March 5, 2009
Two sections of the Torah compete for our attention this week. The regular weekly portion is Tetzave and the additional reading from Deuteronomy corresponds to this being the Shabbat Zachor immediately prior to Purim. The weekly portion deals with the details of the construction of the Mishkan (tabernacle) for Israelite worship following the Exodus. The additional reading commands us to remember the nefarious acts of the Amalekites who harassed and attacked the Israelites during their desert trek from Egypt.
Writing in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Dr. Lisa Grant makes the following observation: “Tetzaveh is the only parsha...where the name of Moses does not appear. And [the Book/Scroll of] Esther [read on Purim] is one of only two books of the Bible where the name of God does not appear. These absences are cause for abundant commentary in each individual case, but the relationship between the two texts seems to receive only passing mention.... While the plots and purposes of these texts are vastly different, each in its own way asks us to confront an absence.” (p. 491)
The absence of Moses in the narrative of the assembling of the Mishkan and the ordaining of the line of Aaron as the lineal antecedents of the priestly (Kohen) clan is interpreted by some commentators as an illustration of the humility Moses embodies. Moses is portrayed as practicing a form of what later Jewish mysticism calls tzimtzum, “[divine] contraction.” In the creation myths of Jewish mysticism, God is understood as self-contracting, withdrawing to the degree necessary in order to leave space for creation to come into existence. Moses absents himself so as to allow his brother Aaron to “have the spotlight” during the ceremony of his consecration.
The absence of God in the story of Esther (see also the almost-near absence of God in the story of Joseph, Genesis 37-50) has long troubled Jewish commentators. It so troubled the Jews who translated books of the Hebrew Bible into Greek in the centuries immediately prior to the common era that they inserted a number of passages into the Book of Esther where God makes a direct appearance, communicating with Esther and Mordechai. (These can be found in English in The Anchor Bible series, volume 44.) But in the Hebrew scroll that has come down through Jewish history, God remains absent. Rabbinic commentators seize on the words of Mordechai that “help will have to come from another place (“m’makom aher”) as an allusion to God, as a classic rabbinic appellation for God is Makom, “[the] Place,” but it is unlikely that the author of Esther meant anything other than “another place.”
While Grant notes the absence of Moses in the parsha, there is also a theological dimension.
One of the overwhelming ironies of the narratives about the construction of the Mishkan is that the elaborate architecture and rigid ritual requirements for the religious rites are all invoked so as to create an appropriate place for the intangible presence of God to be manifest. Put differently, most of the books of the Hebrew Bible imagine God to be “invisible” — this is a deity that cannot be seen on penalty of death. (See Exodus 33:20: “For a human being cannot see Me and live.”) Put differently again, the intangible nature of the God of Israel suggests a paradox of presence and absence simultaneously.
Many religious traditions assume that the experience of God must be something appropriated externally. In the imagery of the Bible, God, among other things, is “seen,” “heard,” and “acts.”
God’s interventions (“miracles”) are most often things that are tangible (for example, parting the Red Sea). But what the imagery of the Mishkan and the Book of Esther seem to suggest is an alternative model, one whereby the experience of God is something evocative yet internal and subtle.
Experiencing the presence of God can thus be understood as “seeing” something that “was not there before” but also as “seeing” what has “always been there” in a new way. Grant notes that we may speak of the presence of God’s absence as well as the absence of God’s presence. This week’s readings challenge us to imagine what it may mean to experience each of these paradoxes.
Richard Hirsh is executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Wyncote, Pa.