Every Thursday morning, Art and I set aside a couple of hours to go over this week’s Parasha, Haftarah and additional readings. We started this habit months ago simply because if we didn’t, I would never get around to reading it by myself. I am remarkably undisciplined that way.
From time to time, as he is reading, I get overwhelmed by the impact of it all and realise how far afield most of us are in understanding and identifying with what we read. In short, we don’t. It is a story like a lot of other stories. We may know it well if we have lived in a community which follows the annual Jewish cycle of Scripture readings. We hear the words. But we don’t have a clue. In reality, it means nothing to our daily lives.
When I realise this, the corollary also occurs to me. If we cannot identify with what we are reading, then why read it at all? Indeed.
So, what is lacking? Have the Scriptures become irrelevant and need to be replaced with something more in tune with our current needs? Or is the failing ours? Is it us who need to get out of our lifestyles of doing things by rote, a lifestyle which brings intellectual and spiritual death to us, and open our hearts and minds to the reality of what the Scriptures are telling us.
I’ve given this a lot of thought over the years. We have become so enmeshed with the practical pursuits of life and our headlong pursuits of pleasure, that we have no energy, no bandwidth left where G-d can come to us through His Scriptures and touch our hearts.
I’m no Biblical scholar, but I do like a good story and this is one of historic proportions. Parts of it have been dramatised in gargantuan Hollywood movies that were innovative for their time. So let’s step out of the lives we know and step into this story. Call it “becoming part of the movie,” if you like. We do it all the time with other stories, why not this one?
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
The setting for this story can be found in Exodus 27:20 – 30:10 and Ezekiel 43:10 – 27. This is the script for our narrative.
Back in Chapter 14, the people of Israel escaped the clutches of Phara’oh and his army who were killed in the Sea of Suf. If you can’t identify with this, think about what is happening in Egypt right now. It’s a different, but the dynamics are similar. Mubarak has hardened his heart against the will of the Egyptian people and is refusing to let them go. In fact, they call him “Phara’oh” sometimes.
In a few short weeks we will be celebrating Pesach/Passover. If you have been seeing any of the demonstrations from the protesters in Egypt, can you take those pictures and visualise what was going on in the streets of Egypt during the plagues? Think about it. Can you shut your eyes and hear the cries of the people, Israeli and Egyptian together? Can you feel the whip on your back? Can you feel the fear as people see things happening they don’t understand and can’t explain? It feels like the world is coming to an end. Everybody is terrified. Moshe and Phara’oh are playing this high stakes game of “who’s going to blink first.” The only real thing everybody understands is that nothing like this has ever happened before and it is really freaking everybody out.
In the middle of this chaos, people are just trying to hold it together. Think back to the emotions of 9/11 when we were all afraid, and angry, and confused, and wondering what just happened, because whatever it was, the world just went “tilt” and nothing was ever going to be the same. That is the kind of emotional turmoil that was going on in Egypt and within the Israeli people. Remember how hard and emotion-laden it was to do simple things like trying to keep the house running and the kids in school, all the while dealing with the huge questions that never went away, like are we safe? Where are they going to strike next? What is going to become of us? And, when do we get to kick some butt?
Not new questions. The Egyptians and Israelis were asking the same questions.
The Israelis understood that their only hope of getting out alive was to do what Moshe told them, because he seemed to be getting orders from Adonai. At least what he said was going to happen was actually happening, but the Egyptian priests didn’t seem to be having such a good time of it. Their track record was a big fat zero. Not so good for them and Phara’oh, who seemed to think he was G-d. Moshe kept trying to introduce Phara’oh and G-d, but Phara’oh just didn’t get it, . . . until it was too late.
So, Israel has been wandering around out in the desert for a while now. Everything has changed and they are trying to get used to it. The only food around is this stuff called manna and quail. Scripture says that the manna tasted like honey cakes. I don’t know what that tastes like, but it doesn’t sound bad. Then again, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to eat it every day for 40 years, either. Think about eating a nice piece of bread and chicken. For forty years. I’m not complaining, mind you, but I can identify with the Israelis and their grumbling about leeks and pots full of meat.
