The Relevance of the Irrelevant
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
The Relevance of the Irrelevant
Caught somewhere between the slavery narrative of the Book of Exodus and the wilderness stories of the Book of Numbers, lies the vast expanse (dare I say ‘wasteland’) of technical details of Leviticus. The construction of the Tabernacle, the detailing of the Priestly garments, the instructions on how to perform the sacrificial cult and – to top it all of with – the purity laws regulating conduct around bodily fluids, secretions, corpses, insects and weird types of house mold: great fun!
Usually, when we are presented with such difficult, grating or dull texts, we have a few hermeneutical options—that is, ways to interpret said texts so that we can make sense of them.
Our first option would be to ignore the text. We’re just not going to talk about all that icky, boring, irrelevant stuff. However, this is neither intellectually nor spiritually satisfying. We can’t just ignore whole swaths of our tradition just because we don’t like it!
Our second option is to engage in apologetics. In other words, we try to justify the text: maybe the temple, sacrifices and purity laws were a good thing? Maybe people need rules to abide by. Perhaps we just have to accept Divine wisdom and go with it?
Well, to be honest, this might be an even less enticing option than option #1. Just like we cannot ignore the tradition, we cannot ignore our critical thinking skills or the demands of contemporary life.
So our third options is to look at the bigger picture. In Pekudei, both the Parashah and the Haftarah deal with the minutiae of the Temple cult. In the Torah portion, we look at the collection of funds, the creation of the tabernacle implements and the garments of the priesthood. The Haftarah, which is from First Kings, chapters 7 and 8 is the perfect parallel text to the portion. Where it is Betzalel and Oholiab who oversee the work on the Mishkan in the Torah, it is Hiram, the son of a Naphtalite woman and Tyrian man (a mixed marriage of sorts) who oversees the work on the Beit Mikdash, the Temple. Like Betzalel a few parshiyot ago, Hiram is also described as ‘veyimale et hachochmah v’et hat’vunah v’et hada’at’ – ‘he was filled with wisdom, with insight and with knowledge’ (1 Kings 7:14). You might remember that a few weeks ago, I gave a sermon at how we can view those particular qualities in our own lives. Then the Biblical text slips into a detailed account of the building of the Temple until, strikingly, just like the parashah, we read about the Divine Presence hovering over both the Mishkan and the Beit haMikdash. We read:
‘Vayichas he’anan et ohel mo’ed uv’chabod Adonai male et haMishkan…’ – ‘And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the Eternal’s glory filled the Tabernacle. And Moses was not able to come into the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled on it and the Eternal’s glory filled the Tabernacle. And when the cloud was lifted from on the Tabernacle, the children of Israel would travel… because the Eternal’s cloud was on the Tabernacle by day, and fire would be in it at night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel in all their travels.’ (Ex. 40:34-38).
Likewise, in the Book of Kings, we read:
‘When the priests came out of the sanctuary—for the cloud had filled the House of the Eternal and the pirests were not able to remain and perform the services because of the cloud, for the Presence of the Eternal filled the House of the Eternal—then Solomon declared:--Adonai amar lishkon ba’arfel: banoh banati beit zevul lach machon lishivt’cha olamim—The Eternal has chosen to abide in a thick cloud: I have now built for You a stately House, a place where You may dwell forever.’ (1 Kings 8:10-13).
It is the cloud – the Divine Presence – that provides us with that bigger picture that grants us a justification of the seemingly irrelevant minutiae, the droll descriptions of nuts and bolts, warp and weft, linen and wool, copper, gold and silver. Maybe we need the detailed focus to see the global perspective. Maybe we need the tangible and the material as the vessel for the intangible, the fleeting, the transcendent. Maybe these parts of the Torah teach us a great deal about the balancing of the material and immaterial in our own lives. Perhaps there is a lesson in here the unhinged and detached spirituality doesn’t work; that we need grounding in the nitty-gritty of life, in the economy of the soul. Pekudei calls us to account, literally and figuratively, on how we build spaces and rituals to receive what is good, true and holy in our lives—not as disembodied principles but as a formidable reality.
There’s a curious passage in the Talmud, Masechet Yoma 4b:
‘Rav Zerika raised the following contradiction: One verse reads, "And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of meeting because the cloud rested on it," whereas another verse (Ex. 24:18) says: "And Moses entered into the midst of the cloud"?‘
So, is the cloud a barrier to or an expression of Divine intimacy? And does the world of ‘things’ hinder or help us in our connection to the Eternal? Maybe the biggest picture of all is that it depends on the intention we bring to the encounter. On how we make the seemingly irrelevant relevant to our calling of living meaningful lives. If we are distracted by our worldly possessions, we, like Moses, may not be able to enter the Ohel Mo’ed, the Tent of Meeting. But if we sanctify and affirm the profundity of our earthly existence, then the Divine Presence will enfold us like a cloud, guide us like a pillar of fire and we will have full access to the depth and wisdom of our tradition and our own conscience. Leviticus and this part of Exodus is full of the drudgery of managing life: the Biblical equivalent of doing your online banking, decluttering your attic, schlepping through the supermarket on a Thursday evening, scrubbing the floor after yet another spill-up (can you tell we live with a toddler?) and yet we do all these things because they aid us in a life lived well: of feeding and sheltering the ones we love, of cultivating our inner lives and engaging righteously with the world.
It seems like a good place to start.