In this week's parshah, the first one I ever chanted from the Torah scroll, there are two very different ideas about our dialogue with God. The first: that there are things we cannot figure out for ourselves and can only learn through being divinely inspired. The second: that we have some things to teach God, too.
God Teaches Us
"And Moses said to the Israelites: See, the Lord has singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. He has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of designer's craft...." (Exodus 35: 30-31)
According to Avivah Zornberg, drawing on Rashi's commentary, the Hebrew words used here for "skill" (or "wisdom") and "ability" (or "understanding") are qualities a human being can possess innately or can learn. The word da'at, here translated as "knowledge," goes beyond that. It is an intimate kind of knowledge: in her words (p. 470), "the mystery of a gift that can be explained in no other way than as 'taught by God.'"
So, when Moses says that God has given da'at to Bezalel, it goes beyond conferring legitimacy on Bezalel's direction of the project of building the Mishkan (and let us not forget his assistant, Oholiav, because the #2 is often the person who makes everything work!). Moses allays the people's remaining fear that a building project--like the Golden Calf--that is not supervised moment to moment by Moses himself can lead them away from God, toward plague and death.
On this, first, reading, human initiatives can be dangerous, and only a "divine spirit" can lead us in the right direction. Our job is to listen.
We (or at least, Moses) Have Something to Teach Too
The link between the Golden Calf and the Mishkan has been implicit throughout the later chapters of Exodus. The midrashic commentary makes the link explicit.
One commentator marvels that the Israelites can be so generous both for a misguided effort and for a well-guided one. For the building of the Golden Calf, they tore off their gold earrings, and for the Mishkan, they brought so much gold and other gifts that Moses had to call the capital campaign to an end! (Exodus 36:4-7) "The Holy One, Blessed be God then said: 'Let the gold of the Mishkan atone for the gold they brought toward the making of the Golden Calf." (Shemot Rabbah 51: 6)
But did God reach this conclusion by God's self, or did God have a little help? In the midrashic literature, Moses makes a sly argument to drive God toward a position of forgiveness. I quote:
"R. Nehemiah said: When the Israelites committed that sin, Moses began to appease God. He said: 'Master of the universe, they have provided you with help, and You are angry with them! this calf that they have made will help you: You will make the sun rise and it will take care of the moon; You will bring forth the stars and it the planets...'
God answered: 'Moses! Are you, too misled like them! For there is nothing in the idol!' And Moses replied: 'If so, why are you angry with Your children?'"
Moses is saying to God, in effect--what do you have to complain about? We all know the Calf has no power. Given that, what is there to be jealous of?
It is with arguments like these--teasing, cajoling, intimate--that Moses time and again wins God's forgiveness for the people. And Moses is standing in the footsteps of the first father of the Jewish people, Abraham, who tries to save even the people of Sodom and Gomorrah by arguing with God on their behalf. His ultimate failure doesn't take away from the greatness of his example.
On this alternative reading, it would be folly, wickedness, a dereliction of duty for Jews to accept God's instructions passively. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, God is "in search of Man." God seeks the active partnership of humanity in repairing and perfecting the world. If we make it worse through some of our actions, that is no excuse for not striving to make it better.
With our hands and our craft, or with our hearts and our words, we build the sacred in our lives.
I've been reading through Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg's amazing commentary on the biblical Book of Exodus, The Particulars of Rapture.
Each chapter expounds one of the portions we read in the synagogue
weekly. It's slow going because it is so rich with insights, and I cannot begin to do it justice. To keep on
track, I have been posting at least one insight weekly for the last ten weeks, and (thanks to God and my study partners) I have now finished the book. If these reflections have been interesting to you, my blog reader, so much the better!