As long as there have been Jews, it seems, there have been synagogues. We may read about the Holy Temples; we may even pray for their rapid restoration! But our collective tribal memories cannot go back so far as to hear the lowing, baa’ing, or the stifled chirps of the beasts and birds which the busy kohanim/priests spent their time butchering and offering up in smoke to a mysterious tribal God. Since then, the sacrificial period has either ended or been suspended (depending on your belief or politics), and, in Hosea’s words (14:2), “the words of our lips have replaced the lambs and bullocks.” We turn, therefore, with quaint and curious interest, to this week’s Torah portion.
It gives a detailed description—one always longs for a chart, there enshrined in the Torah!—of the very first worship-center Jews ever built, to Divine specifications, before which the Israelites prayed and made offerings to God, and in which Moses received Holy Prophecy, the Ohel Mo’ed, or Tent of Meeting. It was designed to be a portable shrine, easily broken down and transported in covered wagons across the desert wastes, during the forty-year sojourn in the Sinai wilderness.
Among its central features was the Holy Ark, a wooden box lined inside and outside with plated gold (making it a powerful conductor of electricity, thereby accounting for the abrupt death of one unfortunate, Uzzah, who died of electric shock, for the “sin” of simply reaching out a hand and steadying a wobbly Ark, trying to prevent its falling off a wagon, when a team of oxen pulled it into a pothole—II Samuel 6:6-7).
This Ark bore upon its lid a pair of cherubim—not the fat, bewinged babies of Valentine’s Day cards, but brooding, sphinxlike creatures who, in ancient times, were believed to carry human prayers to God on their backs. They faced one another with their eyes downcast, wings outspread, as if to furnish a footstool for the invisible God who was “enthroned upon the cherubim” (Psalms 99:1).
Seen in this light, the Israelites’ later transgression, that of building a Golden Calf, while not excusable, becomes easier to comprehend. Their sin was not in building the calf: they intended it to be a footstool (or mount, really) for their invisible God. Their transgression resulted from building the wrong kind of footstool: a Babylonian-style calf similar to the bull which the pagan thunder-god Baal rode, not the pair of cherubim which the Israelite God requested: sort of a divine ottoman.
As for the festival celebrating the Golden Calf mentioned in Ex. 32:6, that might be blamed on the erev rav/mixed multitude of petty sorcerers, orgiasts, lunatics, and assorted scapegraces which accompanied the Israelites out of Egypt. I suspect that Pharaoh, suffering from the worst kind of God-induced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), callously opened his prisons and lunatic asylums in order to rid Egypt of all social undesirables en masse, along with the escaped slaves, once and for all, urging them to join the Israelite Exodus, much as Castro did in sending his ne’er-do-wells to join Jimmy Carter’s 1980 Mariel Boatlift.
Besides the contents of the Ohel Mo’ed/Tent of Meeting described above, there was a fence made up of white linen sheets which divided the sacred precincts from the remainder of the camp, as well as an ordered pattern for how the Israelite tribes were to camp around it. Every Israelite had a clear view of the Mishkan/shrine, and could ponder the place of the Holy in his life—a lesson we Post-Modern Jews ought to follow more often.
As we journey through our lives’ wilderness towards Purim, marked by our blessing the New Month of Adar Rishone/Adar the First this Shabbat—Purim being our happiest holiday, ironically celebrating (yet another) of our people’s narrow escapes from mass destruction—thereby embodying the ongoing “diceyness” of being Jewish, which I derive from the holiday’s literal name: pur, or the casting of dice—let us ponder the place of Fate, Karma, Serendipity, or Purblind Luck in our lives, along with our Free(?) Will—and God’s. Who wins, who loses? Who will wear the royal crown and robes, to ride the king’s stallion? Who will lose, to twist and dangle from a gallows? The path of our people’s troubled history has never run smooth, but we survive, nay flourish: only God knows how.