This week’s reading begins: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts…” (Exodus 25:1-2) The rest of the book of Exodus deals with the construction of the Tabernacle, a portable temple, from these gifts, with a short reprise for the production of the golden calf, and a few pronouncements about the importance of the Sabbath. We have detail upon detail concerning the structure of the Tabernacle and its accoutrements, down to pails, scrapers, basins, flesh hooks and fire pans. And in case that isn’t enough, most information is narrated at least twice: once as God commands Moses, and again as the command is executed. These 16 chapters try the patience of even the most ardent student of the Bible.
This Torah portion contains some of the best-known, and most moving, stories in Genesis. Toward its beginning, Vayera narrates the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and it concludes with the akedah, the binding of Isaac, a very troubling episode. These accounts are often juxtaposed, as readers try to understand why Abraham bargained on behalf of the sodomites, insisting, “shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:25) while he was unwavering and unquestioning in his willingness to slaughter his son. In part, this question shows a misunderstanding of both biblical texts.
Most of the portion Ha’azinu comprises a long poem that is very schematic, emphasizing God’s great care for Israel, Israel’s rebellion, its punishment, and its ultimate rehabilitation. The language of the poem is more difficult than typical biblical poetry. Some scholars label it as “archaic” — that is, ancient — while others consider it to be “archaistic,” that is, pretending to be ancient. Dating such texts is beyond the ability of biblical scholarship, but its possible early date may explain why it is so hard to understand: We lack many other such early texts, and thus it is difficult to contextualize this poem; and the earlier a text is, the more likely that it has changed both accidentally and intentionally over time, making it much harder to uncover its original words and their meaning.
Deuteronomy is often singled out as the book of the Torah that cares most about social institutions. It is the only one that contains legislation concerning kings and prophets — both found in this week’s portion, Shoftim. A careful look at these texts suggests that this legislation is trying to curb the power of these individuals.