Repetition and the Tabernacle: Eternity in the Face of Change
When we arrive at the threshold of Parashat Terumah, we are breathless. The first half of the book of Exodus contains a fast-paced story wherein the lives of our ancestors seem to change completely. Here in Terumah, however, precious little happens. Our ancestors are embarking upon a life in tents, traveling through the desert. In this parasha, God tells Moses to build a giant tent amidst the smaller tents, a place for God to dwell with the Israelites in their years of wandering. This is all fine and good. As readers, we’re glad to know God will be with our ancestors. Maybe this will quell their fear of abandonment.
But when we start wading through the measurements, materials, and types of craftsmanship, the text starts to lose us. It is extremely and unpredictably repetitious, and it offers minute detail juxtaposed with gaps in information, leaving many readers – including many rabbis and scholars, both ancient and modern – frustrated and disengaged. Centuries ago, for example, in his commentary on Exodus (Shoresh 50), Gersonides (1288-1344) laments the extreme repetitiousness of the mishkan account, contrasting it with the unusual terseness of other parts of the Torah. He struggles with the same question many modern readers do – why would someone write in this style? – and suggests the possibility that, “this style may have been the custom [of writers] in the period of the giving of the Torah, and the prophet would then be speaking in the accepted idiom.”
How do we take in a text like this – we who read it each year, we who do not dwell in tents? Scholars have engaged the text in many ways, exploring questions ranging from authorship to ancient Near Eastern construction practices. My own interest, however, is broader: what can I, as a modern reader, learn about God and about humanity from this text? The nature of my question requires a range of academic tools, inviting conversation with biblical form critics who are concerned with genre as well as scholars of ritual practice and reader response theory who study the ways in which the “medium” – whether ritual acts or literary forms – affects the messages imparted to the participants.
Relaxing Expectations and Experiencing the Repetition in Terumah
Shortly after we encounter any text, we often form an opinion about the genre we are dealing with, and that opinion carries with it a set of expectations for how the text will unfold. Is this a poem or a narrative? Historical fiction or a fable? The tabernacle text is commonly understood as instructional text, and for good reason – the explicit content contains instructions to Moses. We don’t tend to engage instructions as we might a novel or a poem, we just try to wring the information out and get on with things. Instructions are organized and efficient; they move in a predictable fashion; they are complete. When any aspect of the writing gets in the way of imparting the information, we get annoyed – and there is much in Terumah to annoy us if we read in this mode. But I propose that if we stop responding to this text as instructions and allow it the subtleties of literature, the very features that frustrated us can implicitly communicate beliefs about God that are as important as any we find in the Torah.
Of the literary features of Terumah that get in the way of simply imparting instructions, repetition is chief among them. Neither instructions as we use them today nor ancient Near Eastern instructions or building reports evince anything like the repetition we find in the tabernacle text. Some of this repetition is between the account in Terumah and the account in Vayakhel and Pekudei, but some is contained entirely in Terumah. For example, the fact that the kapporet (ark cover) has two cherubim, one at each end, is articulated three times in two sentences. Similarly, the statements introducing and concluding the description of the menorah (lampstand) communicate exactly the same information.  But the parade example of repetition in this Torah portion is in the description of the menorah itself, where there is not only repetition of information, but repetition of precise phrases, too: two three-fold repetitions that are virtually back-to-back and word-for-word.
On one branch there shall be three cups shaped like almond-blossoms,
each with calyx and petals
and on the next branch there shall be three cups shaped like almond-blossoms,
each with calyx and petals
so for all six branches issuing from the lampstand.
And on the lampstand itself there shall be 4 cups shaped like almond-blossoms, each with a calyx and petals:
a calyx, of one piece with it, under a pair of branches;
and a calyx, of one piece with it, under a second pair of branches;
and a calyx, of one piece with it, under the last pair of branches;
so for all six branches issuing from the lampstand (Exod. 25:32-35).
If this text is intended to communicate to a builder how to assemble the furnishings of the tabernacle, it is highly inefficient. In addition to being repetitious, there are gaps in necessary information: we are told that there are 4 cups on the lampstand itself, and we are told that there is one under each pair of branches, and we are told that there are 6 branches. After all that repetition and detail, this text only accounts for 3 cups! Where does the fourth one go? These make a terrible set of instructions. But, again, what if this text isn’t instructions? If we can move past feeling frustrated about unmet expectations, what kind of reading experience does all that repetition engender?
This question comes from the “reader response” school of literary analysis. The starting point of this school is the idea that reading is an experience that takes place in time, albeit quickly; reading is not simply an instantaneous transfer of some kernel of essential content. From this perspective, the second, third, and fourth time a reader encounters a given phrase within a short text should be assumed to have different effects than the first time even though the information is the same. The question, then, is how this repetition affects readers, once we surrender to it.
Repetition, Intimacy, and Eternity
Both ritual theory and literary theory are helpful and relatively recent conversation partners for this question – both fields of study have a vested interest in repetition and meaning, and both have identified repetition – whether of acts or of words – as a means to implicitly communicate a sense of intimate knowledge and timelessness. Ritual theorists have identified invariant repetition as one of several characteristics that are common to ritual acts across cultures. They have observed that one function of such invariance is to foster experiences that are holistic and integrated, observing that when a ritual act is familiar enough that you can not only anticipate what comes next, but this is the only thing that feels right, the deed becomes existentially linked to the doer. This ability to anticipate the next part of an experience can make it feel so intimately known it is experienced as intuitive rather than learned. Similarly, literary scholars have observed repetition’s ability to make readers experience what seems to be the same moment over and over again, creating a sense of eternity and timelessness in the present moment.
As is the case in ritual activity, imparting these “big” messages about eternity and intimacy implicitly through repetition rather than explicitly through argument removes them from the realm of discourse and argument and takes them out of potential conflict with the explicit content of the text – these truths are simply felt as true, not something presented or defended. While we focus our discourse on the text’s explicit content, these other messages await us at the proverbial back door.
Intimacy and Eternity in a Story of Change
Arguably, if there is anything missing from the Exodus narrative to this point, it is familiarity (everything is new!) and eternity (everything has changed!). As Israel’s story quickly unfolds, the tabernacle texts use repetition (and other literary forms common to ritualized activity) to communicate on a level other than plot, balancing out the excitement with a sense of intimacy, eternity, and stability. It is undeniable that our ancestors’ lives are changing quickly, but the story of Exodus is not only a story of change. Through this change, our ancestors are discovering and connecting to an underlying truth that is timeless – an underlying truth that speaks to us still, all these many generations (and many changes) later.
Soon enough, we will encounter the Golden Calf incident, and this developing relationship between God and Israel will feel terribly precarious once again – and then the entire account of the tabernacle is repeated almost word for word starting in Vayakhel, recreating this sense of eternity and granting a familiar foothold. These tensions and contradictions are all true – the miracles and salvation, the fear, the change, the risk, the betrayal, the eternity, the stability, the intimacy, the unshakable loyalty. It is a story more complicated than any plot can tell.
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January 24, 2014
August 29, 2020
Dr. Amy Cooper Robertson is the Executive Director of Congregation Bet Haverim, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Atlanta. She holds a Ph.D. in Religion in the area of Hebrew Bible from Emory University. Her dissertation, “He Kept the Measurements in His Memory as a Treasure”: The Role of the Tabernacle Text in Religious Experience is available online through the Emory library.
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