Shiur #09: Of Councilors and Kings: Three Parables and a Numerology

  • Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

With section seven, the Midrash begins to move away from presenting petichta’ot on the first verse of Vayikra toward a more general discussion of the opening verse of the book.  As part of this transition, the Midrash presents a series of three “quasi-petichta’ot.” These passages do not meet all the formal requirements of the petichta form, but still bear a strong “family resemblance” to the fully formed petichta’ot that we have seen.  Most notably, they end with the verse “Vayikra el Moshe.”

 

These three passages all combine elements of the petichta form with a mashal.  Before proceeding to explicate these texts, we will first briefly discuss the nature and workings of the mashal form.  A mashal is way of interpreting a story by telling another story.  A story is a series of interrelated events told by a narrator.  Stories, especially more complex ones, tend to contain a certain degree of “gaps” between the events.  The exact relationship between the various events is not always spelled out.  It is the job of the reader to figure out how the events in the story are connected.  This is the primary work involved in interpreting a story.  Since there are always different ways of explaining the relationship between the events in the story, there are always multiple ways of interpreting a story. 

 

A mashal provides a framework to guide the reader to a specific interpretation of a biblical story.  A mashal is a relatively simple story in which the relationship between the events described is meant to be straightforward.  The mashal and the Biblical text must be read together.  The reader must deduce which elements the two stories have in common.  Now that he knows what elements to focus on, the reader can sharpen his reading of the mashal.  The reader then abstracts a narrative structure from the mashal and applies it to the biblical text in question.  This narrative framework tells the reader which elements of the biblical narrative to focus on and which to ignore.  The relationship between these plot elements can now be determined on the basis of the plot of the mashal.  Finally we come to the nimshal which is a retelling of the Biblical story as interpreted through the prism of the mashal.

 

Most meshalim use certain stock characters and situations.  Most common is the “king,” patterned after the Roman emperor.  The king always corresponds to God in the biblical narrative.  This trope helps the reader grasp God’s awesome power and majesty by comparing Him to the most exalted human being in the world at the time.  However, in comparing God to a mortal, the mashal almost inevitably implies that God is limited or flawed in some way.  Sometimes this seems intentional; in other cases it is just the inevitable by- product of the mashal.

 

The three meshalim in our passage all have a further character in common - a senior advisor or servant of the king, who corresponds to Moshe.  Each mashal casts Moshe in a slightly different role, giving a different perspective on Moshe’s special status and relationship with God.

 

 

I. Moshe as master builder

 

THE LORD CALLED UNTO MOSHE. 

What is written prior to this? The section of the Tabernacle: Even as the Lord commanded Moshe.

This may be compared to [the case of] a king, who commanded his servant, saying to him, 'Build me a palace.'

On everything he built he wrote the name of the king; he built the walls, and wrote on them the name of the king; he built pillars, and wrote on them the name of the king; he roofed it with beams, and wrote on them the name of the king. 

After some time the king entered the palace, and on everything he saw he found his name written.  Said he: 'All this honor has my servant done me, and I am within, while he is without! Call him, that he may come right in.'

So, too, when the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe: 'Make me a Tabernacle,' he [i.e. Moshe] wrote on everything he made 'Even as the Lord commanded Moshe'. 

Said the Holy One, blessed be He: 'Moshe has done Me all this honor, and I am within while he is without.  Call him, that he may enter the innermost [part of the Tabernacle].'

Therefore it is said, AND THE LORD CALLED UNTO MOSHE.

 

This section does not open like a standard petichta, nor is there a conventional petichta verse from the Nevi’im or Ketuvim (Prophets or Writings).  Rather, it opens with another verse from the Torah: “As God commanded Moshe.”  This verse appears some dozen times in the later part of Shemot, describing the way in which Moshe constructed the mishkan (the Tabernacle) and the priestly garments.  This verse serves as a sort of petichta verse, in that the entire passage seeks to link this verse with our parasha, the beginning of Vayikra, “Vayikra el Moshe…” which appears at the end of the passage.  We thus might call this passage a quasi-petichta: It contains some of the salient features of the petichta, while lacking others. 

