The Royal Table*

Exodus 25

23 You shall make a table of acacia wood. Two cubits shall be its length, and a cubit its breadth, and one and a half cubits its height. 24 You shall overlay it with pure gold, and make a gold molding around it. 25 You shall make a rim of a handbreadth around it. You shall make a golden molding on its rim around it. 26 You shall make four rings of gold for it, and put the rings in the four corners that are on its four feet. 27 the rings shall be close to the rim, for places for the poles to carry the table. 28 You shall make the poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold, that the table may be carried with them. 29 You shall make its dishes, its spoons, its ladles, and its bowls to pour out offerings with. Of pure gold shall you make them. 30 You shall set bread of the presence on the table before me always.

Parashat Terumah describes in painstaking detail the implements that were fashioned for the Tabernacle in the wilderness. So precise are these descriptions that it would probably be preferable to show pictures of the respective items rather than trying futilely to capture them in words. If some kind of automatic clock could be devised in order to overcome the shabbat restrictions, then perhaps a slide show would be the ideal solution.

The exact measurements and lists of building materials are not the usual fare of Jewish religious scholars. The story is told of one Eastern European rabbi who delved into the topic with such vigour that he came to fancy himself an expert in carpentry and building construction. When a member of his flock informed him of his plans to build a new house, the rabbi forbade him to seek out an architect. "I've been studying Parashat Terumah carefully with Rashi and the other commentators, and I know I can design the perfect house for you!"

The Jew yielded to his rabbi's enthusiasm, and before long an impressive structure had been erected on his lot.

Everything looked quite fine --that is, until a few days later, when the entire structure collapsed into a pile of wood and rubble.

The Jew approached his rabbi and described what had occurred, challenging him to account for the catastrophe. Hadn't the blueprints been certified according to the Torah and Rashi's commentary?

The aged scholar wrinkled his brow in concentration and began to consult several of the volumes from his shelf. Eventually the rabbi's eyes lit up with a look of triumph, as he turned to his congregant and announced:

"Amazing! The Tosafot raise precisely the same objection against Rashi's interpretation!"

Congregation EmanuEl, VictoriaIndeed, some of us are more comfortable dealing with theory than with the more concrete aspects of the Torah's teachings. Many of the traditional commentators have sought to find symbolic meanings to the structure of the Tabernacle, and to its furnishings.

For the most part, the scholarly energies have been channelled towards the more dramatic items that are described in the Torah reading; such as the holy ark that housed the Moses' Tablets of the Law and symbolized righteousness; the altar that served as the focus of worship; or the menorah with its mystical radiance, representing the light Torah. By comparison, relatively little is said about that most prosaic of furnishings, the table.

I suspect that many of the commentators were put off by the apparent similarity between this feature and the customs of pagan shrines. One of the main purposes of pagan cults was to provide nourishment for their deities; and the sight of the priests laying twelve loaves of "showbread" upon the Tabernacle's table could very easily be misinterpreted as having such a purpose.

Perhaps it was some such trepidation that underlies the reluctance expressed by Maimonides, who was not usually inhibited when it came to proposing rationales for even the most abstruse of the Torah's commandments, including the mysterious law of the Red Heifer, which Talmudic tradition had already declared to be unfathomable to the mortal intellect.

And yet, when discussing the function of the table, the same Maimonides declares openly that he has no idea what the purpose of this ritual could possibly be!

Ramban is aware of the possible misreading of the ritual, and notes that its main purpose was to demonstrate precisely the opposite of the pagan assumptions: The Torah commands that the loaves are to be removed intact every Saturday, as the new ones are brought in (and then shared among the priests). This was intended to provide clear evidence that we do not believe in a God who needs to be fed.

