This week’s parasha, Pekudei, is the last portion in the Book of Shmot (Exodus), and the final section in a series on the building of the mishkan, or tabernacle, in the desert. As such, I think it would be instructive to look back at the idea of “God’s house” in an earlier segment of the Torah: Parashat Lech Lecha.
On the first verse in Lech Lecha –
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ.
God said to Avram: Go forth from your land and birthplace and your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.
– Midrash Genesis Rabba 39:1 comments with the following parable:
אמר רבי יצחק משל לאחד שהיה עובר ממקום למקום, וראה בירה אחת דולקת אמר תאמר שהבירה זו בלא מנהיג, הציץ עליו בעל הבירה, אמר לו אני הוא בעל הבירה. כך לפי שהיה אבינו אברהם אומר תאמר שהעולם הזה בלא מנהיג, הציץ עליו הקב”ה ואמר לו אני הוא בעל העולם…
Said R’ Isaac: This may be compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a birah doleket. ‘Is it possible that the birah lacks a person to look after it?’ he wondered. The owner of the birah looked out and said, ‘I am the owner of the building.’ Similarly, because Abraham said, ‘Is it conceivable that the world is without a guide?’ The Holy One, blessed be He, looked out and said to him ‘I am the Sovereign of the Universe…’
Rabbi Isaac wonders about the impetus God might have had for commanding Avram to leave his whole world behind and move to an unknown land. Was Avram special in some way that God recognized, hence choosing him to be the first Jew? Was he special in reality, special in potential, or not really special at all? Rabbi Isaac compares Avram to a traveler who sees a birah in a surprising situation, turns aside to think about it, and ask a question about it – thereby convincing God that Avram is the right person to launch the Jewish people.
While most translate the word birah as castle, mansion, or palace, Professor Pinchas Mandel of the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies has shown that birah actually connects to what we know it to mean today: capital city or town. Based on Mandel’s explanation, one might actually translate birah as “municipality compound,” such as the buildings found in Jerusalem’s Kikar Safra. Thus, Avram passes by a municipal base, and sees it “doleket.”
What does the work doleket mean, and what does that signify in the Avram story?
Many commentators and scholars translate this word as “on fire,” from the Hebrew word דליקה. As such, what is Avram seeing? A birah in flames, or in his case, coming off of the Tower of Babel story, a world in flames. A world that is corrupt and selfish and paranoid. A world that doesn’t care about the one God. Avram notes that the world is in a very bad way, and wonders: Is there no one or nothing out there to help staunch the blaze? Mustn’t this world have a guide? Are we all alone in this mess? God jumps on this one human being who cares about the world, cares about something larger than just himself, and makes a connection: YES! I AM HERE! IF YOU WILL PARTNER WITH ME, WE CAN MAKE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE. Just like Moshe and the burning bush, it is Avram’s act of noticing, turning aside, and taking an interest that makes all the difference.
Professor James Kugel, on the other hand, understands doleket not as “in flames” but as “all lit up” (since להדליק can mean to light, to kindle, turn on, to turn on a light). As in, Avram notices the birah with the lights on bright, shining in the night, and thinks to himself: What is this place? What is making it light up? Is there anyone home?
To what actual reality in Avram’s life does Kugel see the parable of the lit up birah connecting? The stars, shining in the sky. Avram hailed from Ur Kasdim (Ur of the Chaldees), where astronomy was born. Kugel calls Chaldea “Astronomyland,” and quotes the apocryphal Book of Jubilees in saying:
And [Avram] was sitting alone making observations [of the stars] and a voice came into his heart saying, “All the signs of the stars and the signs of the sun and moon are all under the Lord’s control. Why am I seeking THEM out? If HE wishes, HE will make it rain morning and evening, and if HE desires HE will not make it fall, for everything is under HIS control. (Jubilees 12:17-18)
In other words, the birah that is doleket is not a world on fire, but a world brilliantly lit up by the stars that fascinated the Chaldeans. Avram has an epiphany – in Hebrew, very appropriately, a havrakah, from barak, meaning lightning bolt – that the stars can’t be lit up on their own. There has got to be someone or something in charge of nature, of the world. That must be the one God. And so the Jewish story begins.
Back to Pekudei. In having the Israelites build the tabernacle – another incarnation of God’s house – we are reminded not only that it is God who is in charge, but that God actively wants our partnership in building up the world He has created in and maintaining it suitably. The partnership started with Avram, moved on to Moshe, kept on with the Israelites in the desert, and still continues today, in the year 2014. May it continue far into the future.