 

The passage possesses narrative qualities beyond those of conventional petichta’ot.  In a standard petichta there are a series of interpretations, while here there is a single story, a mashal.  Furthermore, the petichta verse and the parasha verse are two verses in sequence from the same section of the Torah:  the end of Shemot and the beginning of Vayikra.  The passage interprets these verses together by establishing narrative causality between them and understanding  the parasha verse to be the direct result of the petichta verse. 

 

We can now turn to the mashal itself: A king orders his builder to construct a palace.  The builder proceeds to do so, inscribing the king’s name on each and every beam and column.  When the king sees how the builder has taken care to place the king’s name on each and every element of the palace, he immediately seeks to reward the builder’s devotion by inviting him into the palace.  As a story, this mashal is pretty straightforward.  The only element that we might question is the builder’s practice of inscribing the king’s name on the building materials. Clearly, it is meant to signal his devotion to the king, but it still seems a little strange, maybe even obsessive.  Perhaps this refers to an actual ancient royal building practice. 

 

The elements of the nimshal seem to be clear at first glance.  The king corresponds to God and the builder is Moshe.  The palace is the mishkan, whose building Moshe supervised.  Moshe’s devotion to executing God’s will in the building of the mishkan, as expressed by the repeated statement that Moshe did “as God commanded him,” is rewarded by God by his invitation to enter the mishkan at the beginning of Vayikra

 

However, when we examine the nimshal carefully, things become more complicated.  The nimshal states that Moshe actually inscribed the verse “as God commanded Moshe” on each and every element of the mishkan, just like the builder inscribed the king’s name throughout the palace.  We have already noted that the builder’s behavior is curious.  Moshe’s alleged behavior is even more curious, because there does not seem to be any evidence from the Torah that Moshe did such a thing.  Ultimately, this is a case in which the midrash asks the reader to take a “leap of interpretation” and accept a reading that is not rooted in the text, but does help to make a point.

 

This interpretation becomes a little more understandable in light of the Tosefta Megilla 2:16.  There, it talks about a practice of inscribing God’s name on a beam.  This action is the written equivalent of verbally dedicating the beam to the Temple or the synagogue.  It seems that the act of inscribing building materials in both mashal and the nimshal recalls this actual practice. 

 

The problem remains however: there is no source in the Biblical text for this claim.  I would like to suggest two understandings of how this interpretive “jump” came about.  We have already explained that the reader of a mashal must determine which elements the mashal and the nimshal have in common.  Sometimes, however, there is a certain amount of “leakage,” in which elements from one are transferred to the other, even though there is no reason to do so.  Here, the image of the builder inscribing the king’s name on the materials is perhaps the most striking element of the mashal.  Hence, it makes sense that the midrash sees fit to transfer this element to the nimshal, even thought there is no source for this in the biblical text.

 

Another possibility is that the midrash conflated the actual mishkan with the description of the mishkan  in the Torah.  The phrase “As God commanded Moshe” is inscribed repeatedly throughout the Torah’s description of the construction of the mishkan.  For some reason, the Rabbis here seems to have determined that the experience of seeing the mishkan must parallel the experience of reading about it.  Therefore, they presumed that the line “as God commanded Moshe” was inscribed throughout the mishkan, just as it is throughout the Torah’s description of the mishkan.

 

II. Moshe as Prime Minister

 

The presentation of the next mashal diverges from the petichta form even further.  It opens with a presentation of the mashal:

 

This may be compared to a king who entered a province accompanied by generals, governors, and commanders.  The people did not know which of these was the favorite among them all, but [when they saw] to whom the king turned his face and spoke, [they knew that] he was the favorite among them all

 

The mashal itself is quite straightforward: When a king appears surrounded by assorted officers and ministers, it can be difficult for a person looking from the outside to distinguish between these various members of the king’s retinue.  However, when the king singles out one particular individual to have a private conversation with, it becomes apparent to all that he is the king’s most important minister. 

