Prioritising the Voluntary – Parshat Teruma

We read this week about the instructions to build a mishkan, the temporary sanctuary which the Jews took with them throughout their wilderness wanderings.

It is safe to say that there is nothing which makes sense about the miskhan.

In the second commandment we are told not to make any carved images of anything resembling anything on heaven and earth, yet in the miskhan we have the ark being appointed with cherubim, two angelic figures resembling young children.

In the immediate aftermath of the Ten Commandments we are again warned about making sacred objects of gold or silver, and are instructed instead to build an altar out of earth, or perhaps out of stone.  This is a very far cry from the opulent abundance of the mishkan, wherein every sort of fine material and precious substance is collected and shaped into a house of worship.

There is something discontinuous about the narrative, something doesn’t seem to flow, the mishkan does not seem to have been part of the original plan.

The Ramban goes to great lengths to emphasise how the mishkan was the natural continuation of the revelation at Sinai, after the exalted otherworldly nature of that moment, there was a need for something solid and concrete on earth, something to offer the people a lasting and stable reminder of God’s presence on earth.

The lengths he goes to suggest that he is not entirely convinced, we may start to suspect that the lady doth protest too much.

If it wasn’t part of the original plan, then we are faced with the puzzling question – what brought about the change in plan?

The obvious answer leaps out at us just a few chapters later, when we encounter the episode of the Golden Calf, the Chet Ha’Egel.

The parallels between the episodes are striking:  the communal donations of gold, the offerings of sacrifices, the celebrations to dedicate the new form of worship.  Looking more closely, we see that the lead designer is to be Bezalel, the grandson of Chur, who the midrash suggests was killed due to his resistance to the building of the Egel.

It makes good sense to suggest that the mishkan is a response to the building of the egel, a concession to the need for a more festive and physicalised form of religious worship.  This was after all a people who had been surrounded by the various paganisms present in Egyptian society and who were perhaps not quite ready for the severe and august monotheism that Moses was trying to foist upon them.

But we are left with the troubling point?  Why does the Torah tell us about the mishkan before the egel.  And, also troubling, how did both God and Moses get the Israelites so wrong, how did they not see such a disaster coming?

Rashi offers a simple solution – ein mukdam u’meuchar batorah – the Torah does not always tell us things in chronological order, and in this instance it decided to tell us about the mishkan first.  But, we might still ask, why should it do that?  If it has left enough clues for us to figure it out, then why should it try to disguise the reality, and leave us with such a perplexing narrative.

The answer I think lies in the essential principle which underpins the mishkan.  Rambam sees the mishkan as a concession to physical worship of sacrifices, and we might also think it is simply to do with having a sensory location for the sacred presence, both of which seem reasonable.

But I believe the more important principle is mentioned in the opening verses of our parsha.  Moses is to take a teruma, a donation, ‘me’et kol ish asher yidvenu libo’, from every individual according to the voluntary spirit of their heart.  The mishkan is to be founded in the passion of the individual, it is to be rooted in the harnessing of their animal spirits, of their powerful preconscious drives, and is to channel them into a form of worship that will contain and symbolise these energies.

The original 10 commandments did not leave any room for this spirit, they were a deep and total prohibition of mankind’s most basic impulses.  God adopts the same language he did with Adam in Genesis 2, where the harshness of the command made the ensuing sin almost inevitable.  The Ten Commandments are about what we must not do, what we must stifle and suppress in ourselves – do not murder, steal or indulge your carnal appetites.  Do not behave falsely and, while you’re at it, banish all traces of jealousy and envy.

When the people told Moses they couldn’t bear the word of God, it was not just the power and volume of the experience that repelled them, it was the absolute and unforgiving attitude to their nature.  The commandments seemed to be cutting them off at their roots, leaving them no breathing space whatsoever, and this atmosphere of privation was too much for them to bear.

The people needed an outlet for their passion, for their visceral drives and aggressive impulses.  The Golden Calf gave them such an outlet, but in spite of Aharon’s best efforts it was not an acceptable form of worship, it was too close to the Egyptian cults they had left behind.

The mishkan exists to give such an opportunity, and to ensure that the people have ample means of expression, are able to search their own spirits and find new and original ways of contributing to and shaping Divine Worship.

