By Angela Gluck
A really great sandwich is one where the filling in the middle is a text. Even greater is the kind where the upper and lower layers are also texts. But the greatest of all has multiple texts above and below. In Parashat Pekudei, this club sandwich is now fit to eat—a tasty portion!
As Sefer Shemot draws to a close this week, we see the culmination of the layers that began five portions ago — in Parashat Terumah — all of them focused on the Mishkan, the “dwelling place” of God. There are physical descriptions and practical instructions, as well as mystical experiences and spiritual evocations. But amongst this space and its allusions of holiness, time sneaks in — twice — through the command to keep Shabbat. The layered club sandwich looks like this:
A Cloud covers the mountain… God’s glory… consuming fire… Moshe enters the cloud (24: 15–18)
B Command to build the Mishkan (25:1–31:11)
C Command to keep Shabbat (31: 12–17)
D Moshe on mountain getting Ten Sayings (31: 18)—including “VAYIKAHEL” (“the people ASSEMBLED against Aaron”)
E Incident of the golden calf (32–35)
D Moshe on mountain getting second set of Ten Sayings (34: 29)—including “VAYAK’HEL” (“Moshe ASSEMBLED the whole community”)
C Command to keep Shabbat (35: 1–3)
B Building the Mishkan (35: 4–40: 33)
A Cloud covers the Tent of Meeting… God’s glory filling it… Moshe unable to enter… guiding fire (40: 38)
The near-perfect symmetry is clear and follows an A—B—C—D—E—D—C—B—A pattern, along the lines of a palindrome. In Hebrew, this is known as an atbash, from the letters at the beginning and end of the alef-bet. It’s as though a two-way mirror is placed in the middle and the corresponding elements in the mirror are close matches or at least variations on a theme.
Several thoughts struck me when I discovered this atbash:
* Why would anyone go to all that trouble to create such an intricate textual structure without a significant point to make?
* Why is the golden calf episode at the centre of this, as though the layers descend to it and then ascend from it?
* Why is meaning hiding in plain sight?
* Why is Shabbat wedged between references to the building and to the assembling of the people—twice? What has time to do with space and people?
This juxtaposition of Shabbat and Mishkan came in handy when the ancient rabbis were desperate to standardise Jewish practice, creating a communal glue that was so needed after the great destruction and dispersion. The rabbis searched frantically for an objective, universal definition of work that would bring stability and cohesion. And they found it in our atbash! The layering of Mishkan instructions with Shabbat commandments throw light on the nature of work and Shabbat rest. More simply: their ‘aha’ moment consisted in the realisation of Shabbat as a sanctuary in time, a parallel to the Mishkan as a sanctuary in space.
The next step was to figure out which activities were entailed in building the Mishkan, because those acts that change physical matter—constructively or destructively—will be ‘work’ for the purpose of defining Shabbat rest. So we get hammering nails, dyeing fabric and so on. They discovered 39 types of ‘work’.
Avoiding those matter-changing actions brings a taste of holiness that was once enshrined in the Mishkan. But, for all its portability, the Mishkan cannot go as far or live as long as Shabbat — which we can take with us wherever we go, now and forever.
Angela Gluck is a member of New London Synagogue