A deep mystery…

Vayakhel - A deep mystery...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Parashah Vayakhel: Exodus 35:1-38:20

"And Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood…" (Exodus 37:1)

The Sages use an obscure device to get to a critical problem: what is the Eternal One’s role in human suffering? Let me explain the device first, then we’ll move on to the midrash, and my thoughts on what it can mean for us.

The device is the word shittim, which in Hebrew means both a place ("Shittim") and the word for acacia wood. The place Shittim is one of the many where we Israelites got into trouble, which creates an opportunity for interpretation: why should the Ark of the Covenant be made from wood that reminds us of our rebellion against G!d’s laws?

I have abridged the midrash somewhat, as the Sages give many examples of the thesis they are promoting, namely: G!d heals us by wounding us. An astounding paradox! Listen:

It is written, For I will restore health unto thee, and I will heal thee of thy wounds (Jer. 30:17). The ways of G!d are unlike those of man; for a man inflicts a wound with a knife, and heals with a plaster, but G!d heals with the very thing with which He wounds, as it says, And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah. Why? For they were bitter (Ex. 15:23). R. Levi said: That generation was bitter in its deeds.

And he cried unto the Lord; and the Lord showed him a tree (ib. 25). What kind of tree was it? Some say that it was an olive-tree, others that it was a willow-tree. Some think that it was an laurel, and still others say that it was the roots of fig and pomegranate trees. But whatever it was, it was bitter; and this he took and cast into the waters, And the waters were made sweet (ib.). A clear illustration of I will heal thee through thy very wounds.

You will similarly find it written of the days of Elisha: But the water is bad, and the land miscarries (II Kings 2:19). And Elisha said [unto the men of the city]: Bring me a new cruse, and put salt therein. And they brought it to him (ib. 20), and then we read: So the waters were healed unto this day, according to the word of Elisha which he spoke (ib. 22).

In like manner, it was in Shittim that Israel sinned, for it says, And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab (Num. 25:1); but it was also through shittim (acacia-wood) that they were healed, for it says, And Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood.

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus L:3

Now, the problem of theodicy – the presence of evil in a G!d-created world – is perhaps the greatest challenge that any theology must face, especially if it says that G!d is all-knowing, all-powerful, and loving. As Rabbi Harold Kushner suggests, you can only have two of the three, unless you’re willing to say that there are "higher purposes," unknown to mere humans, which are served by (for example) the deaths of innocent babies.

However, most of these problems exist at the "boundaries" of our experience: those disturbing extremes that create huge challenges for every religion. For me, this notion – that we are healed by the wound that G!d inflicts upon us – is a paradox that can strengthen us in that broad middle of the road, even if it doesn’t satisfactorily answer the problems at the extremes.

Do you know how we build up our muscles, and therefore become stronger? We do it by breaking down muscles, tearing them apart in exercise. Then when they heal, they come back not merely repaired, but with more volume, and more power.

Do you know how we keep our intellects sharp, our brains healthy (and, as it turns out, as a result our bodies)? By taking on challenges that stump us; by exercising our cognitive skills in much the same way as we do our physical bodies.

I believe that the challenges that we encounter are opportunities to engage with G!d and thereby become healed – and strengthened. Am I ready to say that the Holy One, Kadosh Baruch Hu, sends us pain and suffering to improve us? No, I am not.

I am, however, ready to say that the Eternal One is a healing force that is always available to us, and that the quality of the challenge we find most difficult to face is often the one that will lead us to the most growth if we can encounter it in a spiritually positive manner.

But allow me to take this a step further. I do not believe that we can successfully have a full encounter with G!d’s healing power as individuals. I believe that we must heal each other as agents of the Eternal One, in community. All too often we forget that the brit, the covenant we have with G!d is between G!d and people, not G!d and individuals.

So, we are obligated as creatures not only made in the image of the Divine, but as sparks of the Divine in this world, to reach out to each other and help heal the wounds that have been inflicted, by whatever means.

Then, I believe, it will be true that G!d will heal us – the Divine in each of us can and will heal each of us.


Why the second post for this portion? The last one contained thoughts on a midrash, but the illustration was only peripherally related to those thoughts. Now, it happens that the midrash M’ Shoshannah and I each wanted to share is one that happens to be one of my favorites. I am pleased to say that she found it also to be quite compelling! So, now that we have overcome the technical difficulties that prevented us from delivering the "full package" earlier, please treat yourself to a second portion of midrash – in words and colors – with our distinct pleasure.

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One Response to “A deep mystery…”

  1. Carl Kinbar says:

    “I do not believe that we can successfully have a full encounter with G!d’s healing power as individuals. I believe that we must heal each other as agents of the Eternal One, in community. All too often we forget that the brit, the covenant we have with G!d is between G!d and people, not G!d and individuals.”

    So true, but not said often enough.

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