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Understanding Shmot Through Chiasms
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The Torah’s introduction to Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus, seems as pedestrian as could possibly be. Vayikra el-Moshe vayedaber HASHEM elav me’ohel moed lemor, “God called out to Moshe and spoke to him, from the Mishkan saying.” What a boring verse, what could be happening in this verse? It’s just setting the stage for what follows: God calls out to Moshe, God talks to him, God has to talk to him from somewhere, he talks to him from inside the tabernacle. Big deal. Ah, but there is a very big deal going on here indeed, and to understand it, we need to look at the implications of what we discussed in our last parsha video.
In that video, we discussed a chiasm, a large extended chiasm that seems to span the entire second half of the Book of Exodus. We talked about the edges of the chiasm, the two cloud stories of God appearing in a cloud above Mount Sinai at the end of Parshat Mishpatim, and its mirror at the very end of Parshat Pikudei in the last paragraph of the Book of Exodus, the story of the cloud descending upon the Mishkan. In our last video, we looked at these two cloud stories and we saw the intertextual links between one and the other, how the language of one cloud story seems to be mirrored in the next cloud story, and how, if you look carefully and contrast them, you begin to understand them both more deeply.
What I want to do with you now is to show you that these two cloud stories are significant not just because they are intertextually related to one another, not just because they are the edges of a very large chiasm of the Book of Exodus, but because each of these stories in itself is chiastically structured. They are chiasms within chiasms. Each of them has their own center, and each of these two centers play off of each other in a fascinating way that sets the stage for the next book of Torah.
Let’s look at the first cloud story, the cloud over Sinai. Follow me into chapter 24, verse 15. Vaya’al Moshe el-hahar, “and Moshe went up the mountain.” Well, just taking a look at this paragraph, is there any other time that we hear that Moshe went up to the mountain? Oh yeah, look at the end here, 3 verses later, verse 18. Vaya’al el-hahar, “Moshe went up to the mountain,” one more time. Interesting.
Look at the next element, right after the first vaya’al Moshe el-hahar. Vayechas he’anan et-hahar, “the cloud of God’s presence covered the mountain.” Well, do we have any reference to the cloud at the very end of these verses? Look at the beginning of verse 18, it says, vayavo Moshe betoch he’anan, that “Moshe went into the cloud.” So the second element here in the chiastic structure is the cloud. First we hear that the cloud covered the mountain, and then we hear that Moshe went into this cloud that covered the mountain. Let’s look and see if the chiasm continues. Is there a next element, the third element, what we might call the green element?
Well, going back to the beginning, the very next idea is vayishkon kvod-HASHEM al-har Sinai, “the Glory of God comes and rests on top of the mountain.” Do we hear anything at the corresponding point in the chiasm about the Glory of God? Verse 17, umar’eh kvod HASHEM ke’esh ochelet berosh hahar, “the site of God’s Glory was like consuming fire at the top of the mountain.” So the third element here, in both cases, is the Glory of God. First the Glory of God comes to rest on top of the mountain, and then a description of what it looked like, “the site of God’s Glory was like consuming fire at the top of the mountain.”
Now, is there another element, a fourth element? Well, right after the Glory of God’s presence on top of the mountain, keep on reading verse 16. The next thing we hear is vayechasehu he’anan, back to the cloud, “the cloud covered the mountain.” So in the fourth to last element, is there something that corresponds to that, is there another reference to the cloud? And in fact, there is. The end of verse 16, God calls out to Moshe, where? Mitoch he’anan, “from inside the cloud.” First the cloud covers the mountain, and then God calls out from inside the cloud.
We are getting closer and closer to the center. What’s the next element? The next element is time. Back to the beginning, right after the Glory of God rests on the mountain, and right after we hear the cloud again, right after that we hear about days. Six days the cloud stays there, and now look at the other side of the chiasm. On the seventh day, that’s when the voice of God called, leading to the exact center, vayikra el-Moshe, that “God called out to Moshe.” Those words, “God called out to Moshe,” that’s the center of this little chiasm, and the end of the Sinai story.
