Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei, Exodus 35:1-40:38, Shabbat HaChodesh, Ex. 12:1-20
Society objectifies, God individualizes.
1974 was a significant year, although I did not know it at the time. A mistake in a lab that year would eventually change the way we took notes. Nowadays, I don't know how I could survive without those technologically simple little yellow sticky pieces of paper. I have a to-do list stuck on the mirror, an appointment list on my pocket calendar. I no longer write notes in books, rather I have enough Post-it notes to make a new book. As I get older, I find that more and more of my house is wallpapered with these little informational storage units. What did people do before this unassuming little invention? They repeated things to themselves. That's a great way of committing items to memory. It is also a great way of stressing the importance of an item.
This is something to keep in mind as we look at this week's double Torah portion.
Vayakhel-Pekudei takes us to familiar territory: the building of the tabernacle, its implements, and the priestly garments, In fact, Vayakhel is pretty much a repeat of Exodus 25.
… Repetition occurs in ancient Near Eastern texts also in epic literature and certain poetic genres. …The biblical passages under consideration are largely of the archival type. Their meticulous method of accounting appeared like epic and poetic repetition and was equally familiar as a literary pattern.
We caution the reader not to approach these passages with modern stylistic prejudices. Repetition of words and terms, let alone whole sets of details, is nowadays considered tedious or unimaginative. However, a person of the ancient Near East—who was primarily a listener to and not a reader of traditional material—found repetition a welcome way of supporting familiarity with the text. In an age of relatively few written records, it gave added assurance that the tradition was transmitted as faithfully as possible.The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Revised Edition), W. Gunther Plaut, p. 621
The end of the second book of the Torah contains more than words and repetitions. It follows a pattern that hearkens back to the very beginning of the Exodus. Eileh sh'mot, these are the names, are the very first words we read in Exodus (1:1), a list of the Israelites who made their way to Egypt. Now, in the very last portion of this book of the Torah we read (Exodus 40:21) eileh pekudei, these are the records, a detailed list of the items used in the construction of the Tabernacle.
The word pekudei can be translated in a number of ways. The root p-k-d is used to form words meaning to reckon, muster, count, recall, command, appoint, call to account, entrust, and attend to. While it appears here as "records," in last week's portion (Exodus 30:12) the same root was translated as the "enrollment" of the Israelite people for the census. Pikudei as "enrollment" is also found in the book of Numbers (see especially 1:44-49).
Despite popular belief, accounting was one of the oldest professions. This even extended to divine recordkeeping.
The idea of God recording the names of people in a book is part of a general Near Eastern belief in heavenly ledgers. The popular conception of such records no doubt is rooted in the practices of record keeping in the political and economic realms. Because census lists determined certain aspects, such as taxes and military service, of the fate of the individuals listed in them, they are likely to have been the models for the record books of deities, who were considered the deciders of destiny. References in cuneiform documents to celestial ledgers can be traced back to Sumerian times. These documents refer variously to "tablets of life" or "tablets of destiny." …
The Hebrew Bible shares this tradition. More than a dozen texts refer to heavenly ledgers, of which there are three different kinds: a book of divine decrees, in which God records the destinies of people (e.g., Psalm 139:16); a book of remembrance which keeps track of what people do (Malachi 3:16) and a book of life, or of the living.Exodus, Carol Meyers, p. 261
For us this certainly calls to mind the recordkeeping associated with the High Holy Days when God notes and weighs the actions of each individual. As was noted in last year's study on this parashah, the root p-k-d is used in the Torah when God "takes note" (Genesis 21:1) or calls to account (Exodus 34:7).
Taking inventory appears to us to be an impersonal task. As it relates to the building of the tabernacle it is a record of the amount and type of items used in its construction. Jumping ahead to the book of Numbers, Sforno points out that the inventory of the same items found in Pekudei is presented differently: you shall list by name the objects (Numbers 4:32).
…each one of them (the articles counted) was worthy to be considered as important and to be called by its private (individual) name, not only as part of a generic group (category). This is certainly justified (regarding) each one of the holy vessels…Sforno on Exodus 38:21, translation from Sforno: Commentary on the Torah,Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz
If within a category of inventory the individual item is not lost, how much more so with a human being than with an inanimate object. We often worry that society treats us as just another number, classifying us by common denominators. Not so with God. Society objectifies, God individualizes. With this comes the notion of God "keeping tabs" on each one of us; while it may make us uneasy, it should be comforting.
At the beginning of the Book of Exodus we were treated as objects in Pharaoh's inventory. God's redemption restored our humanity. To Pharaoh we were numbers in generic categories; to God we are holy vessels with individual names. This transformation carries a responsibility that should be used for the benefit of community and for service to God. Isn't it time we each took inventory of our abilities and put them to use for a holy purpose?
Rabbi Michal Shekel