Understanding Sefer Shmot Through Its Giant Chiasm | Aleph Beta

A Giant Chiasm In Sefer Shmot

Understanding Shmot Through Chiasms

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

In this week's video, Rabbi Fohrman explores an incredible chiasm that encompasses more than 15 chapters of Sefer Shmot, and asks: how do the pieces of this puzzle, especially the focal point at the center, come together to help us understand the second half of the Book of Exodus?

Click here for "Shattered Tablets and the Calf of Gold" series.


Welcome to Parshat Pekudei. This is Rabbi David Fohrman.

There is a fascinating pattern in the text that lurks just underneath the surface of the words and this pattern extends through the entire second half of the book of Exodus culminating in this week's Parsha. I want to show you this structure, or at least part of it and examine some of its fascinating implication with you.

What Is the Chiasm in Sefer Shmot?

So this pattern is an ATBaSh structure otherwise known as a Chiastic structure. We talked about these kind of patterns a little bit back in Parshat Lech Lecha and in Parshat Vayeira. If you haven't seen those videos I encourage you to go back and take a quick look.

The way an ATBaSh structure works is that a text is arranged so that its first element mirrors its last element, its second to first element mirrors its second to last element, third to first mirrors third to last; all converging towards the center of the text. ATBaSh of course gets its name from the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph, the first letter of the alphabet mirroring taf, the last letter. Bet, the second letter of the alphabet mirroring shin, the second to last letter. Academics will call this kind of structure a chiastic structure.

So I believe that there is very elaborate chiastic structure, that isn't just a few sentences long, but it's actually about 15 chapters long and it spans the entire second half of the book of Exodus. I explored this structure in great detail in a series of lecture that's on the audio part of our site entitled 'Shattered Tablets and a Calf of Gold;' I encourage you to check this out. But let me give you one or two highlights from that here.

If you look at the second half of the book of Exodus, starting from chapter 25 or so, the main theme that occupies the text for a number of chapters is the command to build the Tabernacle. And that takes you all the way from Chapter 25 to the end of Chapter 31. Right after the last command to build the Tabernacle, you get a sections of texts in which God commands the people to observe the Sabbath. After that, starting with Chapter 32, you get the greatest disaster in the book of Exodus and that is the extended story of the Golden Calf. So, so far we have three elements: The construction of the Mishkan, the Sabbath and The Golden Calf.

But now look at the end of the story with the Golden Calf. The story of the Golden Calf begins with Moses at the top of the mountain getting tablets of the law that he is supposed to bring down; the story of the Golden Calf ends with Moses on top of the mountain again getting a second set of tablets – he'd shattered the first one. And he's there forty days and forty nights and he is coming down from the mountain again. And that takes place at the end of Chapter 34. And just as that story ends, at the beginning of chapter 35, what do we have? We have a command to keep the Sabbath once again. And then just a few verses later after that command, we have a long extended section – wouldn't you know it, the actual construction of the Mishkan. So you can begin to see it: the command to build mishkan, Shabbat followed by the disaster of the egal, followed by Shabbat and the actual building of the Mishkan.

Detailed Commentary Hidden Inside Sefer Shmot

Now, I've just given you very, very rough parameters for this Chiasm but the truth is if you drill down deeper and actually look into the text you'll see in each of these sections, there are multiple, multiple details and as you look into those details, you'll find the chiastic structure gets played out in the details too. Let me just give you one quick example of that. Look at the transition from the first Shabbat section unto the Golden Calf section. Take a look at that first sentence, chapter 32 verse 1, vayar ham ki-boshesh Moshe laredet min hahar, "and the people saw that Moses was taking a long time coming down from the mountain," vayikahel ha'am al Aharon, " and then they gathered against Aaron and they demanded from Aaron that he makes some sort of replacement for Moses for them" and this of course, leads to the Golden Calf.

Now, look at the phrase vayikahel ha'am al Aharon, "and the people gathered against Aaron". Now let's play a little game. How many times do you think, a word comprised of those particular letters vav, yud, kuf, hey, lamed, has appeared until now in the Torah? It turn out this is the first appearance of that word. Now let me ask you another question – what do you think is the second occurrence of those letters in the Torah? Well, wouldn't you know it – it's at the exactly corresponding spot on the other side of the chiasm.

Let's look at the transition away from the Golden Calf story going into the second Shabbat command. Take a look at chapter 35 verse 1, after Moses successfully comes down from the mountain Vayakhel Moshe, Moses gathers the people and tells them "this is what you must do -observe the Sabbath." It's the very same letters, vav, yud, kuf, hey, and lamed, pronounced differently this time vayakhel, a play off of vayikahel. So the very first times we ever had this combination of letters, it all takes place at exactly corresponding points in the chiasm. And if you think about it one vav, yud, kuf, hey, lamed is the exact mirror image of the other.

The people have just been commanded about the Sabbath but Moses was on top of the mountain and the people thought he was lost forever. So they gathered against Aaron and demanded a replacement for Moses but the second time you have these letters, it's a success. Moses is back at the bottom of the mountain and it is Moses who gathers the people and commands them about how they must observe the Sabbath. So this is just an example of the kind of details which exist when you really of drill down and see what's happening on the verse by verse level.