Then there is the problem of water. Have you ever been working out in the yard in the summer and gotten absolutely parched? All you want is water, preferably a nice tall glass of ice water. This is what it was like for the Israelis, only there was no ice. Have you ever been so dry that even warm water was good? Art lives in Phoenix. I am constantly bone-dry when I am out there, so I carry at least two bottles of water around with me all the time. And it is the same temperature as the air around me. While that is fine over the winter, it isn’t too much fun in 100 degree heat. Something like drinking hot tea without the teabag. It’s not great, but it’s wet. There are days when it is so hot, that is a good thing no matter what the temperature is.
While Israel was camped at Refidim, they were attacked by Amalek. Think about this. Here you are, out in the desert. You have just escaped Phara’oh by the skin of your teeth a couple of months ago. You aren’t an army, you’re a rag-tag group of over a million men, women and children who are wandering around in the desert. You are dirty and hungry and afraid of what you are going to run into. Who is going to fight and what are they going to use for weapons against a professional army that is coming equipped with professional gear? Does anybody even know how to fight? Not that long ago, you were slaves. Now you are supposed to defend yourselves? Right.
Think about how it feels to take a trip and the car breaks down out in the middle of nowhere. You’ve got no way to fix it so you can take it to help, even if you knew where help was. It’s you, your spouse, the kids and Scruffy, your dog. Out in the middle of nowhere. In a car that has something wrong with it. Your luggage takes up every single available square inch of space. And it is 95 degrees outside. The car won’t start, so there is no air-conditioning and no overhead entertainment to keep the kids occupied. While you are trying to figure out what to do, you see this biker gang coming down the road on their Harleys. Your throat gets dry and you gulp a couple of times.
Well, Y’hoshua picks some men from the Israeli camp and they go out to battle against Amalek. Moshe, Hur and Aharon have been at the top of the hill interceding for Israel. When his arms were raised, Israel was winning. When his arms would get tired and drop, Amalek would start winning. Scary picture. So Aharon and Hur get a rock for Moshe to sit on, then they hold his arms up and keep them up. Y’hoshua wins the battle and Israel learns they can fight and win when G-d is on their side. Celebration breaks out and Moshe builds an altar to thank G-d for the victory. Life is good.
Israel leaves Refidim, wanders around some more. They come to the mountain where they set up camp again. G-d calls Moshe from the mountain and wants to meet with him about how this living in the desert thing is going to happen. It was pretty simple, really. So you can know where I am, I’m going to give you a cloud to follow by day and the fire by night. You stop when I stop. Don’t touch the mountain. I have ten instructions for how you should live. Don’t break them, there are consequences when you do. The people get freaked out when G-d talks, so Moshe becomes the people’s go-between with Him. G-d tells Moshe; Moshe tells the people.
Have you ever been in a group of people who are just together, but nobody knows how they are supposed to work together as a group? Even if there is somebody who organised the get-together, it can rapidly fall apart if there is no framework to hold it together. Things turn into chaos and everybody wants to have their say in how stuff is supposed to happen. It turns into a mess of power struggles and who has the biggest mouth. Picture the TV series Survivor, but with over a million people. It gets real messy, real fast.
So the people needed to build their community. G-d told them how to organise things, what they had to do and what they could not do. Yitro showed Moshe how to set up the court system so everybody’s complaints could be heard and solutions found. G-d showed them how to set up their finance system so that it was fair and benefited everyone. He taught them how to treat their slaves, how they were to be freed and what to do if they did not want their freedom. He taught them how they should eat, what was good for them to eat and what was not.
Then He starting them on the biggest, most important building project they would have until they came to Eretz Israel. He told them how to build the mishkan or tabernacle.
Have you ever built or renovated a house? Maybe a church or synagogue? The project is huge. It takes so many people and so much time. The Israelis had built pyramids, but they stayed in one place. This building had to be mobile. They had to be able to put it together and take it apart, moving it to wherever G-d led them next. Think about the biggest tent you have ever seen or been a part of putting up. Have you ever been camping? If you used a tent, what was it like to set it up? Now multiply that hundreds of thousands of times and add another “building” big enough to hold thousands of people where ongoing sacrifices are made twice a day. Not only does G-d tell them how to build the mishkan, He tells them what needs to be put in it and where it is to be put. He is the architect, general contractor and interior decorator all rolled into one.
