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A Cover-Up of Biblical Proportions

by Rabbi YY Jacobson

The Truth, the Whole Truth and…

Harry gets stopped by a police car. When the police officer gets to his car, Harry says, "What's the problem officer?"

Officer: You were going at least 65 in a 50mph zone.

Harry: No sir, I was going 50.

Wife: Oh Harry, You were going 70.

Harry gives his wife a dirty look.

Officer: I will also give you a ticket for your broken brake light.

Harry: Broken brake light? I didn't know about a broken brake light!

Wife: Oh Harry, you've known about that brake light for months.

Harry gives his wife a really dirty look.

Officer: I am also going to book you for not wearing your seat belt.

Harry: Oh, I just took it off when you were walking up to the car.

Wife: Oh Harry, you never wear your seat belt.

Harry turns to his wife and yells, "Shut your mouth!"

Officer turns to the woman and says, "Madam, does your husband talk to you this way all the time?"

Wife: "No, only when he's drunk…"

Smooth or Problematic?

In the Torah, the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle)—culminated in the Torah portion of this week Vayakhel-Pekudei—is presented as a seamless flow of command, collection, and finally, construction. G-d commands Moses, Moses presents the people with the plans, the people respond over-enthusiastically, donating more than necessary (for the first and last time in Jewish history…), and all Moses has to do is tell them when to stop. The construction goes ahead according to plan, and in no time at all—six months in total (compare that with construction nowadays)—the Mishkan is up and ready to function.

However, the student of Midrash—the Talmudic and Midrashic commentary to the Torah, transmitted orally throughout the generations till transcribed—makes aware of the “politics” behind the events. It was anything but smooth. The Midrash[1] tells us, shockingly, that there were those who suspected Moses of pocketing funds and they insolently demanded that Moses make an accounting for every ounce of every item. Moses conceded to their demands and humbly presented a detailed account of every “dollar” collected for the grandiose “building campaign.”

The Midrash[2] also tells us that Moses actually forgot what he did with some of the silver, and the rumors began circulating… The Rabbi is driving a new BMW… Who paid for his cruise to the Bahamas… How did he manage to buy the 2 million dollar home for his daughte? How can he afford such a grandiose wedding?... Did you see his new kitchen?… Till Moses reminded himself that he used them for hooks on the pillars in the Tabernacle, and the Jews calmed down.

There was another obstacle in the process. There were times—the Midrash tells us—when Moses struggled with understanding G-d’s directions, and G-d had to show him a detailed vision of what He wanted.[3] Once, during the formation of the Menorah, the sages relate, that too did not work. Moses completely gave up and G-d had to make the menorah Himself.

Then the Sanctuary was completed much earlier than expected, and it had to remain idle for three months.[4]

When the time came for the actual erection of the Mishkan, they again ran into a glitch: No-one could succeed in lifting the walls. Even collectively, it was impossible. Imagine the anti-climax, the fear that all was in vain. At the end, Moses miraculously lifted the beams alone.

Yet all of these parts of the story are completely ignored in the biblical text itself. There are a few tantalizing hints, but overall, the story presented in the Torah is one of a holistic, pure, and ideal experience. No glitches, no politics, no accusations, no problems; a perfectly smooth ride.

One wonders how do we reconcile the biblical and oral traditions? If the Midrashic traditions are presenting what happened, why are these details ignored in the biblical text? Is the Torah trying to brush over the disturbing truths? Is the Torah teaching us to repress uncomfortable facts; to ignore the real story, to make believe everything is “perfect” when in fact it’s far from it? And if so, why did the Rabbis in the Midrash “ruin the party” and “spill the beans”?

Creation Cover-Ups

This is not the only incident with this birthmark. We find this tendency twice more.

The opening of Genesis records eloquently but concisely the facts of creation and it sounds like a pretty smooth sailing. “In the beginning G-d created heaven and earth…” Over the next six days, a universe is formed. The Talmud and the Midrash, however, tell us that even G-d ran into some seemingly unexpected delays and had to make some serious alterations. Each of the six days presented another challenge.

