God and His Priests Take Up Residence
a.k.a. Parashat Pequdei
Master craftsmen Bezalel, from the tribe of Judah, and Oholiab, from the tribe of Dan,
oversaw the building of the sanctuary. Meticulous records were kept of the amounts of gold, silver and copper
Robes for the priests and Aaron, the High Priest, were made. Aaron wore a breastplate
decorated with 12 stones – one for each of the tribes of Israel. His robes were woven with blue and contained
designs of pomegranates and bells of gold. He and his sons wore golden head plates bearing the words, “Holy
And so the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting was constructed exactly as God had
commanded Moses. The Israelites presented it to Moses who checked it and found all details to be correct.
Moses blessed the people for their work.
Then God spoke to Moses, saying, “On the first day of the first month you must set up
the Tabernacle. You shall anoint it with oil to consecrate it. You must bring Aaron and his sons to the
entrance of the Tent of Meeting and wash them with water. Then
put the holy garments on Aaron and anoint him in my service. Then anoint his sons too”.
Thus in the first month of the second year, on the first day of the month, the
Tabernacle was set up as God has specified. Moses put a screen in front of the Ark of the Covenant, put a
table in the Tent of Appointed Meeting, and set bread before the Lord. He also lit the lamp stand, positioned
the golden altar there, and burned aromatic incense.
Next, Moses placed the altar for the burnt offering at the entrance of the Tabernacle.
The burnt offering and meal offering was made. He also set up the brass vessel so the priests could wash
before commencing their duties.
When Moses had finished these tasks, a cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the
Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. Since God’s presence filled the Tent of Meeting, Moses was unable
to enter. Whenever the cloud lifted, the Israelites would set out on their journey
s but if it did not
lift they would not venture anywhere.
Throughout all the wanderings of the people from this time, the cloud of the
Lord rested over the Tabernacle by day and fire burnt inside it by night.
Commentary on the 23rd parsha (portion of the Torah). The Torah consists of the
five books of Moses, the first part of the Old Testament.
To get to grips with this parsha, our Supermaven, Sigmund Albert Spinoza, interviews
Methuselah Solomon (an Ancient Elder). Supermaven is a modern philosopher who is trying to understand Judaism
and how we got where we are.
He will do this every week by investigating the Old Testament.
SAS: And it came to pass that
ignorance, superstition and blind obedience came to the people of Israel …
MS: Sigmund! I wasn’t
expecting you. What are you going on about now?
SAS: This week’s portion.
It’s definitely not my favourite.
MS: Don’t forget to tell me when we get to your favourite. I wouldn’t want to
miss your half-hearted accolades. So what’s wrong with this passage?
SAS: Everything! The very idea that God literally inhabits a Tabernacle is quite
ridiculous. It’s the sort of literalism that gets religion, and Judaism, a bad name. Here you’ve got a text
telling us God filled the tent of meeting with his presence so that Moses could not enter. God is therefore
presented as taking up physical space. You might just as well have given him arms and legs, and a divan to
lie on when he was feeling lazy!
MS: Did I write that God
filled the space up physically? If so, I would be limiting Him in terms of size and shape. No! What I was
implying, and what all intelligent readers will discern, is that God’s spiritual presence filled that place.
There was, in other words, an intensity of Holiness in that place. His spiritual purity made it impossible
for any one to come into His presence. Mortals could not survive in proximity to such a concentration of
power and absolute holiness.
SAS: This is absolute hogwash! If God is this abstract concentration of pure
holiness, how could anyone come within twenty miles of it, let alone be held at bay by a few feet? And if
it’s pure spirituality you’re talking about, why accompany it with a cloud hovering over the spot? Why is
God’s presence marked by a physical manifestation of nature? This is superstitious nonsense! A cloud
indicates the presence of condensed water droplets, not an in-house visitation from the greatest being in the
MS: It is perfectly possible
for God to indicate his presence through manifestations of nature. All nature, after all, is a manifestation
of God. All aspects of nature are signs of his glorious handiwork.
SAS: Including natural
disasters too, no doubt! No, I think that what we have here is a clear cut manifestation of primitive,
superstitious thought. You have imposed a religious interpretation upon a natural occurrence, and this is the
very antithesis of scientific thought. You have projected divine significance onto a puffy concentration of
frozen crystals. Oh, I appreciate that a bank of Stratocumulus perlucidus cloud can look pretty awe-inspiring, as can a brooding Cumulonimbus, but there’s no merit in arguing that God’s movements can be
tracked by such a cottony concentration.
