How Now Red Cow?
It's all very confusing this time of year. Every shabbat we wonder, is this a two Torah shabbat or is there only one. If it's a two Torah shabbat, what's the name this week, and why, pray tell, do we need to read this now. Here's some basic information.
Before Passover there are four special parshas (parshiyot) which are required reading. Prior to or on the first of Adar, we read Parshat Shekalim (Exodus 30:11-16) (Shekels) which make everyone aware that its time to ante up for the maintenance and upkeep of the Temple. In order to keep us in synch with what was happening when the Temple was still with us, we read this Parsha at the time when messengers were sent out throughout Israel to collect the half shekel tribute.
We then skip a week until we get to the shabbat before Purim, Parshat Zachor (Deuteronomy 25:17-19) where we fulfill the mitzvah of remembering what Amalek did to us and to obliterate his memory. Since Haman, a possible descendant of Amaleq and certainly a fellow traveler this portion is read as we prepare for Purim.
Then we have Parshat Parah (Numbers 19:1-22) which is read to remind us that before we partake of the Passover sacrificial meal, all of Israel must purify itself from any contact it may have had with the dead.
The last Parsha is Pashat Hachodesh, (Exodus 12:1-20) the Parsha of the new month of Nissan which is the month of our redemption. It recounts that this month is the beginning of the months of the Jewish year and the Torah always refers to this month as the "first month" as opposed to the first of Tishrei when we celebrate Rosh Hashana which the Torah counts as the seventh month.
Note that the first order of business is to finance the communal practices. The next order of business is to prepare for an upcoming feast, Purim, by connecting it to events that occurred in the Torah. The third order is to purify our bodies before we celebrate our redemption and the fourth is to prepare our consciousness for the beginning of our redemption.
GETTING TOGETHER, BUT FOR WHAT PURPOSE?
A traditional way to approach these parshas is to focus on one verse, remove it from its context, and then find a midrash which through a very close or one might say hyper-literal reading emerges with a message of moral, theological, or philosophical import. These are the layers of meaning which the tradition views as embedded in every single word. Unlike the more racy narratives in the Torah, the dryness of the details of this parsha makes us run to the midrash for something that makes this material "come alive". In this teaching we will compare two very different kinds of "assemblies" which may have more in common than we would like to think.
Last week, our ancestors were told to contribute with their half-shekels, Moshe goes up for forty days, the people miscalculate--or Moshe was late--and the people panic with a golden calf. Read Chapter 32 of last week's parsha and then read chapter 35 of this week's parsha. I have excerpted the verses which should be emphasized for this teaching.
Your Torah Navigator
1. Both the golden calf and the assembly of the holy Tabernacle begin with the same verb "Assembled." Note the difference in the two "assemblies".
2. The children of Israel willingly contribute to the golden calf (with the noteworthy exception of the women, according to the midrash) and also generously contribute to the Tabernacle, (see Ex. 36:5-6) What need motivates them in each case? Is it the same?
3. In the case of the Golden Calf, who does the calf represent for the children of Israel, God or Moshe?
4. Why does Moshe open his assembly with instructions regarding Shabbat? What does Shabbat have to do with the Tabernacle?
5. How does Moshe set up his assembly? How is Aharon "set up" for his? Why do the people give Aharon any authority at all? What does that say about their rebellion?
1 Now when the people saw that Moshe was shamefully-late in coming down from the mountain, THE PEOPLE ASSEMBLED AGAINST AHARON and said to him: Arise, make us a god who will go before us, for this Moshe, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him!
2 Aharon said to them: Break off the gold rings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons and your daughters, and bring (them) to me.
3 All the people broke off the gold rings that were in their ears, and brought (them) to Aharon.
4 He took (them) from their hand, fashioned it with a graving-tool, and made it into a molten calf. Then they said: This is your God, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!
1 Now MOSHE ASSEMBLED THE ENTIRE COMMUNITY of the Children of Israel and said to them: These are the words that YHWH has commanded, to do them:
2 For six days is work to be made, but on the seventh day, there is to be holiness for you, Sabbath, Sabbath-Ceasing for YHWH; whoever makes work on it is to be put-to-death!
3 You are not to let fire burn throughout all your settlements on the Sabbath day.
4 Now Moshe spoke to the entire community of the Children of Israel, saying: This is the matter that YHWH has commanded, saying:
5 Take, from yourselves, a raised-contribution for YHWH, whoever is of willing mind is to bring it, YHWH?s contribution: gold, silver, and bronze,
6 blue-violet, purple, worm-scarlet, byssus and goats?-hair,
7 rams? skins dyed-red, tanned-leather skins, acacia wood, 1Fox, Everett, The Five Books of Moshe, (New York: Schocken Books Inc.) 1995.
Your Navigator Concludes
The difference between a sacred assembly and a crowd is often a fine one. In this case it hinges upon who does the assembling and for what purpose. Moshe sanctifies his assembly by reminding the community of the sanctification of time, and then he urges them to contribute to a sacred place. The urge of the people to have some physical conduit to God whether it be Moses, a calf, or a Mishkan may come from the darkest place of passion. How those passions are channeled will make the difference between an idolatrous orgy or a sacred assembly.
Prepared by Rabbi Avi Weinstein, Director, Hillel's Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning.