Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on 23rd Adar 5775, 14th March 2015
We have come to the end of the second book of the Torah at a high point – the completion of the building of the Mishkan, the tabernacle. In this book we have gone from a mass of slaves groaning under the oppression of Egypt to a liberated people who were granted the great epiphany at Mt Sinai. We were the beneficiaries of miracles and divine largesse that turned the desert from a desolate wasteland to an endless source of food and drink. It is also true we committed the ultimate of sins and risked our lives and futures by conveniently forgetting everything we received.
Perhaps it is possible, however, to view the first two books of the Torah as one unit with two parallel plots and say that the building of the Mishkan, the tabernacle, is the the human counterpoint to the story of creation in the beginning of the first book, Bereshit. In both cases the story begins with an initial condition of lack of form, order, structure or coherence. At the end of creation we have an ordered world and all within it, and at the end of Shmot we have an edifice, implements and vestments for which exact details have been given about dimensions, building materials, types of cloth, colors, and location within the edifice. In other words, the tohu vavohu with which we began in Shmot has given way to exquisite order.
Tohu vavohu. Chaos. The Greek word for emptiness. I learned this week that the word “gas” was invented by the Belgian scientist and physician Jean-Baptiste van Helmont (1579-1644), based on the ancient Greek word chaos (the “g” is a ch sound in Flemish). According to Prof. Eli Merzbach of Bar Ilan University, Chaos in ancient Greek is the same as our tohu va-vohu (meaning “unformed and void”) and it denotes disorder (the opposite of a well-ordered cosmos), characterized by our inability to measure it. For van Helmont, gas was essentially without any geometric form, without order, with no possibility of mathematical measurement. It assumed totally random forms and had no predictable shape.
But at the end of Shmot, gas or chaos is overcome, right? No. It’s here. In one series of five verses at the end of Pekudei the word—`anan or cloud—is repeated in each verse: “the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting“; “the cloud had settled upon it“; “when the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle“; “but if the cloud did not lift“.
According to Prof. Merzbach, the Greek chaos signifies the absence of God, whereas the Jewish chaos means deliberate concealment of the Divine. The cloud is the symbol of the presence of God, whose essence, form, dimensions and character are immeasurable, unknowable and unpredictable. Chaotic. But this presence can and does make order.
This means that the cloud over the tabernacle is actually covering up what is being done underneath and when it clears the will or word of God will be done or given to make order.
On the other side, from the ground we get smoke which does not descend but rather rises. It is usually man-made, and it also hides things. What it hides is also often unpredictable but one big difference between smoke and the cloud is that when the smoke clears the result is not always order.
In today’s parsha we also have smoke – the incense from mizbach haktoret, the incense altar. This is a case where the cloud from above and the smoke from below come together. When the two forces of chaos – gas – work together, the result is harmony between the divine above and the human below. To assure this type of harmony, it is necessary to understand what should be done in the mishkan (and later the Temple) – and this is the purpose of the book of Vayikra, which we begin next week: the commandments regarding the sacrifices to be brought to purge the people of sin, under the cover of the smoke of the incense and perhaps with the cloud hovering overhead. After this set of instructions, the people should have been ready to enter the land. But they weren’t, and they didn’t.
Thus we can say that Shmot ends on an ambiguous note for us. There is the hope engendered by the presence of the cloud and the smoke but then there’s our fore-knowledge of the rest of the story and we realize what an opportunity was lost.
Today, we also have clouds, but they are usually for the meteorologists. We have people under a cloud, which could be one of suspicion (very popular today) or of a blue funk (good reasons for that too). We can be ON cloud nine, which will take us high but there we have to be careful because our vision may be clouded over and lead to a crash landing.
We also have smoke, which can make a screen, or can be an undeniable indication of a fire, or it can get in your eyes so that you can’t see the truth.
So, while today’s clouds and smoke are much more mundane than the uses we find in today’s parsha, and the efforts to which we devote our energies are not nearly as divinely inspired as in the period of building the mishkan, we can still say that the unknown surrounding our raw materials – ourselves and what we have – still constitutes our greatest challenge. What we do with what we have is the big question that makes our lives a constant source of aspiration, desperation, inspiration, sadness and joy.