And this is perhaps the difference between religion and mere ethics.  Ethics simply tells us what to do, or what we can’t do, religion takes a more sympathetic view of the human condition and gives structure and the possibility of redemption to the totality of the personality, to even the darkest forces that lurk in our soul.

After the flood God sees that man will always have evil lurking in his soul, and he realises that he needs Avraham to develop a religion capable of wrestling with that and transforming it.

If all of this is true, then it makes sense that we must be told of the mishkan before the chet ha’egel.  If the narrative made it obvious that the mishkan was a correction for the chet then the lesson of the importance of the voluntary would ring very false, it would be hollow and unconvincing.  A concession can never be convincing as an invitation to volunteer, the balance of power has been lost.

By putting the mishkan first, the Torah is subtly conceding that God got it wrong, but is suggesting that the corrective was close to hand, and that there somewhere existed the wisdom which knew that the Jews could not subsist on prohibition alone.  The power and passion of the human being needed to be given expression through religious structure, and the mishkan gave them that opportunity in their time.

The idea that the mishkan is about our inner life, rather than about physical space is poetically expressed in the late 16th century by Rav Elazar Azkiri with his idea of ‘bilvavi mishkan evneh’.  The aspiration is to build an internal mishkan in the midst of our heart, thereby giving structure and form to the necessary sacrifices we must make in the pursuit of a balanced and compassionate society.  Through the pain and majesty of our relinquishing of egotistical drives the Glory of God becomes revealed in the world, and a sacred space of authentic beauty might come into being.

May we be blessed with strength in the face of these challenges, and may our building of the mishkan sanctify and redeem the totality of our unique personalities.

 

Elie is teaching this term on Faith after Freud at LSJS, and courses on Talmudic Narrative and God for Grown Ups at JW3.

Money – Fetishizing the Future Shabbat 119

We encounter today a story which may take some of us back to our childhood:

Joseph-who-honours-Shabbat had in his vicinity a certain gentile who owned much property. Soothsayers  warned the gentile:  ’Joseph-who-honours-Shabbat will consume all your property.’ 

So he went, sold all his property, and bought a precious stone with the proceeds, which he set in his turban.  As he was crossing a bridge the wind blew it off and cast it into the water.  A fish then swallowed it.

The fish was subsequently hauled up and brought to market on the Shabbat eve towards sunset.

‘Who will buy this fish just now?’ cried the fish sellers.

‘Go and take them to Joseph-who-honours-Shabbat,’ they were told, ‘as he is accustomed to buy in order to honour the Shabbat.’

So they took it to him.  He bought it, opened it and found the jewel therein.  He sold the jewel for thirteen roomfuls  of gold coins. 

A certain old man met him and said, ‘He who lends to Shabbat,  Shabbat repays him.’

It certainly works as a nice story for the children, but I think there’s actually a whole lot more going on here.

In the character of the gentile , (I’m not sure why it’s a gentile, and I don’t really attribute much significance to it, surely there have been many Jews who would fit this mould!), we meet a man who is deeply anxious about his property, about his money.

This manifests itself in a variety of ways.  It is significant that he consults soothsayers in order to learn the fate of his fortune – he is caught up in the future, worried about the fate of his wealth.

He does not seem to be able to enjoy the benefits and luxuries that his wealth might proffer upon him in the present, his peace of mind does not seem to have increased in proportion to the size of his bank account.  Rather, he seems to be enacting that other dictum of the sages:

‘More possessions leads to more worry.’ (Pirkei Avot 2:8)

So he engages soothsayers and, more than this, he responds to their warning with credulity.  I want to say that this is characteristic of a mind that is ill at ease, that it responds to the most unfounded and paranoid of suggestions and treats them as hard fact.  Something about its lack of centring, about its lack of rootedness, means that it lacks contact and connection with the plain realities in front of it, with the starting point of hard evidence which the simplest of minds would readily grasp.  No, it is fragile, hallucinatory, and all too susceptible to the crazy doomsday whisperings of the unsound, to the tale of his undoing which arrests him.

Perhaps he is indeed haunted by such a sensation, he may in some sense be feeling that he is coming undone, unstuck,  and that this proclamation of such by the other is only a confirmation of what he has known for a long time, of the worm-like secret which has been eating away at him over the years.  He is perhaps unable to bear the burden of plenty, to live with the inequality that his wealth creates.  Something about it separates him from his fellows, and this alienation, this exile, has become for him a torment of soul shredding proportions.