For starters, the Midrash relates[5] that the attribute of Truth opposed creation, and G-d had to cast Truth away in order to create our universe. The sages also relate that G-d attempted to create the world with the quality of Judgment and was forced to retract to Mercy when He saw that the world could not handle it.[6]

Then: He created light on the first day, hoping it would serve all of creation, but it was too great and luminescent and He deemed it useless (and had to stow it away as a reward for only the truly meritorious.)[7]

Next: On the second day, he constructed heaven and separated higher waters from lower waters. According to the Midrash, the lower waters “revolted” and are still weeping about their rejection.[8]

Next: On the third say, G-d designed trees with edible branches, but the trees disobeyed and produced only edible fruit.[9] Next: On the fourth day, the sun and the moon were created to be equals, the moon complained that “two kings cannot serve with one crown,” and hence the luminaries were altered as the moon was diminished.[10]

Next: On Thursday, G-d created the fish, including the Leviathan. Then, realizing that if the Leviathan would procreate, it would spell the end of the planet, He killed the partner of the Leviathan.[11] Next: On Friday, when He wished to create man, the angels in heaven complained it would be a fatal mistake.[12] Indeed, shortly Adam and Eve were created they disobeyed G-d commandment to refrain from eating the Tree of knowledge.

Yet, none of these “glitches” or “issues” are recorded explicitly in the actual biblical text. There it is as smooth a process as can be. How can we make sense of this shocking discrepancy?

Even more perplexing is the fact that following the six days of creation, the Torah sums it all up with these stunning words:

וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד וַיְהִי עֶרֶב וַיְהִי בֹקֶר יוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי.

And G-d saw all that He made and it was very good.

Very good? Really? Each day brought another headache, another melt down, and another crisis. What makes it so good?

The Second Cover Up

The Tanach describes glowingly and in minute detail the materials and construction and dedication of the First Temple built in Jerusalem without the hint of a glitch. Yet the Midrash adds the “problematic” information: During construction they hit a underground spring that threatened to flood the entire world;[13] at what was to be the climactic finale, the entering of the Ark to the Holy-of-Holies, the gates refused to open against all efforts.[14]

According to the Midrash,[15] the entire dedication of the First Holy Temple was heavily delayed, because the night before King Solomon married the daughter of Pharaoh and he slept in! It was his mother, Bat Sheba, who had to enter his bedroom, wake him up and chastise him for over sleeping on the day the Temple was to be dedicated.

We are left with a striking enigma: The biblical text ignores the disturbing details. Then the rabbis come and share with us “the rest of the story.” Why?

What Is Your Story?

The answer is a crucial and profound lesson in life. The Torah is not trying to hide anything (a general pattern in Torah is it tolerates no cover ups, for anybody), and that is why the Sages felt comfortable exposing all of the details. Rather, the Torah is telling us that when one develops a proper perspective at his or her life, the problems do not always deserve to be mentioned. Not because they don’t exist, but because they don’t define the story of our lives, and therefore we can decide not to make them part of the story.

In each of these three series of events—creation of the universe; construction of the Sanctuary and the Jerusalem Temple—something awesomely cataclysmic and earth-shattering is occurring. The infinite fuses with the finite; the impossible becomes possible, Man meets G-d and G-d meets Man. Out of cosmological emptiness and infinite Divinity creation develops; something-ness is made out of nothingness. G-d “squeezes” his omnipotence and omnipresence into a Mishkan (sanctuary) of a few square cubits, into a building of stone, into the heart of mortal man.

This, then, is THE story; this is what happened. The bumps on the road, true as they may be, do not constitute the story, not because they didn’t happen, but because they are not what really happened; they should not, they cannot, obscure or even dampen the majestic power and beauty of the events.

