This week’s parashah opens with an odd juxtaposition. Just before explaining to the Israelites how the Mishkan is to be constructed, Moshe pauses to exhort the people to sanctify the Shabbat. Why is the commandment of the Shabbat inserted here? The usual answer is that building the Mishkan—as important as it is—nevertheless does not over-ride the prohibition of work on Shabbat. But this only puts off the question: why are we are told to sanctify the Shabbat by ceasing all creative work on that day?
How could Moshe, who, more than any other figure, stands for Torah…how could he destroy the precious written record of the Covenant, inscribed by God’s own hand? Moreover, how is it that the sages of the Talmud praised Moshe’s actions and hailed him as a hero for breaking the tablets? The answer lies in the difference between the first set of tablets and the second.
our parasha heralds a political revolution in Israel, though this can be easy to miss among the details. We’re so used to thinking of Aharon and his sons as the “normal” kohanim of Israel that we come to take this from granted. But the tribe of Levi was not always set apart for Divine service, nor were the kohanim originally from that tribe.
It’s been noted that the Mishkan which the Israelites were commanded to build in the desert bears a striking resemblance to the royal military tent of Pharaoh Ramses II. Further, the Ark of the Covenant appears to have been modeled after an Egyptian sacred boat. What are we to make of these parallels? Are they merely a matter of historical curiosity or is there a deeper meaning?
This week’s parashah takes place in the midst of the dramatic ceremony of the Covenant at Sinai. The Israelites have accepted the terms and conditions and now stand poised to sign on the dotted line. Now comes the small print: the actual terms and conditions they are to keep. But there’s something very odd about the way the names of God come up in presenting these laws….
In the immediate aftermath of the exodus, the Israelites are faced with a series of tests designed to ascertain whether this newly constituted nation can escape their mental slavery in order to take on the mission that God has in mind for them. The results illustrate that it’s easier to take the people out of Egypt than to take Egypt out of the people!
When Moshe is told to go back to Egypt and free the Israelites, he asks “What if they won’t believe me?” God’s answer is in the form of symbolic wonders, each of which involve things becoming something contrary to their nature: a healthy hand that becomes leprous, and a staff that becomes a snake. But why a snake? The choice of this particular animal is no coincidence. In fact, it’s the key to Moshe’s mission!
While the Torah explicitly cautions against putting the younger before the elder in terms of inheritance, time and time again, the narrative portions of the Torah provide a lesson to the contrary: Yitzhak before Yishmael, Yaakov before Esau, Rahel before Leah, Yoseph before all his elder brothers, and Ephraim before Menashe. What is the meaning of this odd discord between law and example? What is the Torah trying to tell us?
Why is Avraham depicted coming back from the Akeda alone? Where was Yitzhak? The sages of the Talmud offer a strange answer: he was off studying Torah with Shem, the favored son of Noah! What are we to make of this notion? Are we to conclude that Yitzhak put on a suit and hat and sat down in a classroom? Such a simplistic understanding misses the point entirely. The less literal interpretation is both richer and more meaningful.
History shows that civilizations rise, reach their peak, and decline into oblivion. And yet, one small nation somehow managed to escape that fate. But how? This weak’s parashah offers a recipe to escape the cycle, but it is a drastic one indeed!