the book of Exodus. God did not say to Pharaoh, "Let My people go, because freedom is a good thing," but "Let My people go, so that they may serve Me" (Exod. 7:16, 7:26, 8:16, 9:1, 9:13, and 10:3), and serve refers to sacrificial service (which was conducted at the Tabernacle), as Exodus 5:1 and 8:25 make clear. Israel's redemption from slavery bears relatively little value on its own for the Torah, which does not find the notion of Israel's slavery inherently bothersome. What concerns the Torah is the question: whom do the slaves serve, and how? "It is to Me that the children of Israel are slaves; they are My slaves, those people whom I led out of Egypt," God says later (Lev. 25:55); and that exalted slavery consummates itself in the sacrificial worship at the Tabernacle.
To many a modern Jew, this interpretation may come as a shock. But the Torah makes clear that freedom is not only freedom from something, but much more importantly freedom for something. We were freed so that we could make God present in the world by building the Tent of Meeting. This is the story that the book of Exodus wants to tell: not just of liberation, but of liberation that makes God's presence possible. The main theme of Sefer Shemot is God's desire to be present on the planet Earth, and once God's kavod enters the Tabernacle at the end of Exodus 40, the book stops—even though we are in the middle of a sentence. The story of the liberation from slavery is simply a prologue to this much more important theme. It turns out, then, that the book does hang together as a unity, and the best title for it might be, "The Book of God's Presence."
All this leads us to ask another question: why didn't God just build the Tabernacle on God's own? After all, other ancient Near Eastern Creation stories end by describing how the main god built his own temple or how he supervised other gods and goddesses who built it for him; such stories are known from ancient Babylonia, Canaan, and Egypt. But in the Torah (whose Creation story in Genesis 1 recalls these other stories in many respects), this divine role is given to human beings thousands of years after the Creation. We can understand why the earthly home for a heavenly being has to be built according to some very strict specifications. But wouldn't it have made more sense if God or other heavenly beings had been entrusted with the job of erecting this structure that absolutely must adhere to the ultimate building code? Why saddle a bunch of escaped slaves with the onerous task of following all these very detailed instructions to the letter (and their descendants with the nearly as onerous task of chanting the instructions out loud over four or five Shabbatot every year)?
This question involves God's own intentions, and thus we cannot answer it, but it is worth contemplating nonetheless. For reasons completely unfathomable to us, God didn't simply want to become present in the world. Rather, God wanted human beings to bring God into the world. The Tabernacle was long ago replaced by the Temple, and the Temple by the synagogue. The task, however, remains unchanged, and it is to this responsibility that Parashat T'tzavveh calls the Jewish people once again.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.
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