Parashat Terumah is the first of several dealing with the construction of the Mishkan, where the priests would make sacrifice upon a great bronze-clad altar. And yet, only two weeks ago, at the end of parashat Yitro, we read a very different set of instructions: “Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it … ” How are we to reconcile the need for this elaborate structure to house God’s presence with the instructions to worship Him using a simple altar of earth? In attempting to reconcile these two very different types of encounter, it may be helpful to look at what comes in between.
In Parashat Beshalah, the Israelites are finally freed from slavery in Egypt. But neither the nation of Egypt nor the house of Israel is ready for the events now unfolding. The Israelites, having lived in slavery all their lives, were naturally fearful of freedom. It makes sense then, that they would need to be rescued against their will. The Egyptians, meanwhile, have reason to feel even more overwhelmed than the Israelites; they have been caught up in a process in which each ill-concieved decision breeds another calamity, and yet, they can find no way out of the cycle. How do we reconcile this seeming lack of free will with the Torah’s usual insistence that humans are free to choose?
In this week’s parashah, the plagues in Egypt reach their horrific conclusion, resulting in the freedom for the Israelite slaves (and presumably many others as well) and their expulsion from the country. Along the way, we’re given a fascinating glimpse “backstage” at the divine plan in history.
The episode of Zipora’s emergency circumcision of her son at a wayside inn seems to defy interpretation. Who is it that God sought to kill, and why? We can begin to make sense of this story only when we realize that it has been lifted out of its proper place in the wider narrative; chronologically, it belongs much later, during the plague against the firstborn. But then, why do we find it here, at the very beginning of Moshe’s mission?
What is behind Yaakov’s sudden adoption of Yosef’s two sons? And why does he make Yosef swear to bury him in the land of Canaan? Is his son’s word not enough?
Yosef’s first question, after revealing his identity to his startled brothers is: “Is my father alive?” But had he not already been told that his father was not only alive, but worried sick about Yosef’s sole remaining full brother, Benyamin? Had Yehuda not related a whole conversation between the brothers and Yaakov, their father? And had the brothers not already told him about their aged father waiting at home? Why would Yosef ask: “Is my father alive” after all this?
It may well be that the incident in Shechem was meant to serve as a warning to Yaakov. We never once hear the words “My daughter” from his mouth. He had all but abandoned Leah’s daughter, leaving the action to Leah’s sons. Might this be a sign of how Yaakov relates to Leah’s children in general?
The story of Yaakov’s dream dialogues with a much earlier story, the story of the Tower of Babel. There, the tower builders set out to “make a name for themselves”. They would build a tower—a ziggurat—with its top in the heavens. But the true encounter cannot be forced. Yaakov’s vision comes to him when he is at his most vulnerable—alone, at night, in a strange place, far from home and fleeing his brother. Asleep and helpless to defend himself even against dreams. While the tower builders constituted a single unified society bent on wresting the secrets of the heavens, Yaakov is one man, alone in a stony land, suspended between a painful past and an uncertain future.
What are we to make of the conspiracy on the part of Rivka and Yaakov to steal the blessing that Yitzhak meant to give to his eldest son, Esav? Surely this is treachery of the highest order! What does the Torah itself think of this act? While the Torah offers no immediate moral judgement of Yaakov’s actions, it will become increasingly clear that there right and wrong are rarely clear cut, and that Yaakov’s deception will have to be paid for.
Who the mother of one’s child is matters in more ways that one can ever rationally know. God doesn’t tell Avraham why Sarah must be the mother of his heir, but we readers begin to suspect that she holds the key to the future. Avraham seems to have learned this by the time he sends his servant back to Terah’s tribe to seek a wife for Yitzhak. The servant specifies a test for the bride-to-be: that she not only offer him a drink from her pitcher, but also care for his thirsty camels, at considerable investment of effort. In other words, he devises a test for kindness—kindness to the stranger and to beasts of burden.