Picture your first house, or apartment, or maybe a huge meeting hall with a stage. There is nothing in it, just the walls and stage. How do you fix it up so that it has everything that you will need?
You need light. So G-d tells Moshe to have the people bring olive oil so the lamps can burn all the time. The lamps are supposed to be put inside the walls, but outside the rooms on the interior. They are to burn all night, every night, forever.
You need people to work in the mishkan. So G-d tells Moshe that Aharon and his sons are to work in the mishkan and Aharon is to be the team leader. They will need uniforms, so Moshe is to order uniforms from the people who know how to make these kinds of things. G-d tells them to use linen fabric and what colours it should be. Many years ago, I had a nice dress made out of linen. I can still feel the sensation of it on my skin.
He tells Moshe what the design is for the breastplate, how it should be engraved and what kinds of stones should be set in it. You know how dazzling a ring display in a jewelry store can be? Think of a piece of metal large enough to cover your entire chest. On this piece of metal are gold mountings that hold four rows of three stones each: a carnelian, a topaz, an emerald, a green feldspar, a sapphire, a diamond, an orange zircon, an agate, an amethyst, a beryl, an onyx and a jasper.
Years ago, I learned how to make beaded jewelry. I have made myself necklaces of carnelian and jasper. My engagement ring is sapphires and diamonds. I have other pieces of jewelry that are emerald, onyx and amethyst. I have seen the other stones which were contained, so I can picture these stones in gold settings imbedded in a metal breastplate. It is breath-taking.
Have you ever made clothes or had something tailored, like a suit or wedding dress? Imagine being Aharon and his sons who were being fitted for these garments, these uniforms. What was it like to stand in front of the tailors and craftsmen who were measuring and adjusting them so that everything would be exactly as G-d instructed them to make it. None of the people involved — not Aharon, his sons, the tailors or craftsmen — would ever have a job more important than the one that was in their hands at that moment. It doesn’t get any better than that. You have gone from slaves in Egypt — beaten, bloody, battered, hungry and afraid — to being the personal artisans of the Most High G-d, . . . all in a few short months. And nothing in history will even come close to this. Ever.
If this seems out of reach for you to identify with, think about this. Every single one of us have been hand selected and groomed to be G-d’s man for this moment in history in the places where He has set us. That goes for believers and unbelievers alike. And every single event that has happened in our lives, every single thing we have been witness to — no matter how much it seems to have benefited us or harmed us — has been the tools G-d has used to craft us into the instrument that He needs to do His work here and now. All of us. Let that sink in.
We are no different than these former Egyptian slaves. We have been taken from the slavery of our lives outside of G-d to the desert wilderness of lives with Him on our way to the Promised Land. Did you ever ask the questions: Why am I here? How did I get here? That is why and how. We got here because G-d led us here through the wilderness in order to be His man at this moment in history. Each and every one of us have been appointed “for such a time as this.”
When I was a young girl, I had an uncle and cousins who were butchers. I also saw my father slaughter some chickens. and used to go hunting with him for wild game. These are my points of reference when I come to Chapter 29 which outlines the sacrifices to be made.
Aharon and his sons were to go into the tabernacle, wash up and put on their uniforms, all done exactly the way G-d had instructed them. Have you ever had a job where you had to change clothes and take a shower at work? My father worked at a couple of jobs which were very dirty and had to do this.
G-d tells Moshe what he is supposed to do to consecrate, to separate out Aharon and his sons to be His priests. Moshe is to get a young bull and two rams. Then he is to get matzah, matzah cakes mixed with olive oil, and matzah wafers spread with oil, all made of fine flour, and put them in a basket.
