Neither Early Nor Late

February 09, 2019
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove


“A story,” wrote the director, screenwriter, and film critic Jean Luc Goddard, “should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.” What he meant, as evidenced by his own films, is that when it comes to the sequencing of a story in a movie or, for that matter, a book, a sermon, or any narrative, one need not necessarily follow a straight line. Whenever we tell a story, we make choices about the ordering of facts, and doing so in a linear way is only one of many possibilities. Were you to ask me how I became your rabbi, I could relate it chronologically – from Jewish day school to rabbinical school, to graduate school, to Chicago, to the Upper East Side. But I could also tell the tale another way, beginning with a formative experience in college, for which the seeds were planted in my childhood, and which, combined with the retrieved memory of a rabbi grandfather I never knew, ultimately informed a decision that followed the birth of my fourth child. Which version is true? The first or the second? The linear or the non-linear? The chronological or non-chronological? Short answer: both! Most tales are not told strictly chronologically; in fact, one could argue that the good ones – the really good ones – are told a little out of order because it is in that out-of-ordering that the really interesting truths emerge.

So let’s jump cut to the very best story of them all, the Torah, and to a famed debate between two of the most renowned Torah scholars of our people: the eleventh-century French commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yizhaki, better known by the acronym Rashi, and the thirteenth-century Spanish commentator Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, better known by the acronym Ramban (and also often referred to as Nahmanides). Of their many debates, perhaps the most famous was on the issue of whether the Torah is laid out in chronological sequence – an extended argument over the Talmudic dictum (Pesachim 6b), ein mukdam u-m’uhar ba-torah, literally, “there is no early or late in the Torah.” Rashi holds that when Moses finally got down to writing the Torah at the end of the wilderness wandering, the story was not laid out chronologically, but topically or thematically. For example, last month we read of the story of manna from heaven and how it was stored in the mishkan (tabernacle), a detail that becomes problematic upon the realization that the tabernacle had yet to be built. Unless one holds that ein mukdam u-m’uhar ba-torah, in which case it is a detail sensibly relayed a bit early because the topic of that Torah reading was the manna. Another classic example is the story of Judah and Tamar (Genesis chapter 38), anachronistically wedged into the Joseph story. Or, just two weeks ago, the question of whether the Ten Commandments were given before or after the arrival of Yitro, Moses’s father in law. In each of these examples among others, Rashi resolves the apparent anachronism by stating ein mukdam u-m’uhar ba-torah. Chronology is not king; the narrative of the Torah is not laid out like a timeline; and what appears to be a problem or contradiction is anything but.

Our Spanish friend Ramban holds otherwise. The Torah, in almost every instance, does follow chronological order. Despite his mystical inclinations, Ramban has no patience for Rashi’s postmodern/Quentin Tarantino/Pulp Fiction imaginings. The Torah is the Torah, and God is the author, which means the burden of proof is on us! If there is a detail that seems odd, out of place, or out of time, there is no problem. Be it the manna, Judah and Tamar, or this week’s Torah reading, the literary sequencing of the text and the chronological sequencing of the text are one and the same and exactly as they should be.

So, as they say on the news: Let’s get after it. This morning we read the instructions God gave Israel to build the mishkan, the desert tabernacle that will house both God’s presence and the tablets of law that had just been given at Mount Sinai. This morning’s Torah reading is an architectural digest of sorts, with this week’s and next week’s Torah readings describing the specifications, materials, and dimensions of the mishkan, as well as the garments to be worn by the priests who will attend to the sacred precincts. Two weeks from today – and I will return to this point shortly – we will read of the bottom dropping out as the children of Israel, believing themselves abandoned by Moses, build for themselves a golden calf. Then, after the people have been punished for their idolatrous behavior, the final two Torah readings of Exodus, Va-yak·hel and P’kudei, revisit this week’s and next week’s subject matter, with the actual construction of the mishkan taking place and being completed.

The giving of the law at Mount Sinai, followed by the instructions on how to build the mishkan, followed by the idolatry of the golden calf, followed by the actual building of the mishkan. I have skipped a few elements but this is basically how the final fifteen chapters of Exodus unfold. For Ramban, the sequencing of the story makes perfect sense. The children of Israel have just received the law. They have experienced the glory of God’s presence at Mount Sinai. Now it is time to move forward from the base of the mountain and continue on their journey. It makes all the sense in the world that the first commandment they receive upon moving forward from the mountain is to build the mishkan, the mobile sanctuary that will house not only God’s presence, but the very tablets they have just received at Mount Sinai. One cannot stay at Sinai forever; we need a sacred mobile structure to accompany us on our journey. And for Israel, that structure, that “Winnebago of spirit,” was the mishkan.

