We are not very far into the Book of Shemot, when the laws begin to come thick and fast, as though there were an urgency to setting the foundations for a just society and a nation holy to God. The Ten Commandments given in Yithro are followed almost immediately with the lesser, but still important, rules of Mishpatim. These range across the treatment of slaves, manslaughter, murder and kidnapping, cursing a parent, treatment of animals, loans and borrowing, the rectitude of those in authority and the administration of justice. Then Moses ascends the mountain and, while the people can see the “appearance of God’s glory on the mountain top”, God begins to give instructions for the building of the Tabernacle and its accompanying furniture and trappings.
Rabbi Lord Sachs has pointed out in Covenant and Conversation how the building of this small but beautiful home for God (though, of course, God needs no home in the way we can conceive of it) parallels God’s own creation. There is, too, a broader theme. One can see the Torah as a great and multi-level work of architecture. It begins with the creation of the world, while this week we are given the blueprint for the Tabernacle. As mentioned, the rules for building a new society have also begun. The architectural motif applies on other levels too. The theme of sibling rivalry, often referred to, opens with an opposition so strong it leads to murder, develops in different ways, through Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, displaying a little more growth of understanding and reconciliation, until it culminates in the story of moral change, repentance and forgiveness in the story of Joseph and his brothers.
There is a pattern. The creation of things itself has an overarching design. The grandeur of the creation is followed shortly by the building of Noah’s ark, a relatively small construct which carries the seeds of life on vast, stormy waters. The hubris of Babel follows. For its builders it is a grand and aggrandising tower, but it is toppled by God as we might topple the play-brick tower of a toddler. Much later, in Egypt, the Israelites are forced to build the ambitious cities of imperial Egypt, but then escape into the desert to live in flimsy, ephemeral tents. Yet they build there a small, but intricate, dazzling house for a presence which is beyond all presences.
There is, too, an architecture of language in the Torah, but this is enough already. I will leave the last to a gentile with rather a way with words:
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.
And to listen to another man with a way with words, come along this Saturday at 10:30, when Adam Feldman will be leading the service.