The Torah is teaching us how to live. Life is tough. The really important things are even tougher. To raise and support a family requires strength and courage. To build a good marriage is often taxing and difficult. To develop a relationship with G-d may be frustrating and lonely. Many things will not work out as we hoped they would. We face adversity, grief and loss. There are inevitably times of pain and heartbreak. There are quarrels and squabbles, moments of anger and setbacks. We must confront depression, illness, mental challenges, financial stress, and spiritual confusion.

But we have the choice not to make them THE story of our lives. Sure, raising children is challenging, but when you gaze into the loving and trusting eyes of your child—that is THE miracle of existence, not the challenges leading toward that moment. When you connect to your spouse in a truly meaningful way, in a moment of real camaraderie and respect—that is the miracle of love playing itself out in your life. A bad day at work, hours of frustration in running your business, all melt away before the power of something so much greater, so much more real—your growth as a human being and your ability to help others with your money and your experience.

We must look at our lives and ask what is the real story happening here? Is my life a story of hardship and struggle, or am I part of something incredible: I am building a home for G-d; I am constructing a fragment of heaven on planet earth; I am building a Jewish family, a loving marriage; I am helping people; I have the privilege of studying Torah, of spreading Torah, of doing a mitzvah, of inspiring others to light up the world. This is my story; this is my life. The other parts are of course also true, and deserve to be acknowledged as such, much as the Midrash acknowledges the other side of the story with creation, the Mishkan and the Temple. I must deal with every challenge and I must attempt to repair it, but I cannot allow it to become THE STORY.

Here we have the origin of what is known today as Narrative Therapy many thousands of years ago. Each of us has the choice to define and reframe the story of our lives.

When I wake up in the morning, I know that I have fifty things to do today, most of them are not fun; some are difficult and frustrating. But that is not THE story. The real story is captured in the words a Jew says the moment he or she opens his eyes: “Modeh ani lefanecha… shehechezarta bi nishmasi…” I am alive; G-d gave me back my soul for another day. Gevald! How awesome is that. I can now talk to G-d face to face, learn Torah, pray, share my heart and love with another human being, give charity, and become an ambassador for love, light and hope. I can embrace an aching soul, and touch a bleeding heart. Now that’s a life!

Yes, I got to pay my bills, I have to deal with headaches, I need to catch the bank, I have to fix my garage, I need to call my son’s principle, I have to pick up the cleaners, I need to go to the dentist, and I need to pay back the loan. But do not let that become the story of your life. Stay focused on the real story – that at every moment you can construct a home for G-d in your corner of the world and bring redemption one step closer.[16]

My Dear Student

This week we commemorated the yartzeit to a former student, Nadiv Kehaty. Only 30 years old, a loving husband, and the father of four young children, his sudden passing left a family and a community in shock.

Nadiv’s very presence made you feel how much possibility life contained, if it was filled with laughter, love and innocence. For Nadiv, all of life consisted of one story: An opportunity to laugh and make others laugh.

I was a teacher, sitting at my desk in the lecture hall, presenting a class to 25 students. I was focused, immersed and serious. But then, suddenly, one student leaped into the classroom, jumped over the tables, and after listening to a few sentences, exclaimed with his genuine giggle and pure selflessness: “Rabbi, you are awesome; I love you!”

This was Nadiv on a regular day. I’d melt away. It was clear that his soul was sent to this world to teach us how to love and laugh.

I love you too, Nadiv.


To comment on this essay, please click here.

 

[1] Shemos Rabbah 51:6
[2] Ibid.
[3] Shemos Rabbah 52:4
[4] Shemos Rabbah 52:2
[5] Bereishis Rabbah 8:5
[6] Berishis Rabbah 12:15. Rashi Genesis 1:1
[7] Talmud Chagigah 12a
[8] Tikunei Zohar Tikun 5 (19b).
[9] Rashi Genesis 1:12
[10] Talmud Chulin 60b
[11] Rashi Genesis 1:21
[12] Midrash Tehilim 8:2
[13] Talmud Sukkah 53a
[14] Talmud Shabbos 30a
[15] Bamidbar Rabbah 10:4
[16] My thanks to Rabbi Avraham David Shlomo for his help in preparing this essay.

 

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