MS: Nature is God’s. If God
chooses to mark this presence through nature, or an aspect thereof, He surely does
SAS: This idea of the divine presence intrigues me. I thought God was
omnipresent and was absent from no part of his creation. You imply that He sets himself up in certain places.
In point of fact, you place him – at times – firmly inside the Tabernacle to underpin your point that he is
the God of Israel. You have thus chosen to interpret Jewish “chosenness” in a crudely geographical way.
Because we are God’s chosen people, he actually comes to stay.
This is laughable.
MS: I have no idea what you
means by omnipresent. The term is unknown to me. As for God’s movements, He goes where He wills and in
whatever form He wills. In essence He is spiritual, not material, but He is able to bring Himself close to
his creation in ways that allow Him to shape and influence His surroundings.
SAS: So one might say that He was here now, in our presence, which might also
mean that He was not somewhere else?
MS: I cannot say exactly. But
it is true that He can draw near to people and places in such a way that His presence is experienced there in
a way that it is not experienced in other places. I think the receptivity of people partly explains why His
spirit is more powerfully felt in some places than in others. Those who open themselves to His presence
receive divine visitations. Others do not.
SAS: This is all suitably vague. As far as I’m concerned you talk a lot of
mystical mumbo-jumbo that has no meaning according to the normal usage of language. But let me broach a
different question: why is God so fussy about the way he is served in the Tabernacle? Why do the priests have
to wear fancy livery, and why does incense have to be burned? And why is it imagined that animal slaughter is
pleasing to God?
God understands our need for worship and our dependence on Him. The worship of God
according to prescribed rituals is for our benefit, not God’s. God needs nothing for His completion. But we
do. Everything related to Tabernacle worship is stipulated so that we can enter into the closest possible
relationship with God and know His will. You imply that God is vain and needs all sorts of ritually ordained
attention. But it is we who benefit from ritual and regulations. Our lives and worship need to be ordered and
regulated. We need guidance in the ways we approach God and the ways we can worship
SAS: It’s interesting how physical, as opposed to purely spiritual, these
rituals are. If God is a spiritual being, why not approach him in an environment shorn of adornment and
decoration? Why the gold, silver and copper? Why the incense and the colourful robes? Why the golden altar
and the brass vessels?
MS: This is a physical
universe and God is worshipped and served within the physical universe. Our special objects and our treasures
are not to be despised, just as aromatic incense and beautiful music is not to be despised. Material
creatures need material symbols in their worship, even if there is to be no depiction of God.
SAS: I suppose this whole passage, then, is about how physical representations
communicate divinity and the divine realm …
MS: Yes, that is unusually
observant of you.
SAS: I think the physical
manifestations of religion betray their earthly origins.
MS: Religion is as much an
outward manifestation of devotion as it is an inward one. It is about what people do with their hands and
their bodies as much as it is about one’s hearts and minds. God has created a material universe and our
worship has a material dimension.
SAS: Its material dimension comprises representational gestures that have no
relation to a discernable reality. It’s all just play-acting and projection of the
MS: Of course it is – to you
who have no eyes to see. To men of faith, who see differently, our outward observances bring rich internal
meanings and a most blessed peace.
SAS: I can survive without
MS: You will have
The Parsha we have just read comes from the five books of Moses, the Torah. The
dialogues between Sigmund Albert Spinoza and Methuselah Solomon are about the meaning of the
What we know about Jewish
History, however, is based in fact, and on historical records.
If you’d like to know more about the real history of our
extended Jewish family, read on.
The Jews of
Jews in America
American Jews number 6.4 million – 2.1% of the population. Most of them are Ashkenazi
Jews. The community contains people right across the religious spectrum – from ultra-Orthodox to secular.
Around 46% of Jews belong to a synagogue.
We have previously examined the significant influx of Jews from 1880 onwards. These
Jews created a large number of support networks early on, including Landsmannschaften (territorial associations), but insular thinking was
discouraged and assimilation widely promoted. Assimilation was, indeed, rapid owing partly to a strong
secular tradition as well as rising rates of intermarriage. Jews participated in what is known as the
“suburbanization” of America and integrated well into many American communities.
By 1925 there were 4.5 million Jews in the USA and these Jews were busy establishing
America Jewry as the most influential in the world. Many Jews became leading players in commercial fields
such as banking, stockbroking, real estate, retail and the entertainment industry. The American contribution
to popular culture in the domains of films and music can scarcely be overestimated.