 

Already, given the context, the astute reader will understand that the king’s private conversation with his minister parallels God’s call to speak with Moshe in the mishkan.  But what scene in the Torah is parallel to the initial scene in the mashal in which the all the king’s men appear equal? The nimshal clarifies this:

 

[even as it said], And unto Moshe He said: Come up unto the Lord, thou and Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel (Shemot 24:1).

We would not know who was the favorite among them all

unless it should be he whom the Lord called and addressed;

it is therefore said, AND THE LORD CALLED UNTO MOSHE.

 

The midrash uses this mashal to forge a link between two distant and ostensibly unconnected verses.  At the end of Parashat Mishpatim, the Torah describes how Moshe, along with Aharon, Nadav, Avihu and all seventy of the elders ascended Mount Sinai.  They are all privy to a vision of God on His throne.  At this point there is indeed no way of differentiating between Moshe and his companions.  They have all been chosen to meet with God.  It is only when Moshe alone is called into the mishkan to have a private meeting with God, that it becomes clear that Moshe is closer to God than any other mortal.

 

However, there is an obvious problem with the nimshal.  Even a casual reader of the Torah will note that Moshe’s status becomes clear long before this verse in Vayikra.  Indeed, immediately after the description of the collective vision of God at Mount Sinai, the Torah states, “The Lord said to Moshe, ‘Come up to Me on the mountain and wait there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the teachings and the commandments which I have inscribed to instruct them’.” (Shemot 24:12).  Right then and there, Moshe is singled out from among  Aharon, Nadav, Avihu and the elders.  Only he is called upon to ascend all the way up the mountain and to receive the Torah.  There can be no doubt as to whom God favors most.  Why, then, does the midrash bring in the verse from Vayikra when one can find a completely coherent nimshal by drawing only on the Shemot passage?

 

The simple answer to this question is that Midrash precisely rejects the local context.  It prefers to bring together two disparate verses rather than interpret verses in their immediate context.  Nevertheless, this case is particularly radical.  We might speculate that originally there was a midrash which used this mashal to explain the passage in Shemot 24.  Our passage, whose agenda is to interpret Vayikra 1:1, appropriated this mashal and used it to interpret Vayikra 1:1 in the context of Shemot 24.  While there is no evidence for the existence of such a version of the mashal, we do frequently find similar situations, in which an earlier midrash, which is more rooted in the text, is appropriated for other purposes in such a way that the link between the midrash and text becomes attenuated.

 

III. Moshe as chief regulator

 

Lastly, the Midrash presents the third mashal:

 

We may also illustrate by the case of a king entering a province. 

With whom does he speak first? Is it not with the market-commissioner of the province? And why? Because the latter occupies himself with the essential requirements of the province.

Even so did Moshe occupy himself with the burdens of Israel, saying to them, 'This animal you may eat, that animal you may not eat.' These are the things which you may eat, etc.  (Vayikra 11:2); These shall you not eat (ib. 4); These you may eat of all that are in the waters, etc.  (ib. 9); And these you shall have in detestation among the fowls (ib. 13), implying, And others you shall not have in detestation; And these are they which are unclean unto you (ib. 29), implying, And those are not unclean. 

Therefore it is said, AND THE LORD CALLED UNTO MOSHE.

 

In this mashal we find the king neither in his palace nor travelling with his leading officers but rather on the road, interacting with his subjects.  Whom does the king seek to speak to first? His “agoronomon.”  According to Margoliot, this word comes from Greek “agoranomos” and means an official who is charge of regulating the local marketplace.  (Presumably this is from the Greek words agora which means town square or market and nomos which means rule).  The argument is that the person who regulates the economy is the most important royal official in any given place.

 

In the nimshal Moshe is portrayed as the person who is in charge of regulating the day to day lives of the people.  Hence, he is the one who God seeks to speak to.  The choice of verse about the laws of kashrut is hardly coincidental.  These are the first laws in the book of Vayikra that are given to the people as a whole.  This time, instead of interpreting the first verse of the book of Vayikra in terms of events in the Book of Shemot, the midrash looks forward into the book of Vayikra.  Why was Moshe called into the mishkan? Because he was in charge of the people and God sought to give him laws with which to regulate them. 