How did we go from manna to matzah? Where did they, a nomadic people on the move, get wheat? The livestock they could have bought with them, but to grow wheat, you have to stay somewhere at least three or four months. I used to see miles after miles of wheat fields growing up. Knowing crop cycles was familiar as the weather cycles. Did they grow it or trade for it? Whichever they did, how did they know it was kosher? Today we have people whose jobs it is to make sure everything has been raised and processed correctly. How make sure these things were taken care of then? Were customs the same for them? Who was appointed to make sure these things were done according to G-d’s instructions?
Moshe was to bring the bull to the entrance to the mishkan. Aharon and his sons were to lay their hands on the bull and Moshe was to slaughter it where they stood. Several questions come to mind at this point. Why the entrance? Think about this.
You leave your home and go to the church or synagogue. There, standing on the front steps is the President, the High Priest and the remainder of the priests or the Chief Rabbi and his associate rabbis. In front of them are a young bull, two rams and a basket of bread. The President pulls out a knife, hands are laid on the bull, then the President slits the bull’s throat right where they stand with blood gushing out into a basin in front of them. The President dips his finger in the blood, still warm from the bull, and puts it on the horns of the altar behind him, then pours the rest at the bottom of the altar. What does it smell like? I have had the experience of the smell of blood in the air. I don’t know why this happens, but the iron in it leaves a metallic taste in your mouth. If that can happen just with less than a pint, what would it be like to have the amount of blood from a bull?
Once that is done, the President removes the internal fat, the liver and kidneys from the bull and puts them in the fire on the altar. Everything else is burned outside the camp because it is a sin offering. Can you picture this in your mind’s eye? How would they move the animal and its internal organs from the place where it was slaughtered to the altar and outside of the camp? What would it smell like while it was burning? Many of us have barbecued, so we know what the smell of searing meat is like. How would this compare?
Do you begin to understand the weight of sin and its consequences? But we don’t have the sacrificial system today, you might say. Oh, no? What do you call the sacrifice of Yeshua outside the walls of Jerusalem when he was nailed to stake and executed. He was sacrificed for us all. Our sin was laid on him, just like the sin of Aharon and his sons was laid on the bull.
Going back to Moshe, Aharon and his sons, they are next take to one of the rams and lay their hands on its head. Moshe is to slaughter the ram, take its blood and splash it on all of the sides of the altar. Then he is to cut the ram in quarters, take all the internal organs and wash them, then put the entire ram on the altar to be burned up completely. The Scripture calls this “a pleasing aroma, an offering made to Adonai by fire.”
What does this look like? What are the sounds of the animals as they are led to the slaughter? How much time does it take to do these things? Where are the people and what are they thinking and feeling? What happens to the water used to wash the sacrificed animals?
Take the other ram, Moshe is told. Once again Aharon and his sons lay hands on the animal’s head. It is slaughtered, then Moshe takes some of the blood and puts it on the right earlobe, right thumbs and right big toes of Aharon and his sons. If you are Aharon and his sons, what are you feeling right now? You have been taking part in this ritual slaughter of these animals for several hours. The blood of these animals now has been put on your body. In a few moments, some of the olive oil is sprinkled on you and your clothes as well as on your sons and their clothes. Next you are handed the fat from the ram, the fat from the tail, the fat that covers the inner organs, the two kidneys and the fat covering them, the right thigh, one loaf of bread, one cake of oiled bread, and one wafer from the basket of matzah that is sitting before Adonai. You and your sons are all standing there with these items in your hands. You then raise your arms and wave them as a wave offering before Adonai. What is it like to hold these things in your hands and wave them before the Most High G-d? What is it like to know that this is what is required to be set apart for His service?
When we are asked to do something in our congregations or our communities, do we have any understanding of the price that has been paid in the past for and by those who would serve Adonai? How many times do we feel irritated or insulted because we are being asked to do something that may not be convenient or to our liking? Where is our consecration? What do we hold in higher value, our own lives and priorities or what G-d asks of us? That is not to say that we are not consecrated to G-d’s service unless we are constantly at church or shul “doing His will.” His mishkan is not limited to the meeting house, it is wherever He puts us to serve. But we are called to serve, it is not optional.