In the musical sphere such talents as Oscar Hammerstein II, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin
and George Gershwin created corpuses of work that redefined popular taste and whole musical genres. Film
pioneers included Carl Laemmle, Sam Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Adolph Zukor, Darryl Zanuck and the Marx
Many Jews worked hard at assimilating into American life and culture. This did not,
however, result in Jewish identity being lost during the 20th century. The Second World War, in
which 500,000 Jews fought for the USA, reminded Jews of the constant threat of anti-Semitism and of the need
to maintain a strong sense of identity. So, while synagogue affiliation stood at only 20% in 1930, it leapt
to 60% by 1960. By 2000 this figure had fallen back to 46%.
Anti-Semitism kept Jews conscious of their identity. As long as universities, social
clubs and other institutions barred them, or enforced quota systems, Jews remained conscious of being “other”
and understood that they were still not fully accommodated in their brave new American
Even during World War II, the USA accepted only 21,000. This was only 10% of the
number permitted under the quota law. Public hostility was the cause for larger numbers not being
accommodated. Anti-Semitism was rife during the war years.
Yiddish-speaking Jews were strong supporters of socialism earlier in the century and
support for Communism was strong well into the 1930s. As the century progressed, Jews settled into a strong
pattern of voting Democrat. Jewish support for this party peaked at 90% in the 1940s, dropped to 66% in the
50s and then swung upwards to 83% for John F. Kennedy. In 2006, Jewish support for Democrats in the mid-term
elections was 87%.
While the idea of a Jewish president of the USA remains inconceivable, Jewish
representation in the Senate and Congress is substantial.
Jewish support of the oppressed in the USA has been noteworthy. Many Jewish activists
promoted Civil Rights during the 1960s.
After the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Trade Act in 1974, Soviet Jews started coming
to America in a new wave of migration. Most went to New York, Houston, Dallas, San Francisco, Baltimore and
L.A. Persian and Bukharian Jews have also boosted the population following political changes. By the end of
the 1970s, there were 5.8 million Jews in the USA.
Most Jewish children attend public schools although
there are there are Jewish day schools and yeshivas. Whereas quotas limited
the number of Jewish students in American universities in the 1950s, such restrictions have long since
disappeared and Jewish students make up over 20% of students in leading academic
Jewish settlement in the USA has largely been in the major metropolises. Today there
are 1,750,000 Jews in New York, 535,000 in Miami and 490,000 in Los Angeles.
Famous Jewish Americans include Robert Oppenheimer,
Albert Einstein, Gertrude Stein, Noam Chomsky, Carl Sagan, Woody Allen, Diane Arbus, Steven Spielberg, Isaac
Asimov, Susan Sontag, Bob Dylan, Joseph Heller, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Joe Lieberman … the list would fill a
book on its own.
Here follows a discussion on this historical segment by Dad, Chaya and
BEN: American Judaism is such
a mixture of good and bad – on the one hand it’s the place where Jews have enjoyed the greatest success. On
the other, it’s the place where we might be assimilated into annihilation.
CHAYA: You’re speaking purely
for effect, Ben! You know you don’t believe that, and neither dad nor I do.
DAD: All the same, the American experience does reveal a significant tendency
towards assimilation, and inter-marriage has a lot to do with it. Apparently the rate of Jews marrying out of
the faith in the USA is between 40 and 50%.
BEN: Well, disappearance
would be one way of protecting ourselves against prejudice and oppression!
DAD: Excuse me for not
laughing at your facetious remark, Ben. As it happens, I think any loss of Jewish identity is a tragedy. And
I mean that for religious and secular Jews alike. We are a distinct people with a long and proud history and
I believe we should protect our identity and traditions with all the powers at our
CHAYA: So you’re against
DAD: No. But I think that
even Jews in so-called mixed marriages should respect and preserve their cultural
DAD: Well, one thing they
could do is attend evenings like this one.
CHAYA: Doing so would
certainly suit secular Jews in America more than going to shul,
which 54% obviously think isn’t much fun.
BEN: And often it
DAD: I don’t think it matters
where we go to celebrate our Judaism, but I think it matters that we do so, and that we do so in the company
CHAYA: I don’t believe in
prescribing to anyone – if Jews want to be Jewish in some or other way then let them. Otherwise let them be
as secular and forgetful of Judaism as they please.
DAD: Well, then, what’s the
point in being Jewish at all? Either you acknowledge your Judaism in one way or another, or you cease to be
Jewish at all.
