Sunday, March 22, 2009

To form one Mishkan

The book of Genesis tells tale after tale of fraternal relationships gone awry. We begin with the worst case scenario: Cain kills Abel. Then Sarah becomes incensed when Ishmael is playing with Isaac, and he is banished; they reunite only for their father's funeral. Then Jacob buys Esau's birthright and acquires Esau's blessing, they enjoy one reunion, and don't see each other again until they must bury Isaac. Finally we have Joseph and his brothers - who sell Joseph into slavery. In this case, the entire family is reunited, everyone hugs and cries, Jacob and Joseph are gathered to their kin and חזק חזק ונתחזק.

There is a progress, of sorts, through Genesis; each fraternal conflict has a successively better outcome, but it is in Exodus that we finally see siblings dwelling together, by and large, in peace. I'm speaking of Amram's kids - Miriam, Moses, and Aaron.

I think the importance of kinship is of paramount importance in Exodus: Miriam monitors Moses' progress on the Nile and arranges that he will remain connected to the family by having Yocheved for a nurse. Aaron and Moses act together, in concert with each other in the Passover narrative. While numbers will show us some family tension, God resolves it quickly and easily; no lengthy estrangements required.

And yet, it is not only in this family dynamic that we see the importance of familial devotion, but so too in the instructions for the Mishkan and its furnishings. On the ark of the pact, there are to be two cherubim, each facing the other. But the text does not read "each facing the other" but rather "each facing his brother." And the place where God will appear to Moses is between these two brothers facing each other. Likewise, the curtains of the Mishkan are not joined "one to another," but rather "each to her sister." The purpose of this is to form one Mishkan.

The unity of the brothers facing each other is like the unity of Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh - between them they could speak for God to pharaoh. The unity of the curtains is like the unity of Miriam and her sister Israelites, dancing in praise of God.

The message is clear - it is that God delights when K'lal Yisrael - The family of Israel - come together for common good. Their may be schisms between communities, there may be rifts within communities, but the ability to come together, to find strength in those differences, and to apply that strength in God's service is the ultimate goal of Torah.

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