 

This mashal is different from the previous two.  In the first two, the King is at his palace or with his entourage and the individual paralleling Moshe is an important member of his court.  But is not God’s real residence in Heaven? Are not the angels God’s true courtiers? The final mashal emphasizes the difference between God and this world.  When God visits the world he is like a king who has left home to visit one of his provinces.  Even Moshe is just a provincial administrator and not a permanent member of God’s court.  Moshe’s importance does not ultimately derive from his close relationship with God.  Rather, his relationship with God derives from his role as instructor and regulator of the people.

 

These three meshalim thus present three different images of Moshe and his relationship with God.  In the first mashal he dwells with God in His palace.  The second mashal portrays Moshe as a beloved advisor who is, however, first among equals.  The final mashal portrays Moshe fundamentally as the leader of the people, who communes with God only as part of fulfilling this role.

 

Digression- Eighteens

 

We skipped over a brief digression at the beginning of section 8.

 

Said R. Samuel b. Nachman in the name of R. Natan:

Eighteen times is ['As the Lord did] command' written in the section of the Tabernacle, corresponding to the eighteen vertebrae of the spinal column.  Likewise the Sages instituted Eighteen Benedictions of the Prayer, corresponding to the Eighteen mentions [of the divine Name] in the Reading of the Shema, and also in [the Psalm], “Ascribe unto the Lord, O you sons of might.”Said R. Hiyya b. Abba: [The eighteen times 'command' are counted] only from And with him was Oholiav, the son of Achisamach of the tribe of Dan, etc.  (Ex. 38, 23), until the end of the Book. 

 

Having mentioned the multiple appearance of the phrase “as God commanded Moshe” the midrash goes on to note that the term tziva (“commanded”) appears 18 times in the description of the mishkan (if you count from Exodus 38:23 to the end of the book).  The Midrash here takes the opportunity to link together a series of things that number eighteen.  The purpose of this exercise is to create connections between these items: the mishkan, the human body (the spine), the shemona esrei and the Shema, as well as Psalm 29.  The idea seems to be that despite the loss of the Temple, we remain linked to the mishkan through our prayers and through our very bodies.  

 

 

Sources:

 

ז

דבר אחר:
ויקרא אל משה
מה כתיב למעלה מהענין?-

פרשת משכן-

כאשר צוה ה' את משה.
משל למלך,

שצוה את עבדו וא"ל:

בנה לי פלטין!
על כל דבר ודבר שהיה בונה,

היה כותב עליו שמו של מלך.

והיה בונה כתלים

וכותב עליהן שמו של מלך.
היה מעמיד עמודים

וכותב עליהן שמו של מלך.
היה מקרה בקורות

והיה כותב עליהן שמו של מלך.
לימים נכנס המלך לתוך פלטין,

על כל דבר ודבר שהיה מביט היה מוצא שמו כתוב עליו.
אמר: כל הכבוד הזה עשה לי עבדי,

ואני מבפנים והוא מבחוץ?!

קראו לו שיכנס לפני ולפנים.

כך

בשעה שאמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה:

עשה לי משכן,

על כל דבר ודבר שהיה עושה
היה כותב עליו: כאשר צוה ה' את משה.
אמר הקב"ה: כל הכבוד הזה עשה לי משה,

ואני מבפנים והוא מבחוץ?!
קראו לו שיכנס לפני ולפנים,

לכך נאמר: ויקרא אל משה.



ח

אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמן, בשם רבי נתן:

שמונה עשר צוויים כתוב בפרשת משכן,
כנגד י"ח חוליות שבשדרה,
וכנגדן קבעו חכמים י"ח ברכות שבתפלה,
כנגד י"ח הזכרות שבקריאת שמע,
וכנגד י"ח הזכרות (תהלים כט): שבהבו לה' בני אלים.
אמר רבי חייא בר אבא:

לבד: מ"ואתו אהליאב בן אחיסמך למטה דן "(שמות לח) ועד סוף סיפרא.
 