Rashi sees it differently and invokes his beloved principle of ein mukdam u-m’uhar ba-torah, there is no chronological order in the Torah. Rashi offers a variety of reasons – textual, calendrical, and otherwise – why a reconsideration of the sequencing is appropriate. At the core of his argument is his contention that the building of the mishkan must have been in response to the sin of the golden calf. Sinful as it was for Israel to build the false god, their sin was prompted by the Children of Israel’s very human need for a visible and physical focus for their spiritual energies. The Israelites were, after all, a newly emancipated people, and maybe, just maybe, as the divine wrath subsided, God realized that while you can take an Israelite out of the land of idol worship, it is much more difficult to take the idol worship out of the Israelite. By this telling, the mishkan was an accommodation by God to humanity, a bit like keeping kosher is God’s way of saying: “In a perfect world you would all be vegetarians. By following kashrut, you can eat meat, but only with certain limitations.” The instruction to build the mishkan was sort of a divinely sanctioned “meet you where you are” moment, an acknowledgement that this ragtag desert tribe had a psychological need for a communal, ritual, and theological structure to organize themselves. The fact that the dedication of the mishkan would demand a sin offering as a communal atonement (Exodus 29:1) makes the implicit purpose of the mishkan all but explicit. Rashi insists that the building of the mishkan must follow the sin of the golden calf because its very purpose is a response to the golden calf.

The argument between Rashi and Ramban is interesting, and there are more points to be made for each side. At stake is not just the difference between two literary approaches, but the difference between two takes on the narrative arc of the Israelites’ journey and, by extension, the journeys of our own lives. Rashi and Ramban agreed that the Israelites needed a place in which God’s presence could dwell. For Ramban, this need reflected a sentiment that we all understand from our own lives, namely, that Sinai moments are not sustainable. Nobody stays at the mountaintop forever. The goal of a religious life is to live spiritually attuned to God’s ongoing and steady presence, in all the peaks and valleys, at every step of life’s journey. Rashi’s focus is our need to feel God’s presence at the moments, if not especially at the moments, when we stumble, fall, and fail. We need a tabernacle – we need God’s sheltering presence – at those times when we are least deserving, when we sense the divine spark within us to be most elusive. No house of worship – not the biblical one and not the one in which we are sitting today – is intended only for saints. If nothing else, a sanctuary must be a spiritual refuge, a halfway house for the spiritually broken, for those seeking tikkun, those seeking to be made whole again. We in this room know our shortcomings better than anyone. We come here to be reminded of the person whom we seek to be, to be inspired to aspire toward that higher rung, and to get the boost to bring it within reach.

Ultimately, I am not sure where I fall in the debate. Rashi and Rambam each have a point – about both the text and the human condition – which I guess is why we are still quoting them hundreds of years later. What struck me is that the most interesting aspect of these entire chapters may not be the question of whether the instructions to build the mishkan arrived after Mount Sinai or after the golden calf. The most remarkable part of this whole story is that the Israelites built the Tabernacle at all. It is one thing for a community or a person to receive a set of instructions – be it the commandments at Mount Sinai or the design specs of the mishkan. It is certainly no small thing for a person or a people to be liberated by the mighty hand of God and to find the courage to dream dreams and imagine unseen futures. But to follow those instructions, to take those freedoms and dreams and then to build something concrete and see it to completion – that is really something! To do so after having been through the grind of servitude and having been laid low as Israel was, and to muster the spiritual resilience to dust oneself off, pick oneself up, find one’s stride, and build a structure capable of housing God’s presence – well, that is downright heroic. Ramban calls the book of Exodus the “Book of Redemption,” a title I believe refers not just to God’s redemption of Israel at the sea. Exodus is a book of redemption because it tells the story of a people who, against the odds, having experienced the dark night of the soul, emerged from that night, that crucible, without self-pity and found the spiritual wherewithal to build. May the story of Exodus inspire our generation anew. May our stories follow the same redemptive arc. And may each of us prove capable of building those structures worthy of housing God’s presence.