The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Pekudei: the Glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle

This Torah portion finishes the Book of Exodus with the completion of the Tabernacle. In this passage, Freemasons in the York Rite can reflect upon a few things that relate to the Mark Master Mason degree and the Most Excellent Master Mason degree.

Exodus 38:25 gives the total of the one-half shekel census tax levied on the people. Each of the men over 20 years of age among the Children of Israel was required to give half a silver shekel as tribute to pay for the building of the Tabernacle. Capitular Masonic tradition, probably from the late 18th or early 19th century, equates a silver half-shekel with a quarter dollar coin, especially back when such coins were made of silver. The complete tally from this tribute was about 15,000 troy pounds of silver. There was also collected, from voluntary offerings, roughly 4400 troy pounds of gold, and roughly 10,600 troy pounds of copper. This was melted down and used in the construction of the Tabernacle.

Much of the passage is a repeat from a few weeks ago, when the future construction was described by God to Moses. In this passage, Bezalel and Oholiab construct the Tabernacle according to this description. The description of the vestments of the High Priest is particularly interesting. The robes were made of sky-blue, purple and crimson threads, using dyes from sea-snails, worms and plants. Gold was beaten into thin sheets, and sliced into threads which were woven into the fabric of the garments. The ephod, belt, and breastplate were fabricated. The breastplate was a doubled square, just as the Lodge Room is a doubled cube. The hem of the robe was decorated with pomegranates and bells, in sequential order, as in pomegranate, bell, pomegranate, bell, all along the edge.

Moses, seeing the work, blessed it and blessed the workers. On the first day of the first month of the second year of the Exodus, Moses and the Levites erected the Tabernacle for the first time. Exodus 40: 20 tells us that Moses put the Tablets of Testimony in the Ark of the Covenant, set the carrying poles on the ark, and put the karopet (covering) on the Ark. He then brought the Ark of the Covenant into the Holy of Holies within the Tabernacle, and shielded it from view with the parokhet (curtain). At each step, the Book of Exodus describes each thing Moses does to erect the Tabernacle, followed by כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה אֶת-מֹשֶׁה, or "as the Lord commanded Moses".

Finally, Moses placed a drape over the entrance to the Tabernacle, and with this, completed all the work. The Cloud that led the Children of Israel covered the Tabernacle, and it was filled with k'vod YHVH (the Glory of God). Moses could not come into the Tabernacle, because the Cloud rested on it, and it wis filled with the Glory of God. When the Cloud lifted off of the Tabernacle, it was a signal that it was time to move forward in their journeys. The Cloud appeared during the day, and by night, a fire was in the Tabernacle (but did not burn it).

This mysterious Glory of God came to be equated with the Shekhinah, or the feminine indwelling Divine Presence of God. The Shekhinah dwelt inside the Tabernacle, and later dwelt inside the Holy of Holies of King Solomon's Temple (and presumably, but more debatably, the Second Temple as well). This presents a real paradox. How can an omnipresent Deity dwell in one particular portion of space and time? This is the question that King Solomon asked at the consecration of the Temple: "But will God indeed dwell on the earth? behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded?" [1 Kings 8: 27].

Indeed, during an ordinary regular year or ordinary leap year, this passage about the Consecration of the Temple (1 Kings 7: 51 - 8: 21) is read as a supplemental Scripture passage (or haftarah) after the Torah reading. The story in these two chapters from the First Book of Kings every Freemason should know intimately.

This year, 5772, this Saturday is a special Sabbath, Shabbat Parah, or the Sabbath of the Red Heifer. I have blogged about the Red Heifer before, when explaining about chukim, or esoteric mitzvot. It is probably the most mysterious commandment in the Torah. When someone is spiritually contaminated by exposure to a human corpse, they must purify themselves by being anointed with the ashes of a heifer who is entirely red in color (two non-red hairs on her entire body disqualifies her), who has never worked as a draught animal. The heifer is to be ritually slaughtered, and then burned to ashes, along with cedar wood, hyssop, and threads dyed with the dye of the crimson worm.  The ash mixture is mixed with pure water and contained in a vessel. A bunch of hyssop is dunked in the mixture, and then splashed on the contaminated person, on the third, and seventh days of their impurity. The priest who performs this ablution is ritually contaminated until sundown, and must bathe himself and his clothes.

Jewish tradition tells us that from Moses to the destruction of the Second Temple, only nine such perfect Red Heifers were ever located, slaughtered and used. The ashes of the last heifer were exhausted during the Talmudic period, and now, no Jew who has been exposed to a corpse has any way to purify himself. Jews even today will keep track of whether they are from the tribe of Levi, or whether they come from a line of kohanim, or priests. Hence the common Jewish last names of Levy, ben Levi, Lewis, Cohen, Kahn, Caen, etc. Cohens are advised never to attend a funeral, that they might not be irremediably contaminated by contact with a corpse.

This is a strange commandment. There is a midrash that after God imbued King Solomon with wisdom, he was asked if he now understood all the mitzvot in the Torah. He replied that he understood all of them except the mitzvah of the Red Heifer.

There is a tenet of some Christian eschatology that Christ will not return until the Third Temple is built in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount. This would require a new red heifer to purify the Temple builders and priests. To this end, a group of evangelical farmers are trying to breed a perfect red heifer. Some Jews believe that the red heifer has to be born in Israel, so work is being done both in the USA and in Israel to provide this animal through selective breeding. I'm not sure what planning is being done to relocate the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, and how well such planning is being received by those who worship at those holy sites.

Shabbat Parah is the Shabbat after Purim. This year's Purim day 2, or Purim Shushan, extended into the Sabbath, so Shabbat Parah is this Friday night into Saturday morning.

It is customary in Torah study, when a student or group of students finishes studying a book of Torah, to say: chazak chazak v'nitchazek. This could be translated as "Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened."
חזק חזק ונתחזק

No comments:

Post a Comment