The first time we hear of the cloud, and now, let’s go for the last time that we hear of the cloud. Fast forward 15 chapters, all the way to the very end of the Book of Exodus, and here, too, we get a chiasm and a cloud story. Chapter 40, verse 34, vayechas he’anan et-ohel moed, “the cloud covers the tabernacle.” And now, ask yourself in this little story, at the end of Exodus, do we again hear about the cloud and its presence over the tabernacle? And the answer is we do.
Verse 36, just a couple of verses later, “and when the cloud would lift from on top of the tabernacle, that’s when the Jews would know that it’s time for them to go.” Okay, so is there another element here? What is the next idea? Uchevod HASHEM male et-hamishkan, “the Glory of God filled the Mishkan.” First we hear about the cloud, then we hear about the Glory of God filling the Mishkan. Where else in the second cloud story do we hear about the Glory of God? We do hear about it again, and not only we hear about it again, we hear about it with the exact same words that we heard about before the end of verse 35, uchevod HASHEM male et-hamishkan. Right where you would expect it to be.
Let’s go more in towards the center. What’s the effect of this cloud? Verse 35, velo-yachol Moshe lavo, because of the cloud “Moshe can’t go in,” and that’s mirrored at the other side of the chiasm by the third to last element. Why can’t Moshe go in? Ki-shachan alav he’anan, “because the cloud is there,” leading us to the three words that are the middle, el-ohel moed, “the tent of meeting.” Moshe couldn’t go in where? Into the tent of meeting, because God’s presence was there.
So we look at the large picture here. We’ve got a little chiasm in the first cloud story and a little chiasm in the second cloud story. Each of them have three word centers. The three word center in the first chiasm, vayikra el-Moshe, “and God called out to Moshe.” The three word center in the second chiasm, el-ohel moed, “into the tent of meeting.” What could these three words centers possibly mean?
The centers are centers of gravity. Everything revolves around it, but what pedestrian centers these are. “God called to Moshe.” “The tent of meeting.” I would have expected something deep, spiritually transporting at the center of these two chiasms, that bridge the entire second half of the Book of Exodus, but instead we just get these little three word snippets. “And God called to Moshe.” “The tent of meeting.” What’s the big deal?
Look at the very next verse after this chiasm. This chiasm is the entire second half of Exodus. What’s the first verse of Leviticus? Vayikra el-Moshe, “and God called out to Moshe.” From where? Me’ohel moed, “from the tent of meeting.” The two centers of the chiasm become the introductory words of the next book of the Torah.
Just in case you are wondering, how many times do you think the words vayikra el-Moshe appear in the entire Torah? The first time they appear is at the center of the first cloud chiasm. The next and last time they ever appear in the Torah is when God calls out to Moshe in the beginning of Vayikra. It’s the only other appearance of these words.
And where did God call? The first time God called out to Moshe, at the end of Mishpatim, it wasn’t from the Tabernacle, there was no Tabernacle; all there was, was a mountain, the God-made mountain. God called to Moshe from the top of Sinai. But now that there’s a Mishkan, God comes into our world, and God doesn’t call from Sinai anymore. God calls from the place that we built for him, me’ohel moed, the center of the chiasm in the second cloud story.
If you put the two centers together, there is a new reality being born. A reality in which God calling out to man doesn’t just happen once in a remarkable, miraculous event at Sinai, but can be a continuing feature of history, by God coming into the world in the structure that mankind creates for him. It’s a brave new world that we have here, a world in which God exists within the people, not just in the sky. The people as a community have made a house for God, and God has come to inhabit it, and each individual, by extension, also works on creating their own house for God. It’s what we want most in life, to build a place in our lives that we can invite God in to dwell, and from which God in turn can reach out to us. It is how the Book of Exodus ends, and it is how the Book of Leviticus begins.
Hi, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, I want to let you know, I always love hearing your feedback. There’s a little space for comments underneath these videos. Please take advantage of that. Leave comments that I or your fellow students can take a look at.
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