BEN: I don’t think it’s
possible that a Jew can cease to be Jewish. It’s hard-wired into our psyches.
DAD: You’d be surprised how
unwired it is in some American Jews – or should I say ex-Jews?
CHAYA: One thing I will say
about the Americans – they would be the only nation I would trust to house a Jewish state if Israel ever
ceased to exist.
BEN: Bury my heart in Boca
DAD: You have a point, Chaya.
Americans have embraced the Jewish people in a special way – with dire exceptions, of course. I take comfort
in the existence of the USA and the fact that when all else fails we Jews in the non-American diaspora might
well be able to find a home there.
BEN: And assimilate ourselves
CHAYA: I think a significant core of American Jews will never accept assimilation
and will preserve their Jewish identities no matter what.
DAD: I agree. Being a
Jewish-American is one of the best ways to be Jewish.
BEN: I think it’s just cosy,
that’s all. What’s it got to do with Judaism?
DAD: Well, historically, Jews
have survived because of their pragmatism. Perhaps that’s why they are able to accommodate so well and
contribute so much to the American way of life.
Every Shabbat we read five short sayings that express, with typically Jewish wit and
humour, insightful reflections on this life of ours.
Here are tonight’s sayings:
· Money is a soap that removes the worst stains.
· If the bottom of the sea is unfathomable, so is the heart of
· If one man says, “You’re a donkey,” don’t worry. If two say it, start worrying. If
three say it, buy a saddle. (adapted from Midrash: Genesis Rabbah).
· The Jew is neither a newcomer nor an alien in this
country or on this continent; his Americanism is as original and ancient as that of any race or people with
the exception of the American Indian and other aborigines. He came in the caravels of Columbus, and he
knocked at the gates of New Amsterdam only thirty-five years after the Pilgrim Fathers stepped ashore on
Plymouth Rock. (Oscar Solomon Straus)
· The time is at hand when the wearing of a prayer shawl and skullcap will not bar a man from the
White House, unless, of course, the man is Jewish. (Jules Farber)
Celebration of Great Lives
Every Friday night we celebrate the achievements of our Jewish family in contributing
to changing the world for the better and having an extraordinary impact on those around
Emanuel Ringelblum (1900-1944)
Born in Galicia, Ringelblum received a doctorate for a dissertation on medieval Warsaw
Jewry. He became one of the leading scholars for the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. When the war broke
out he helped to establish food kitchens in the Warsaw Ghetto and organized an archive to maintain records of
events as they unfolded in the ghetto. He kept his own diary and
when news arrived of the destruction of other Jewish communities, he tried to document the destruction of
Polish Jewry. The archive was called the Oneg Shabbat Archive because those responsible for
maintaining the archive held their secret meetings on the Sabbath. Much of the information was passed on to
the Polish government-in-exile in London and the Western Allies informing them of the fate of European Jewry.
Two of the three large metal containers in which they placed the fruits of their labours were found after the
war. Ringelblum was shot to death with his family in the Pawiak prison in Warsaw on March 7, 1944 . The
quiet, passive heroism of the individual who resists, not with the rifle but with the pen, is exemplified by
the gallantry and dedication Emanuel Ringelblum displayed. His legacy remains the body of work he tried so
desperately to preserve and which will forever remain his memorial.
The Rothschild Family
Rothschild family name became one of the most famous Jewish names in Europe. The founder of the Rothschild dynasty,
Amschel Mayer Rothschild, was born in Germany in 1743. He grew up in ghetto poverty, a small antiques merchant who
collected old coins. Through manipulation, luck, and some good politics he made some money, but, more importantly,
he made some important financial connections. Amschel Mayer had five sons. Each son founded a banking branch in a
major European country. The first two generations of Rothschilds were involved in huge financial activities that
included transmitting the French war indemnity to the allies after the Congress of Vienna, financing Austria’s
first railroad, financing the Crimean War, and purchasing the Turkish viceroy’s Suez Canal shares for Britain. The
philanthropic generosity of the Rothschilds was legendary. The Rothschilds were famous for using their financial
and political clout to better the conditions of Jews throughout Europe. Edmund de Rothschild, one of the sons of
James (the French branch), became the primary supporter of Jews trying to establish farming settlements in the Land
We will now sing a traditional song to conclude our Shabbat celebration. You have a
copy of the words, so please join in as we sing.
The song is sung
Farewell and an Invitation
Thank you for coming together to share our Shabbat. May you go out into the new week
with renewed strength, confidence and happiness.
We now cordially invite you to join us for some coffee and cake.