The Ends of Sefer Shmot's Chiastic Commentary

But now let me take you to the edges of the chiasm. The thing you can always ask in the chiasm is "how far does it go? What are its outer edges?" If you look at the current edges of the chiasm, the command to construct the mishkan on the one hand and the actual construction on the other – let's ask, does the chisam extends even further? Which is to say, does the events that precedes the first command to construct the mishkan mirrors the event that follows the actual construction of the mishkan?

Okay. So right after the mishkan is constructed, chapter 40 in the book of Exodus and verse 33, vayichal Moshe et-hamilachah, "and Moses finish all the work of the creation of the mishkan and then vayichas heanan et-ohel moed, "and then the cloud of the divine presence came down and descended upon the mishkan," u'chevod Hashem male et-hamishkan" and the glory of God filled the mishkan." Now, let's go back and look at what happens at the corresponding place in the chiasm on the other side, in other words, what happens right before the first command to construct the mishkan.

Let's look at the end of chapter 24. Vayaal Moshe el hahar, " And Moses went up the mountain" and look what we have – another cloud. Vayechas heanan et-hahar, "the cloud of God's presence covered the mountain" – Mount Sinai. Vayishkon kevod-Hashem al har sinai, "and the glory of God goes and ensconces itself, on top of Mount Sinai." Fascinating! At the two ends of the chiasm and we have two clouds section – the cloud of God's presence. In one case, God's presence resting on Mount Sinai. In the other case, God's presence resting inside the Tabernacle.

Now let's zoom in a little bit closer on these two end sections and see if in the details, they correspond to each other. Let's go to the first section in chapter 24. There is this cloud on top of Mount Sinai, vayechasehu heanan seshet yamim, "the cloud was there for six days." And then, vayikra el-Moshe bayom hashevi'i mitoch heanan, "God called to Moses on the seventh day from inside the cloud." Umareh kevod Hashem ke'esh ochelet berosh hahar, "and the glory of God was like consuming fire on the top of the mountain," le'enei benei Yisrael, "in the eyes of all the people of Israel" They saw this incredible image of intimidating burning fire, and then, miraculously, vayavo Moshe betoch heanan, "Moses went into this cloud."

Now, do we have anything that reminds us of all of this on the other side of the chiasm? It turns out that remarkably, we do. If you look carefully, just at the corresponding spot of the chiasm on its outer edge, we have another cloud story, the cloud of God's presence is back and once again Moses attempts to encounter it. Vayichas heanan et-ohel moed. This time, the cloud comes down and covers something, but it doesn't cover a mountain. A mountain is a natural feature of the world- something that God made in creation. Now, the cloud comes and it covers something that man made, it covers the Tabernacle.

U'chevod Hashem male et-hamishkan. And just like before, the glory of God was at the top of the mountain, resting on top of the mountain." Here it's not resting anywhere; it is inside. The glory of God fills the Tabernacle. And now we encounter something very surprising. Moses, as he did before on top of the mountain, tries to encounter God. V'lo yachol Moshe lavo el-ohel moed, " and Moses was not able to go into the mishkan" ki-shachan alav heanan, " because the cloud was there".

Understanding the Meaning of Sefer Shmot

Do you see what's happening? The holiness of God in the Tabernacle is so intense that Moses can't even enter the Tabernacle. The text is going out of its way to compare the Tabernacle experience to the Sinai experience and it's saying that however much God was present at Mount Sinai, that is just a drop in the ocean of the intensity of God's presence at the Tabernacle – not even Moses could enter. It's a stunning victory for the Jewish people.

In the Golden Calf, God had said "I dare not come inside you lest I destroy you." Bit by bit the Jewish people had built back their relationship with God, until this crowning moment when God would come and dwell in their presence with such intensity that it dwarfs the actual Sinai experience itself. And where is God this time? Not at the top of the God made mountain, but inside the man made structure. God has come down into our world.

And now there is one more point of correspondence – the fire. Do you remember the fire the first time? God had called to Moses from the cloud and the cloud was like fire – fire that was consuming fire that was intimidating, and the entire people stood back upon gazing at the fire. Now, one more time, at the end of the chiasm there is fire, but it's a different kind of fire. U'vehealot heanan meal hamishkan, "when the cloud would lift from the top of the Tabernacle, it would be a sign that it was time for the Jews to travel: Yisu benei Yisrael bechol maseihem, " and the Jews would travel." V'im lo yealeh heanan, "but if the cloud would not lift, they would stay where they are." Ki anan Hashem al-hamishkan yomam, "because the cloud was there for the Jews by day." V'esh tiheyeh laylah bo, "and at night it turned into fire." Le'enei kol bet Yisrael, "in the eyes of all the Jewish people."

One more time, there is a cloud under this fire. One more time it happens within Israel in the eyes of all the people. The first time, it was a fiery cloud. Now, the two phenomenon, fire and cloud separate – there is a cloud by day and there is fire by night. And before, whereas this image was just intimidating, that caused us to stand back from afar in awe, now it's gentle and benevolent. The cloud leads us, tells us where to go and when; and the fire illuminates the night, and provides guidance, comfort and light.

Sefer Shmot in a Nutshell

As intense is the holiness of God in the Tabernacle, and it is more intense than Sinai, now, after the Golden Calf, after the relationship between God and the Jews has finally been repaired, the presence of God is there as a kind gentle force. It provides for the Jews. It leads them. It shows them where to go. It gives them light and security. God, the beam from beyond, is there for us in our world and the place that we made for him and his presence is there to take care of us.

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