Portion of the Week / The Fire of the Cypress

The Hebrew calendar produces interesting juxtapositions. In accordance with Jewish tradition, the two final weekly portions of Exodus will be joined this Shabbat.

The Hebrew calendar produces interesting juxtapositions. In accordance with Jewish tradition, the two final weekly portions of Exodus will be joined this Shabbat. A glance at the readings' internal rhythm might confuse readers. Only a week ago, we witnessed the sin of the Golden Calf - the horrifying low point of the Israelites. Between that event (which, according to tradition, occurred on Tisha B'Av) and Yom Kippur, a major campaign to rehabilitate the Israelites is conducted.

Initially, at the physical level, Moses burns the idol and Israel resumes its observance of the commandments. Moses then returns to Mount Sinai for an intimate meeting with God, at which he begs God to forgive Israel. On Yom Kippur, Moses receives the answer: "I have pardoned" (Numbers 14:20).

Parashat Vayakhel begins the night Yom Kippur ends. Moses assembles the Israelites, informing them of the plan to construct the portable tabernacle. There is profound insight here: This immature nation's religious energies must be channeled toward productive action. It is impossible to just restrict its behavior; it must be given an alternative. The construction project requires physical and material contributions, and the nation responds as enthusiastically as it did when it prepared the Golden Calf. In 10 verses (Exodus 35:20-29), the Torah describes the overall philanthropic atmosphere, repeating the word "kol" ("all," "every," "every one," "as many as were," "every man, "any" or "all manner of") 15 times, to introduce us to a circle of unrestrained, almost hysterical, behavior. For example, we read, "And they came, both men and women, as many as were willing-hearted, and brought...." (Exod. 35:22)

A midrash (Numbers Rabbah, Section 12) hears in this verse the commotion generated by an outpouring of joy: "They jostled each other and men and women intermingled in the crowd. In two mornings, they donated all the material needed, as it is written, 'And they brought yet unto him freewill offerings every morning' [Exod. 36:3]." As it turns out, the contributions exceed all expectations: "And all the wise men, that wrought all the work of the sanctuary.... And they spoke unto Moses, saying, The people bring much more than enough for the service of the work, which the Lord commanded to make.... For the stuff they had was sufficient for all the work to make it, and too much." (Exod. 36:4-7).

Strict obedience

In the transition to the second parasha, "Pekudei," the keyword changes and we shift from a philanthropic universe to one advocating strict obedience - a universe of commandments. The tabernacle is constructed in accordance with the architect's specifications and no changes are permitted in the blueprint. Everything is planned and measured; there is no room for initiative and imagination or for emotional outbursts. Strict adherence to order prevails here.

In this portion, the dominant phrase is "... and the children of Israel did according to all that the Lord commanded Moses, so did they" (Exod. 39:32). When the construction work is completed, we read, "According to all that the Lord commanded Moses, so the children of Israel made all the work. And Moses saw all the work, and, behold, they had done it as the Lord had commanded, even so had they done it. And Moses blessed them" (Exod. 39:42-43). This exemplary order is somewhat exhausting. Where is Parashat Vayakhel's magnanimity? Where is the philanthropic urge that ignites a sacred flame in the camp?

Poetess Zelda tackled this problem in a poem, "Two Elements," which she dedicated to poet-friend Yona Wallach: The flame says to the cypress: When I see how complacent you are, how majestic, I am troubled. How can one survive this horrible earthly existence without a trace of madness, spirituality, imagination, and liberty, but with ancient, gloomy pride? Were it up to me, I would burn the establishment known as the annual cycle and destroy your accursed dependence on earth, air, sun, rain and dew.

The cypress does not answer. It knows it does have a trace of madness; that it does have liberty, imagination and spirituality. However, the flame would not understand or believe the cypress. The silent cypress does not disclose to the flame what it has, and the flame lacks: Stable roots planted deep in the earth that promise continuity from one season to the next. The poem places the cypress in a defensive posture because of the audaciousness of the flame, which presents itself as totally free.

There is something stimulating and charming about the flame's enthusiasm; yet, free flames invariably lose their charm and ultimately melt into smoke. The cypress knows that its stubborn, almost gloomy stance contains liberty, imagination and - above all - spirituality.

Emergency call-up (Tzav 8) notices for reserve duty remove us from our houses in a highly patriotic mood, akin to an infusion of energy into a tired body. Nonetheless, we are a nation experienced in such matters and we know we cannot be recruited twice a week. The infusion's effectiveness wears away and the high spirits are replaced by fatigue and by an exhausted nation's foot-dragging. Fire is followed by silence and both are followed by a commission of inquiry.

We must place the fire in a framework that will preserve it and which is fueled with a steady, long-term rhythm. Although the voluntary spirit is not replaced, it cannot serve as the structure's foundation. We base our family life on this marvelous combination of forces: Love's fire is preserved in conjugal and family frameworks.

The Torah chooses to conclude Exodus with a merging of fire and flame. A nation of slaves tries to pave its way to the world of liberty. It stumbles on occasion but each time it is propped up, and encouraged to continue moving forward. The sin of the Golden Calf is a major fall, but is immediately followed by the exhilarating corrective offered by the tabernacle's construction.

The Torah does not conclude with this igniting fire; instead, the Torah places the large fire inside the framework of law, inside a disciplinary context of instructions and restrictions. From here we move to Leviticus, which will teach us how to burn an eternal flame in all of life's contexts. As is traditionally recited by congregations when one of the Bible's five books is completed, let us say,"Hazak, hazak venit'hazek!" (Be strong! Be strong! Let us make ourselves strong!)