This Week's Torah Portion: Testify! (Part 23)

Dëvar Torah – Parashath Pëqudei (Exodus XXXIX, 21-XL, 38)

Finally, after months of intense and loving effort, the Mishkan was completed and filled with the objects which had been so painstakingly made for it:

And it was in the first month of the second year, on the first of the month, that the Mishkan was raised (XL,17).

And the cloud covered the Tent of Assembly and the glory of Ha-Shem was filling the Mishkan (ibid., 34).

The work had received the Divine seal of approval. The great luminary of 18th century German Jewry, Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, notes the similarity between what happened at the inauguration of the Mishkan and what happened at Sinai, in that there we also find:

And the glory of Ha-Shem rested on Mt. Sinai (ibid., XXIV, 16).

Further, at Sinai Moshe was not called in G-d’s presence until the seventh day after the cloud’s appearance (ibid.), and in our parasha, too, we find:

And Moshe could not come to the Tent of Assembly because the cloud sat upon it and the glory of Ha-Shem was filling the Mishkan (ibid., 35).

In Leviticus I, 1 we first find Ha-Shem calling Moshe to Him. Rabbi Hirsch also reminds us that King David took note of this similarity:

My L-rd, is amongst them, as at Sinai, in holiness (Psalms VIII, 18).

King David thus puts his finger on the quality of holiness, qëdusha, as associated with G-d’s immanence in Israel and, as we have already seen (Exodus XXV, 8), both the Mishkan and the later Temple in Jerusalem are called miqdash (“holy place, sanctuary”). The obvious point is that Israel, as G-d’s servants on Earth, must lead hallowed lives if G-d is to dwell in our midst. The point of the comparison would thus seem to be the presence of G-d at the center of holiness. The Torah was given on Sinai, and so naturally it was there that the glory of Ha-Shem “dwelt” (wayishkon). What had happened to bring about its transferal to the Mishkan?

The source of qëdusha in this world, the “instruction manual” for the hallowed life Israel is enjoined to lead is, of course, the Torah. After the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai, that mountain became the focal point of qëdusha in the world, and so it was there that the cloud appeared and the “glory of Ha-Shem” came to rest. The purpose of building the Mishkan was: “And I shall dwell (vëshachanti) amongst them” (ibid.).

To that end it was the Mishkan and the priests and Levites who served within it that would become the new center of Torah, symbolized by the Tablets which Moshe had brought down from Sinai and now placed in the aron haqodesh, the special gold-plated box built to hold them. This, in turn, would reside in the Qodesh haqodashim, the “Holy of Holies” at the heart of the Mishkan.

Later, the Sanhedrin, source of rulings, instructions, and corrective decrees for all of Israel, took its place near the Miqdash. When the Temple was built in Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin was located in the Lishkath hagazith (“Office of carved stone”) within the Temple precincts. From there, as the prophet tells us, their decrees reached all of Israel:

For from Zion does Torah emanate, and the word of Ha-Shem from Jerusalem (Isaiah II, 3).

Our parasha tells us that Moshe placed the Torah in the aron with these words:

And he took and placed the testimony into the box (Exodus XL, 20).

This was in response to the command:

And you shall place in the box the testimony which I give to you (XXXV, 16).

Why do these two verses use the peculiar term ‘éduth, “testimony,” for Torah?

Rashi provides us with one answer: “Because [the Torah] is for testimony between Me and you,” i.e. of the eternal Covenant. For this reason, adds his grandson the Rashbam, the Tablets are called Luchoth habërith, “Tablets of the Covenant.”

Rabbi Yoséf Albo, 14th century author of the classic Jewish philosophical work Séfer ha‘Iqqarim (III, 21), offers a different answer as relevant to us today as when he first proposed it 600 years ago:

The Torah is called ‘éduth to say that it must be understood like the testimony of witnesses. When witnesses testify we do not say, “Let us change the time,” or give such and such interpretation to their testimony so that they will not be found guilty of perjury. If they testify that Rë’uvén killed Shim‘on on the first day of the week and are proven wrong, we do not say, “Let us re-interpret the testimony so that they will not be false witnesses … ”

Thus, Ha-Shem’s Torah is called ‘éduth because the commandments are properly understood according to their simple meaning and not figuratively or allegorically, to say that there are conditions or time limitations which are not mentioned in them.

Therefore did David say, “Ha-Shem’s ‘éduth is faithful”(Psalms XIX, 8) — true in its simple meaning, as written. And the burden of proof is upon him who comes to interpret or change it, saying, for example, that the prohibition of pork was temporary … or that the important thing in the Torah is belief in the heart and not performance of the commandments, for he cannot abolish the commandments or say that there is a condition or a time which is not mentioned.

This is what the Psalmist meant when he said, “The wicked have dug me pits which are not according to Your Torah” (Psalms CXIX, 85), and goes on to explain that the pits are what they say, that “all Your commandments are only a matter of faith” (ibid., 86), and “with this lie they pursue me” (ibid.). Therefore, he cries, “Help me! They have almost destroyed me on the Earth!” (ibid., 86-87), but nonetheless, “I did not abandon Your commandments” (ibid.).

In short, the Torah is an absolute, is eternally relevant, and cannot be tampered with to match present fashion or current convenience. Our task is to make our times fit the Torah, not vice versa. Only thus can the Torah be the eternal ‘éduth to the covenant between G-d and Israel which Rashi and the Rashbam would have.