The Silent Work – Torah Portion Vayakhel – Pekudei 2023

March 18, 2023



The Silent Work

Vayakhel – Pekudei 2023


This week’s double portion, Vaykhel-Pekudei (Exodus 35:1  – 40:38 is about the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, an accounting of the material used, and the actual dedication of the Mishkan. I would like to focus in these few words on what happened just before the people got to work building the Mishkan.


We’ll go back a little to the giving of the 10 Commandments in Exodus chapter 20. There is a well-known rabbinic commentary on that foundational event in the Jewish religion. Think of the commentary as a poem. Here is my paraphrasing and commentary on the poem.


“When God began to speak the 10 Commandments, the people said ‘This is too much to bear. Just speak the first commandment, and let Moses tell us the rest.’”


If God would speak to you, say a few things that you must know and must do, and a few things you must never do, do you know in your heart of hearts what God would say? Could you bear it? We might say, “Please just keep it brief.”


“God begins to speak only the first commandment. The people said, ‘This is too much to bear. Just speak the first word of the first commandment, and let Moses tell us the rest.’”


Even that first commandment was too much. Not the content of the commandment, perhaps, but the fact that the heart of the universe peered into your heart and had something to say.


You see where this is going.


“God began to say just the first word of the 10 Commandments,  ‘Anokhi,’ ‘I.’ The people said, ‘This is too much to bear. Just say the first letter.’”


God’s saying “I” implied a “You” coming up next. The people weren’t ready for an “I and You” moment with God.


The first letter of the first word of the 10 Commandments, “Anokhi,” is the silent “aleph” – not “ahh” – just nothing. Aleph is a placeholder for a vowel. We assume that God articulated the silent aleph. The story ends here.


What happened? God communicated to the people the “silence before speech”. According to the story, Moses hears the rest, and then God writes the words on stone tablets. Moses is to deliver this petrified (as in turned to stone) speech to the people.


Last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, tells us how that went. Not well. The day that Moses was to arrive, the people broke bad. They had Aaron form the Molten Calf. According to Exodus 32, they danced and frenzied and worshipped the idol that Aaron formed.


I don’t buy that. I don’t think they really worshipped the Molten Calf. I think they needed to do something, anything, to get that silent aleph out of their heads. That silent aleph was driving them crazy.


The story in Exodus chapter 32 tells us that Moses smashed the petrified commandments, thinking that the Israelites didn’t deserve them, that they had committed apostasy. God backed Moses up. I think Moses and God, as presented in this story, were too angry to understand what was really going on. Like the speech of God engraved on the Tablets, the people were petrified, but as in terrified.


They were not guilty of apostasy, in my mind. Israelites were guilty of the defense mechanism of avoidance, in the extreme. They wanted to do anything but face what was happening inside of them. They regressed to the familiar, to old time religion. We all do that. When we can’t bear the truth of a moment, we regress to old behaviors. If we were attentive to the truth of the moment, we might have to change our lives.


I don’t think the people were against the 10 Commandments. The people didn’t actually know what the commandments were. Moses hadn’t told them yet. I don’t even think the people in this story thought very much about what the commandments contained. They just weren’t thinking.


I think they just couldn’t stand the silent aleph. That silent aleph spoke eternity. Everything that could be known and cannot be known. All being and all non-being. God’s being, communicated in the Un-sound, the No-thing. Perhaps they thought later, in retrospect, they should have just listened to what God wanted to say, not told God to stop revealing the 10 Commandments. Listening to the silence was far more difficult than they could have imagined.


Here is a thought experiment. Think of someone that you love or loved, at least theoretically. Imagine sitting across from them, looking at each other’s eyes. Blink and breathe, that’s it. No speech. Just the presence and the eyes. In this thought experiment, do it for a few minutes straight. Try imagining it.


Eventually, you will see each other’s souls. You will blink your way into their soul, into knowing the God that fills their soul, the eternity-filled silence of God. Now imagine you and this other person are being ordered to do this, but you have this one way out. If it becomes too uncomfortable, you can just go into the next room where a party is happening. Drinking, dancing. A calf-shaped piñata.


God wanted us to look into God’s eyes and God’s heart. “Don’t follow your own eyes and hearts after which you go astray,” God would later say to the people. “Just for a few minutes, set your eyes and hearts upon me.” The people chose the party option.


Last week’s Torah portion ends, in Exodus chapter 34, with an anything but clear reconciliation, as most reconciliations are not clear. Here is the essence. The commandments were petrified (as in turned to stone) onto new tablets. Moses brought them down the mountain. The people accepted the commandments, all the words. Moses explained everything.


How had the people changed? How could they now be able to look into the Divine heart and listen? Here is how the ancient rabbis saw it.


The first Torah portion of this double portion, Vayakhel, begins in Exodus chapter 35 with Moses assembling all the people. The ancient rabbis say the narrative at the end of chapter 34 and the beginning of chapter 35 is a little out of order. (The ancient rabbis thought much of the Torah was out of order. It was their job to order the great disorder.)


The ancient rabbis said that when Moses came down the mountain the second time, first Moses assembled all the people and revealed the commandments, but not in the order of the commandments listed in Exodus chapter 20. In this Torah portion, Vayakhel, the first thing mentioned when Moses is un-petrifying the commandments is the Sabbath.


Why could they listen this time? The way the ancient rabbis tell it, the people changed because they decided to. They sat quietly the whole day, waiting for Moses to come down the mountain. They decided ahead of time: No drinking, no eating, no dancing, no Molten Calf. The ancient rabbis say that in order to be present to the Presence when Moses came down the second time, the people kept a deep Sabbath, a Shabbat Shabbaton. The ancient rabbis say that the people spontaneously invented Yom Kippur. Our observance of Yom Kippur is, at its core, a reenactment of our receiving the second Tablets. A quiet we imposed on ourselves so that we could listen.


(Allow me a moment to bow my head in deep reverence and respect for the brilliance of the ancient rabbis.)


In my telling, they decided to place their eyes upon God, eyes meaning the perceptive apparatus comprising their hearts, souls and might, for a full few minutes.


They breathed the silent aleph in this Sabbath for the soul. The day after the Sabbath of receiving the second Tablets, they got busy building the Mishkan, the main focus of our double Torah portion.


All you could hear was the work. The people didn’t talk much that day.

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