'Trapped' and Speechless Texts / Parashat Teruma

Despite the efforts of thousands of scholars over the millennia to read and explain God's words, there are certain places where the words refuse to be read, where God's word has been inscribed but has gone no further.

In this week's reading, God commands Moses to prepare the utensils and vessels of the Tabernacle. In the detailed instructions for construction of the seven-branched candelabrum (menorah ), the Torah says: "And in the candlestick four cups made like almond-blossoms, the knops thereof, and the flowers thereof" (Exodus 25:34 ).

In his commentary, Rashi interprets the word meshukadim (almond blossoms ) as meaning "painted" - that is, with decorations painted on the surface of the metal. However, there is a syntactical problem with this verse: The reader does not know for sure to which part of the menorah meshukadim refers. Should the verse be read "four painted cups" or "with its knops [ornamental knobs] and flowers all painted"?

This is one of five verses in the Torah which the sages did not know how to explicate, and which are referred to as "hamisha mikraot she'ain lahem hechre'a": "five texts whose precise reading is unknown." In each of the five, there is a word that can be read either as part of the first half of the verse or as part of the second; each alternative reading gives a different meaning. The other four examples occur in Genesis 4:7 and 49:7, Exodus 17:9 and Deuteronomy 31:16, according to Mechilta, Amalek, section 1 (Genesis Rabbah, section 80.6).

There is no way of knowing what Bezalel, son of Uri, decided when fashioning the menorah for the Tabernacle. To this very day, no human being has ever been able to properly construct - or reconstruct - the candelabrum in accordance with all the demands of halakha (religious law), as written in this week's Torah portion, so that it would be suitable for use in the Temple. Indeed, the problems of how to read the verse and how to create the menorah could have been forgotten, and the verse could have been allowed to remain shrouded in mystery until the Messiah's arrival. But offering practical information is not the only function of the biblical text: A more acute, relevant problem emerges because of the issue of syntax here - that of the text's implementation.

The Torah is safeguarded, whether it is written in ink on a parchment scroll and placed in a holy ark; whether it takes the form of a book that has been printed on paper, bound as a codex and placed in a bookcase; or whether it has been typed into a computer and appears on a monitor. From the graphical standpoint, the Torah's letters appear in a consecutive, linear manner, forming words and sentences. However, if we search within the Torah itself for a description of the way in which the text "seeks" to be preserved, we find that it aspires to more: "And it shall be for a sign unto thee upon thy hand, and for a memorial between thine eyes, that the law of the Lord may be in thy mouth" (Exod. 13:9 ). The text in this case has been written on parchment enclosed in tefillin (phylacteries worn during the weekday morning service containing written passages from the Torah) and is intended to serve as an intermediary or link: God transmits his word, which is then written on the page, while the reader "implements" the Almighty word - reads it out loud and acts on it. From that moment onward, God's word is on the reader's lips. The lofty process of conveying his word to man passes through the written text, which thus serves as a link; moreover, the text is meaningless if there is no one to implement it.

In the Book of Deuteronomy, there is an emphasis on this implementation: "For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not too hard for thee, neither is it far off ... But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it" (Deut. 30:11-14 ). Man seeks God's word and, in the final analysis, will find it "not in heaven," not "beyond the sea," not in the hands of any mediator and not even inscribed in a book: Only in his own mouth and in his own heart will man find God's word. The text must be learned and preserved physically in man's body and must be inscribed in his memory. Only then can the text carry out its function: to bring about internalization of God's words.

Thus, the written text is but a temporary means of preservation that is intended to clarify the reader's memory. The reader reads the verses in the book and breathes life into them within his memory; in this manner, the purpose of the written material comes to an end: The book can then be returned to the bookcase until the next time when the human memory must be refreshed.

If the written text is indeed supposed to play an intermediary role which facilitates implementation, rather than being intended to lie mutely on a bookcase, the five abovementioned verses - including that which appears in this week's portion - constitute texts that cannot fulfill their function. No one knows for sure how to precisely read these texts; they are, in essence, a musical score that cannot be performed. It is as if an historical decree has been issued regarding these verses, according to which they are fated to remain "trapped" in their written, mute form; as such it is impossible to extract the manner in which they should be read or to grasp their meaning.

A text is a means of communication through which information is transmitted from one person to another. The Torah's text is an ongoing, long-range means of communication intended to convey information from heaven to earth. However, the five verses in question - which are "stalled" midway through their journey, for syntactical reasons - call attention to the other aspect of the system of communication. They are a monument to the disconnect between heaven and earth; they freeze the precise moment when God's word ceases to be written and begins to be read. The verses attest to the fact that, ultimately, despite all the efforts of thousands of rabbinical scholars over the millennia to read and explain God's words, there are certain places where the words refuse to be read, where God's word has been inscribed but has gone no further.

The only thing that man can do with these words is to gaze at them, as if they are on the other side of the windowpane.