Let us now turn to his response to the soothsayer’s warnings.  He decides that the best strategy is to sell all of his property and concentrate his wealth into one precious jewel.

On one level, this would seem to only be taking him further from any capacity to enjoy his wealth, to derive actual and material benefit from it.  In his determination to prevent someone else from stealing or obtaining his property, he has in a sense stolen it from himself; he has removed from himself any advantage of his affluence.

The concentration of the wealth into the jewel seems to symbolise a process of fetishization.  The jewel is of virtually no use, but it instead embodies a magical quality for its owner.  It is his superstitious response to the otherworldly prophecies he receives; he responds to the witchcraft with some sorcery of his own.

His money is in transit: the more he tightens his grip on it, the further it slips away from him.

And yet, with all of this paranoia surrounding his money, he exposes it in its totality to the slightest act of nature, to a gust of wind which removes his turban and blows it into the water.  One almost has to read an unconsciously wilful act of neglect here; he almost couldn’t bear the tension and was somehow desiring its end.  The death drive, with its magnetic force of dissolution, seems to have overwhelmed him.

In the character of Joseph-who-honours-Shabbat we seem to encounter someone of precisely the opposite nature.  The name by which he is known, Yosef Mokir Shabbei, might also be translated as Joseph-whose-wealth-was-Shabbat.  He holds Shabbat dear, he cherishes and values something which has a powerful impact on his soul and spirit, something which is very much tangible in the here and now.  He is not distracted by the future, he is not imprisoned by worry and a sense of impending doom.  He is bound to the moment, living in intimate proximity to the source of his joy.

The jewel comes to Joseph not because he is looking to get rich, not because he has bought a lottery ticket or invested in a spirit of speculation.  His wealth arrives because he has a reputation for sparing no expense, for using every last penny he has, in order to honour Shabbat, in order to enrich the day one with every possible delight.

He comes to wealth because he has no interest in looking after his money, in worrying about its future life.  He has a healthy relationship with his property, he understands that if it is not used, if it is not put to work in enhancing the finer and more sacred aspects of life, then it becomes empty, it becomes a tormenting and divisive fetish.

We notice that the first thing he does on obtaining the jewel, presumably once Shabbat was finished, was to undo its fetishization, to release its value into an abundance of gold coins which could then be spent, which could be used to bring better things, things of real value, into the world.

The soothsayers’ wording is particularly prescient, they use the term ‘akhil’, literally ‘eat’, to describe what Joseph will do to the gentile’s wealth.  He will re-translate it into something tangible, something nourishing, something which can actually enhance a person’s health and wellbeing.

The story ends with the observation of the wise old man that one who lends to Shabbat will be repaid by Shabbat.

On one level, this speaks of the difficulty in keeping Shabbat at a basic level, in the financial and career sacrifice that it seems to demand of us.  It is a non-trivial challenge to prioritise Shabbat when other demands are in the foreground, demands which whisper to us of the security and future benefit they will bring to us and our families.  Trust in Shabbat, he promises, and you will be repaid.

On another level however, he is speaking of the shift in perspective that Shabbat might offer us.  ‘Suspend your concern for the future, release yourself from the anxious worship of financial accumulation and embrace the life of the spirit, the immediacy of your desire.  Use this pause to connect and re-root, and all manner of surprising benefits will follow in its wake.’

As we said recently, Shabbat offers us a loosening of the soul, a release from the ordinary anxieties that separate us from our truer selves.  Money, and our complicated and tortuous relationship with it, can play a big part in this alienation, in the ways in which we fail to live in the present, we fail to be present, on account  of the future.

It is the perfect seducer, it begins with the promise of answering real and palpable needs, then at some point it takes on magical qualities, promising us everything the future has to offer, provided we make a Faustian pact against the present.

Eventually we might fetishize it, we forget why we wanted it, but we only know that we must have it, that it is all that matters.

It has perhaps never been harder to untangle ourselves from this web of confusion, never has there been an age where genuine value and monetary value have been so messily interlinked and amalgamated.  The theology of the market, whose collapse we are still struggling to really understand, has profoundly and disturbingly warped our thinking.

We can only hope that the experience of Shabbat, the joy in real and present experience that it offers, can help us to re-calibrate our inner scales somewhat, and that we can return to our lives a little more attentive to the right things, a little less haunted by what the soothsayers might threaten.