משל למלך שנכנס במדינה

ועמו דוכסים ואופרכין ואסטרטליטין

ואין העם יודעין איזה מהם חביב מכולן,

אלא מי שהמלך הופך פניו ומדבר עמו הוא חביב מכולן.
כך

ואל משה אמר: עלה אתה, ואהרן, נדב, ואביהוא, ושבעים זקנים (שמות לד)

ואין אנו יודעים איזה מהן חביב מכולן,

אלא מי שהקדוש ברוך הוא קורא אותו ומדבר עמו.

לכך נאמר: ויקרא אל משה.
 

משל למלך שנכנס למדינה

עם מי מדבר תחלה,

לא עם אגרונימון של מדינה?!
למה?
שהוא עסק בחייה של מדינה.
כך

משה עסוק בטרחות של ישראל.
אמר להן: זו חיה תאכלו וזו לא תאכלו.
את זה תאכלו מכל אשר במים וגו' (ויקרא יא).
ואת אלה תשקצו מן העוף

אלה תשקצו ואלה לא תשקצו (שם)
זה לכם הטמא,

זה טמא וזה אינו טמא (שם)
לכך נאמר: ויקרא אל משה:

 

 

7

THE LORD CALLED UNTO MOSHE. 

What is written prior to this? The section of the Tabernacle: Even as the Lord commanded Moshe.

This may be compared to [the case of] a king, who commanded his servant, saying to him, 'Build me a palace.'

On everything he built he wrote the name of the king; he built the walls, and wrote on them the name of the king; he built pillars, and wrote on them the name of the king; he roofed it with beams, and wrote on them the name of the king. 

After some time the king entered the palace, and on everything he saw he found his name written.  Said he: 'All this honor has my servant done me, and I am within, while he is without! Call him, that he may come right in.'

So, too, when the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe: 'Make me a Tabernacle,' he [i.e. Moshe] wrote on everything he made 'Even as the Lord commanded Moshe'. 

Said the Holy One, blessed be He: 'Moshe has done Me all this honor, and I am within while he is without.  Call him, that he may enter the innermost [part of the Tabernacle].'

Therefore it is said, AND THE LORD CALLED UNTO MOSHE.

 

 

8

Said R. Samuel b. Nachman in the name of R. Natan:

Eighteen times is ['As the Lord did] command' written in the section of the Tabernacle, corresponding to the eighteen vertebrae of the spinal column.  Likewise the Sages instituted Eighteen Benedictions of the Prayer, corresponding to the Eighteen mentions [of the divine Name] in the Reading of the Shema, and also in [the Psalm], “Ascribe unto the Lord, O you sons of might.”Said R. Hiyya b. Abba: [The eighteen times 'command' are counted] only from And with him was Oholiav, the son of Achisamach of the tribe of Dan, etc.  (Ex. 38, 23), until the end of the Book. 

 

 

This may be compared to a king who entered a province accompanied by generals, governors, and commanders.  The people did not know which of these was the favorite among them all, but [when they saw] to whom the king turned his face and spoke, [they knew that] he was the favorite among them all

[even as it said], And unto Moshe He said: Come up unto the Lord, thou and Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel (Shemot 24:1).

We would not know who was the favorite among them all

unless it should be he whom the Lord called and addressed;

it is therefore said, AND THE LORD CALLED UNTO MOSHE.

 

 

We may also illustrate by the case of a king entering a province. 

With whom does he speak first? Is it not with the market-commissioner of the province? And why? Because the latter occupies himself with the essential requirements of the province.

Even so did Moshe occupy himself with the burdens of Israel, saying to them, 'This animal you may eat, that animal you may not eat.' These are the things which you may eat, etc.  (Vayikra 11:2); These shall you not eat (ib. 4); These you may eat of all that are in the waters, etc.  (ib. 9); And these you shall have in detestation among the fowls (ib. 13), implying, And others you shall not have in detestation; And these are they which are unclean unto you (ib. 29), implying, And those are not unclean. 

Therefore it is said, AND THE LORD CALLED UNTO MOSHE.