Parshat Pekudei: God Loves Stories


“The Gates of the Forest” by Elie Wiesel

”When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem–Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished, and the misfortune averted.”

“Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: ‘Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.’ And again the miracle would be accomplished.”

“Still later, Rabbi Moshe–Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: ‘I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place, and this must be sufficient.’ It was sufficient, and the miracle was accomplished.”

“Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: "I am unable to light the fire, and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.’ And it was sufficient.”

“God made man because [God] loves stories.”

While immersed in ritual action as a Reform Rabbi, a Jew, or as a teacher, I often pause and ask myself: “Am I doing Judaism right?” Which is really shorthand for: Is this how it’s always been done? Do I have the consecrated logistical routines down–pat? How far have I veered from the original, more “conventional” liturgies, customs, and observances handed down from generation to generation? Am I merely a ceremonial renegade – a nonconformist trailblazer – simultaneously profaning, neglecting, and innovating our canon of sacred texts and traditions? And if that's the case, what then is my relationship to the heaping piles of sacrosanct rules and regulations, laws and ordered instructions – the same ones handed down from Moses in the wilderness to the shtetls of Kiev, Belarus, and Ukraine – where is my place in the enduring story of our people?

I ask all of these questions because, like Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn, I too speak to God in moments of distress. I admit to Hashem (God) with a heavy heart that I am unable to recite all Talmudic statutes and commentaries thereof. I cannot recall with precision the annals of Jewish history. I have not served with dignity in the Israel Defense Forces (צה״ל). I'm doubtful that the meditations of either my lips or heart, spoken in Hebrew, English, Yiddish, or Aramaic for that matter, are enough to save anyone from harm. Enough to overcome even my own misfortunes. In either the recesses of my mind or soul, I still cannot locate where the ancient spirit of Jewish peoplehood dwells. All I can do is to tell their story, and this must be sufficient:

Here we are: Individuals remembering a shared past and in pursuit of a shared destiny. The universe might appear deaf to our fears and hopes, but we are not – so we gather, and share them, and pass them down…..We are not merely telling [stories]. We are being called to a radical act of empathy. Here we are, embarking on an ancient, perennial attempt to give human life – our lives – dignity.
— The New American Haggadah p.v–vi

In the Torah portion this week, parshat Pekudei, Moses is presented with more than just a story. Like the detailed procedure conducted by Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov, Moses receives the original instructions for the (1) the place, (2) the prayer, and (3) the petroleum (yes, it’s true, we originally “started the fire”). God explained where to go, what to say, and how to ignite the flames so that God could dwell amidst the Children of Israel as they made their treacherous journey – providing perpetual safety, thwarting danger, and most importantly, delivering miracles: 

“And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: On the first day of the first month you shall set up the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting. Place there the Ark of the Pact, and screen off the ark with the curtain...bring in the lampstand and light its lamps; and place the gold altar of incense before the Ark of the Pact...You shall place the altar of burnt offering before the entrance of the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting….You shall take the anointing oil and anoint the Tabernacle and all that is in it to consecrate it and all its furnishings, so that it shall be holy.” [1]

God explains to Moses in meticulous detail how to conjure the presence of God – how to erect the holy gathering spot for God and God's chosen people.

And yet, here we are… The Jewish people have made it into the twenty-first century – seemingly well and alive without a tabernacle – without the original elevation-offering altar of acacia wood, the Laver of copper, golden hooks, and a Screen of turquoise, purple, and scarlet wool. Here we are: without Moses! And how?! Because, in my humble opinion, the perpetual fire that has yet to be extinguished doesn't pass from flame to flame or from wick to wick. The Jewish people and the stories they tell is the permanent meeting place for the presence of God. Forged not with precious metals, but with precious words.

While we may not be esteemed Talmudists or acclaimed historians – academics or skilled artisans – while we may not be perfect Jews (oy how boring that would be) – we can all be storytellers. We can all "embark on an ancient, perennial attempt to give human life – our lives – dignity.” The story of the Jewish people – your Jewish story – your own unique narrative – that is the tabernacle that we all carry with us on our journeys. Save your diamonds and gold. God doesn't want your ornate Temples, burnt offerings, and fancy candelabras.

God made man because God loves stories. 

[1] Exodus 40:1–9

Aaron Sataloff