There is an arc to everything. Rising, falling, rising again. Certainly this true of any relationship, and any well-told story. We have both at this time as we delve into the Book of Exodus, now and on through the rest of the spring.
I recently was the grateful recipient of some teaching by my colleague and friend, Rabbi Marc Belgrad, leader of the new congregation B'chavana, (www.bchavana.org) at a recent Kabbalat Shabbat. There, he laid out a structure for the book of Exodus, based on the work of Biblical scholar and translator Everett Fox. He divided the book into six moments, the third one being the pinnacle of the book, the event at Sinai and the giving of the Covenant. Many commentators refer to that as the moment that the people of Israel and God "got married," where the Torah was the marriage contract (ketubah) and the mountain itself as the marriage canopy (chuppah). We entered into a life-long relationship with God, subject to, and beneficiaries of, all the highs and lows of any relationship.
Leading up to this pinnacle in the early chapters of Exodus are Moses' receiving his mission in life, the encounters with Pharaoh, the plagues, and leading the people out. After the pinnacle, as with life, we go to the details of building a life together. Where will we live? God answers, "v'asuli mikdash v'tochanti b'tocham"… "build Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell with them." How to build the house? Well, most of the rest of the book is consumed with those details: how to build the sanctuary and then building it. Chapters 25-31, and again 35-40 are almost identical. Here's how to build it. And they built it.
Except for one little part in between. Two chapters, 32-34, tell the story of the Golden Calf, the rebellion, the painful fall, when Israel "cheated" on God. It was devastating. It undermined everything that the people had started to build, literally, with God, unraveling the edges of the fragile trust that had just started being woven between the two.
So here we have this blow to a budding relationship smack in between the blueprints of the home to be built, and the actual building of that home. The Torah tells us very clearly that every member of the community was involved in the building of the Mishkan (portable tabernacle in the desert). Everyone had something to do to make it not only beautiful, but strong. It was the epitome of temporary permanence, since it was designed to be packed up and moved when the people moved. When it was set up, it was the center of their lives, and even when the people were on the march, the Mishkan was at the center of the carefully planned moving community, protected on all sides. Did those blueprints seem different to the people now? Did they approach the careful details of each corner of the Mishkan with different kavanah (intention) then they did in the glow of the momentous experience of the "wedding?"
I think so. I think attending to those details would have been bittersweet—hopeful, remindful, tender, but still with a little bit of ache. We are changed when trust is broken, and even if we spend the time building things back together again, there are traces of the tears at the seams. But those may be the places where extra care is taken, to make sure they're strong again, able to withstand the pressure of life.
The infidelity of the Golden Calf may have been the lowest point in the relationship between Israel and God, but it didn't end there. Perhaps building the home they would share from then on was painstaking—in a literal sense—taking the pain and incorporating it into their future together. Today, each time we face an Ark, in any congregation, anywhere, we can recall the precious path that got us there. We look at the Torah, our ketubah with God, and see it protected, held sacred. Each week we check back in with it, reading it little by little. We would probably do well to read our own ketubot every once in a while, especially those of us who wrote our own meaningful language into them, as my husband and I did.
The arc of the book of Exodus leads to the Ark, and the details of what was built there not only mirrors our own relationships today; it provides a blueprint on how to build, establish and when needed, repair them, ensuring a future.
Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems, www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com.