These sacrifices were also laid upon the altar on top of the burnt offering to be “a pleasing aroma before Adonai, . . . an offering made to Adonai by fire.”
The breast of the ram was for Aharon’s consecration to be waved as a wave offering before Adonai. The breast and thigh were for Aharon and his sons forever, a peace offering from the people of Israel, their contribution to Adonai.
The holy garments of Aharon were to be used by his sons after him. His sons were to be anointed and consecrated in them. The son who was to become High Priest was to wear the garments for seven days. Have you ever worn clothes a second day? Or gotten food on your clothes and had to wait to change them? What was it like for the High Priest to wear these garments which had been sprinkled with olive oil for seven days running? In the desert?
Moshe was to take the ram of consecration and boil it in a holy place. Aharon and his sons were then to eat the ram’s meat and the remainder of the bread in the basket at the entrance to the mishkan, the very same place where the slaughtering had been done. No one else was allowed to eat this food because it was holy. Would you be able to eat in such a place? I’m not a very squeamish person at all, however, I must confess, this does not seem to be something I would be able to do. Yet Aharon and his sons were required to do it. Any meat or bread left over the next morning was to be burned because it was holy.
After the description of these events, I’m tired just thinking about all that has occurred, but there is more. It was not enough that Aharon and his sons were consecrated on this one day. They were to be consecrated for a total of seven days.
Every day for seven days a bull was offered as a sin offering. Atonement and consecration was made on the altar, which became especially holy, so that whatever touched it became holy.
On a daily basis, a year-old lamb was sacrificed in the morning and another year-old lamb at dusk, along with two quarts of finely ground flour mixed with one quart of olive oil, and one quart of wine. This was the regular burnt offering, grain offering and drink offering made to Adonai every day. Can you fathom what this means? Seven hundred and thirty lambs were sacrificially slaughtered every single year. In the same place — at the entrance to the mishkan. Every single person who went to the mishkan had to pass through this place. What kind of an impact would it have if we saw animals ritually slaughtered every single day for our benefit? Would we understand then what it meant to buy our freedom with the life of an innocent? Would we identify with these animals? Somebody had to raise them and feed them until they went to the mishkan for sacrifice. Someone had to love these animals. What do we have that we love this much? Do we have anything that is this precious to us? Do we understand how much we have been loved by G-d for Him to send Yeshua to die in our place?
In wrapping up this part of the story, G-d told Moshe that the regular burnt offerings were to be made throughout all generations at the entrance to the mishkan. How are those burnt offerings made today?
G-d said that the entrance to the mishkan is where He would meet with Israel and the place would be consecrated by His glory. He brought them out of Egypt in order to live with them and be their G-d. What has He brought us out of in order to live with us and be our G-d? All of us have been brought out of something, but does G-d live with us and is He our G-d? From what I hear in the street and sometimes in my own house, I have my questions about how much any of us understand that Adonai Tz’va’ot is in truth our G-d. We seem to think that He is an optional accessory to our lives, important in time of trouble, but an impediment the remainder. At best, we do not understand Who He is and what He has done to make us His people. At worst, we understand but reject His right as the Most High G-d to have authority over our lives. But like with any laws, our rejection of the law does not make the law invalid. It still remains as authoritative as it ever was. It is no different with G-d.
A FRAGRANT INCENSE
The remainder of this week’s Parasha talks about the altar on which the incense was to be burned. I’m a child of the 60s. It is not an uncommon occurrence for my house to be filled with incense.
The altar was to be made of acacia wood, eighteen inches square and three feet high. Both the horns and the altar were to be one piece of wood. It was to be covered with gold with golden rings for the carrying poles, which were also overlaid with gold. There Aharon was to offer incense in the morning and when he prepared the lamps before dusk. This was also to be done through all generations “as a pleasing aroma.”
WHERE ARE WE?
We have been given a great gift. It is up to us whether we will be open to G-d, allowing Him to bring the Scriptures alive in our hearts and minds. He will use our own experiences in life to make it real to us if we are willing. It can be the cloud by day and pillar of fire by night for all of us to see and follow. Will you let it become real to you?
— J. E. Clark / 10 February 2011