One Signal, Many Prophets

Pekudei Vayak-hel By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Mar 2, 2002 / 5762 | Torah Commentary

This week’s double parashah brings the book of Exodus to a triumphant close. No sooner is the Tabernacle erected (on the first of Nisan, the start of a new year), than it is graced by God’s presence. “When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle” (40:33-35). The repetition serves to highlight the fact that God had taken up residence in the sanctuary to which all of Israel had contributed. God’s favor was visibly certifiable. The nation would not journey unaccompanied.

A remarkable midrash focuses on an apparent contradiction: While the claim is made in Exodus that “the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle,” in the book of I Kings (8:27), King Solomon asked in the dedicatory prayer to the opening of his Temple: “But will God really dwell on earth? Even the heavens to their uttermost reaches cannot contain You, how much less this House that I have built!” Rabbi Levi, a third-century Amora in Israel and one of its most original preachers, responded with an inspired analogy. To reconcile these conflicting verses, you must imagine a cave at the ocean’s edge. Its waters rush in to fill the space of the cave without being diminished in the slightest. Similarly, despite God’s presence in the Tabernacle, God’s presence continues to pervade the universe (Torah Shlemah, Pekudei, no. 69).

The midrash is noteworthy on several counts. First, because of the gravity of its underlying question, namely how are we to think of God? Second because of its honesty. Solomon’s prayer betrays discomfort at the immanence and corporeality of Exodus’s concept of God. Third because of the poetry of its resolution. The image of the ocean and the cave points to the theological truth that God can be both grand and intimate, universal and particular. No need to sever the polarity. And finally, because the imagery of water in this context is not restricted to the Rabbis. Throughout the ancient Near East, priests had to account for the presence of their deities in multiple sanctuaries at the same time. And they readily acknowledged that neither the holy site nor the deity’s statue could confine their grandeur. Like our midrash, an older Egyptian text took recourse to the image of water to illuminate the paradox of immanence and transcendence.

He [the god] is one who confounds by what is seen of the eye [i.e., by his outward form in his statue]. Let the god be served in his fashion [i.e., according to the proper requirements] whether made of precious stones or fashioned of copper, like water replaced by water. There is no stream that suffers itself to be confined: it bursts the dike by which it is confined (The Biblical Archeological Reader, ed. by Wright & Freedman, 1961, pp. 153-4).

Confronted by a common theological conundrum, Egyptian priests and Palestinian rabbis not only held the same conviction that divine particularity and universalism were compatible but used the same metaphoric language to conceptualize it.

For all its poetic power and historical resonance, however, our midrash is not the only way to understand the tension between the conceptions of Exodus and Kings. Appropriately enough, the normal Ashkenazi haftarah for Pekudei is the first third of Solomon’s prayer (7:51-8:21), though not this year because of Shabbat Ha-Hodesh. The completion of the Temple in Jerusalem 480 years after the redemption from Egypt created an opportunity to reflect on the nature of this new sanctuary. Theology is done in the course of the narrative. Instead of a single, unitary document, Solomon’s lengthy prayer (I Kings 8:12-53) can be read as a composite of two distinct views. In the spirit of Exodus the first one affirms that the Temple– like the Tabernacle– actually constitutes God’s residence and has Solomon declare:

The Lord has chosen
To abide in a thick cloud.
I have now built for You
A stately House,
A place where You
May dwell forever” (8:12-13).

The narrative that precedes these lines stresses the continuity between Tabernacle and Temple. The Shrine of the latter contains the Ark, cherubim and stone tablets of the former. The opening lines of the prayer clearly refer to the cloud that was emblematic of God’s presence in the Tabernacle, while the last two slightly modify the culmination of Moses’s Song of the Sea: “The place you made to dwell in, O Lord” (Exodus 15:17).

In contrast, the second view embodies the spirit of Deuteronomy. As the verse quoted by our midrash (8:27) reveals, God’s grandeur precludes any illusion that God might reside in the Temple. The phrase we met before, “the place of Your abode (mekhon shivtekha),” is now pointedly restricted to heaven (8:43). What sets the Temple apart is its association with God’s name. Solomon has brought to fruition David’s wish “to build a House for the name of the Lord, the God of Israel” (8:17), an association repeated in this prayer at least six more times for emphasis. Moreover, Solomon’s description of his Temple is bereft of priests and sacrifices. The troubled souls who enter its portals, including gentiles, come to pray to a transcendent God who is both accessible and compassionate. With its preference for prayer, the second view offers an uncanny anticipation of the synagogue.

Deuteronomy parts company with Exodus on many grounds, but above all in its insistence on a greater degree of abstraction in thinking about God. In Exodus, seeing God is a not uncommon (though perilous) way of experiencing the Divine. God is depicted as alighting on top of Mount Sinai (19:20) and those who ascended the mountain with Moses literally beheld God. After the sin of the Golden Calf, a shaken Moses is granted the privilege of catching a glimpse of God’s back, though not God’s face (34:18-23).

The authors of Deuteronomy find such gross anthropomorphism repugnant. They contend that the revelation at Sinai was entirely auditory: “The Lord spoke to you out of the fire; you heard the sound of words but perceived no shape – nothing but a voice” (4:12). In the same vein, they call for a single sanctuary that would bear only God’s name (12:11-14). There is no trace of any cloud symbolic of God’s physical presence. Indeed, after bringing his tithe to the central sanctuary for the Levites and the poor every third year, the farmer was to address God in universal terms: “Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the soil You have given us . . . ” (26:15).

Admittedly, I have abridged a complex subject. But the convergence of our midrash and modern scholarship on the same discrepancy gives me a chance to compare how each worked. The resolutions diverge because modern scholarship has abandoned the quest to harmonize on the basis of a single author. Each literary unit is now examined on its own terms.

To my mind, the loss of coherence is more than compensated for by a plurality of voices and views. The Hebrew Scriptures are a library-and not a single book– with a high degree of tolerance for individuality. Pluralism as a religious value is not a modern invention, but embedded in the foundation text of Judaism. Since religion is the human response to the experience of the sacred, the range of dispositions determines the variety of responses. Some perceive God visually and others auditorily, some rationally and others mystically, some through music, others through poetry. The endlessly fascinating testimonies in Torah and Tanakh, Talmud and Midrash to this human encounter of the Divine celebrates the tapestry of human typologies. Or in the words of the Rabbis: “The same signal came to many prophets, but no two prophets delivered it the same way” (B.T. Sanhedrin 89a).

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Vayakhel-P’kudei are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.