This is indeed consistent with the ancient Talmudic demythologizing of the incense offerings in the Tabernacle, such as the one that accompanied the Showbread. The Torah states that the incense was to provide a "reiah nihoah" --usually translated as a "sweet smell"-- before the Lord. The sages of the Talmud connected this expression to the Hebrew concept of "nahat ruah" --satisfaction-- in order to teach that, rather than deriving physical or sensual pleasure from the aromas of the incense and sacrificies, God is, in effect, "shepping nakhos" from the fact that his children are obeying his statutes!

The Jewish homiletical tradition, from the Talmud onward, has been relatively consistent in interpreting the table as a symbol for the ideal Hebrew monarchy. In our democratic world, I would easily translate that royalist terminology to the more general category of "government" --though I acknowledge that I am somewhat more reluctant to do so after having walked to synagogue from my hotel this morning, and passed by the Provincial Legislature and the statue of Queen Victoria in all her scowling benevolence.

At any rate, as one who comes from the small and fragile Jewish community of Calgary, I am particularly impressed when visiting Victoria, a kindred community. I am fascinated by the dedication and devotion that make possible the survival and flourishing of Jewish life in the far-flung reaches away from the larger Jewish centres. I hope that my exposition of the symbolism of the table might provide some useful lessons for the Jewish communal leadership of Victoria.

The link to that theme is created by the mention of the "zer," the "crown" that encompasses the table. While traditional interpreters are in disagreement over the precise description of this border (Rashi records the Talmudic disputes about whether it was a border that protruded above the table's surface, or a brace to secure the legs below), the verbal association was sufficient to inspire them to seek lessons about the nature of good government.

The eleventh-century North African commentator Rabbenu Hananel discerned such lessons in the dimensions of the table. It was one cubit by two cubits, producing a circumference of six cubits. Multiply that by its 1.5 cubit height and we arrive at the number nine. Nine is the number of commandments laid down for the king in Deuteronomy 17.

If one examines these laws, one notes that they are all designed to limit royal authority, to prevent oppressive demonstrations of power, such as the amassing of horses; and to make sure that that power is subordinated to religious ideals. Therefore the king is required to write his own Torah scroll and to carry it with him at all times. I am certain that these are lessons that are appropriate to anyone who occupies a position of leadership, whether at the national or local levels.

The symbolism of the zer can also be understood in that way, as setting limits to the power of the leader. Rabbenu Hananel cites many examples from Biblical history of how the monarchs never exercised absolute power, but were subject to the reprimands of their "special prosecutors," namely the sages and prophets of their generation who were quick to chastise them for the slightest moral or spiritual lapses.

As we have noted, the main function of the table was to hold the twelve loaves of the "showbread." This, say our commentators, aptly symbolizes the main role of the government, which is to care for the material well-being of their populace. This, of course, teaches us another lesson that can profitably be emulated in all human societies: Whatever ideals and ambitions a government might set for itself, the bottom line is that people must enjoy basic physical welfare and security.

The Ramban adds a further dimension to this idea. Noting that the presence of the bread on the table was, in some mysterious way, supposed to draw down divine blessings of sustenance upon our world, he poses the question of why such a procedure, which smacks of magic, is necessary in the first place? Does God really need a physical catalyst, such as the bread, in order to provide bounty to humanity?

Ramban resolves the difficulty by noting that this is indeed the normal pattern of Biblical miracles, that since the original creatio ex nihilo, God has always chosen to perform wonders by increasing and multiplying existing objects, rather than by creating things out of utter nothingness. For this reason, Elisha asked for a jug of oil before proceeding to increase the quantity manifold.

This theological insight contains a valuable lesson for our community leaders. They should not behave like that proverbial individual who protested to the Almighty that, in spite of years of prayers, he had never been allowed to win the lottery-- only to have it pointed out that he had never actually purchased a ticket!

Quite the contrary, we should be the first to acknowledge that the miraculous vitality of small Jewish communities is a mutual affair. God provides his blessing only after we have arrayed our table with the Showbread of work, time and dedication.

But once we have done our part, miracles are truly possible.

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*Sermon delivered at Congregation Emanu-El Victoria British Columbia, February 21 1999