Torah Ecology: Vayakhel-Pekudei 2018 (Ex. 35:1-40:38)

Last year when I worked with this portion, I was struck with the ongoing “love story” these portions in Exodus tell, a love story between G-d and the Israelites. In Ki Tissa, I felt the deep wound in the relationship that resulted from the Israelite betrayal in the Golden Calf episode. In this week’s portion, I felt the deep love and devotion, sincere contrition and poignant vulnerability of the people as they brought their gifts for building the Tabernacle in such abundance that the leadership had to call a halt to their giving.

In this portion, I noticed Aaron’s fall from grace. This year, I see that the fall from grace was accompanied by a relationship — for a brief time — without sacrifice. In Ex. 33:7-11, Moses takes the Tent of Meeting outside Tabernacle, even outside the camp, and meets with G-d in that space without a sacrifice as the people watch from a distance. In Ex. 34:28, Moses “was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights,” and parallel to offering no sacrifice, no “food” for G-d, “ate no bread and drank no water.” This brief time without sacrifice and without killing for food reflects the vision of Gen. 1-3, a world without bloodshed, without sacrifice and without killing for food — a world of continuity between the divine realm, the human realm and the rest of creation.

In terms of allusion to that vision of Gen. 1-3, there is one more point of interest in this week’s portion, and that is, the Sabbath requirement in Ex. 35:2-3: “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day.”

The words repeat salient points from Ex. 31:12-17: “You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin. Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed.”

The version “later” in the narrative adds the fire prohibition; the “earlier” version adds the specific creation reference. Both decree death for those who work on the Sabbath. Neither references the vision of Gen. 1-3, a world without bloodshed, sacrifice or killing for food. For that, we have to return to a still “earlier” segment of the narrative, Ex. 20:8-11: “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work — you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.”

This last set of verses not only alludes to the vision of Gen. 1-3 but certifies the significance of it as it recreates a space in time when there is a seamless continuity between the worlds of divine and human and the rest of creation, when all live harmoniously in freedom. Not coincidentally, I believe, these verses don’t mention death for a failure to observe the work prohibition.

THE ANIMALS’ STORY

These animal verses in Vayakhel-Pekudei continue to develop the overall narrative theme that moves toward the priestly preoccupation of Vayikra/Leviticus. Instead of recreating the vision of Gen. 1-3 as Ex. 20 does, Ex. 31 and 33 allude to and reinterpret that vision through an exchange expressed in the sacrifice, a blood exchange that connects human sin, death, sacrifice and human sustenance, including killing other creatures for food, in an intricate weave:

Ex. 35:6 – [gifts for the Lord] …blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood…

Ex. 35:23 – And everyone who had in his possession blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair, tanned ram skins, and dolphin skins, brought them…

Ex. 35:26 – And all the women who excelled in that skill spun the goats’ hair.

Ex. 36:14 – They made cloths of goats’ hair for a tent over the Tabernacle; they made the cloths eleven in number.

Ex. 36:19 – And they made a covering of tanned ram skins for the Tent, and a covering of dolphin skins above.

Ex. 38:3 – He made all the utensils of the altar — the pails, The scrapers, the basins, the flesh hooks, and the fire pans…

Ex. 39:34 – [Then they brought the Tabernacle to Moses…] …the covering of tanned ram skins, the covering of dolphin skins, and the curtain for the screen…

Ex. 40:29 – At the entrance of the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting he placed the altar of burnt offering. On it he offered up the burnt offering and the meal offering — as the Lord had commanded Moses.

Viewing the same story through different lenses deepens my appreciation for the text. I once looked through the lens of meals in Genesis. Now I’m looking through the lens of animals in the Torah. It’s a different project from “seeing what the Torah says about animals.” It’s more about establishing an idea of the overall story, its themes and the strategies it uses to express them, then viewing the same overall story from a different angle. In this project, I have seen how the animals’ story is a subtext of the Israelites’ story, reflecting and echoing the Israelite experience while at the same time traveling its own path, as the animals lose status in relation to the vision of Gen. 1-3.

By now as we cross into the priestly narrative, it occurs to me that the story is fully anthropocentric: all of creation is here to serve human needs even as the Israelites, indeed all humans, are required to demonstrate compassion to animals. Still, animals are not only food but substitute for Israelite lives in the sacrifice. They are the centerpoint between divine and human worlds, feeding both at the sacrificial table, transforming the Israelites as they themselves are transformed into smoke.

The love story in which the Israelites bring all their finest items so generously and lavishly to donate for G-d’s home among them, the desert Tabernacle, looks different viewed through the lens of the animals whose lives and blood were the anonymous medium of exchange in that holy space.

I wonder if the Israelites in the meta-narrative experienced and felt the enormity of this sacrifice on their behalf? The seven Noahide laws require of all people that they not subject animals to unnecessary suffering, and there are other passages in the Torah that demonstrate and require compassion for animals, recognizing that they have a soul. Finally, though, the animals’ story is secondary to the Israelites’ story, and their sacrifice, their skins and hair and blood and bodies, though so much greater than the human sacrifice, doesn’t generate specific recognition like the Israelite’s gifts of jewels and gold. Their silent suffering is unremarked.

The subtext, though, repeats the allusion to the creation story as Moses reflects the original vision, a world without bloodshed, as he meets with G-d on the mountain and in the Tent of Meeting. The vision of the sabbath that recreates Gen. 1-3 also reflects that vision, a space and time in which all creatures are free and there is no sacrifice and no killing for food (Ex. 20:8-11). I like to think this glance back to a primordial status for all creatures, indeed all of creation, is also a look forward, a hope for future fulfillment.

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