Addressing Our Loved Ones

While God commands Moses, He also calls to him affectionately.

Print this page Print this page

18 Times

Indeed, this midrash goes on to assert that the phrase"as the Lord had commanded Moses" appears precisely 18 times (Exodus 39: 1, 5, 7, 21, 26, 29, 31, 32, 42, 43; 40: 16, 19, 21, 23, 25, 27, 29, 32), corresponding to the 18 vertebrae of the spinal cord (by the Rabbis' count), the 18 blessings of the silent devotion (there are today actually 19) and the18 appearances of God's name (the Tetragrammaton) in both the three paragraphs of the Shema and Psalm 29. The equivalences establish a link between Tabernacle and synagogue, the sacrificial cult and verbal prayer (during which one often genuflects, hence the vertebrae), as if the original revelation anticipated later developments.

But I cite this midrash not to talk about numerology or mysticism, but about the pagination of a Sefer Torah scroll. A simple aliyah to the Torah will remind you that its columns of unvocalized and unpunctuated Hebrew text are not divided into chapters or verses but into units of varying lengths broken up by an enclosed empty space in the middle of a line or an openspace at the end of a line. In our printed Humashim, which are arranged by chapter and verse (a pattern introduced by the Church), those ancient spaces are marked by either the Hebrew letter peih (parashah petuha signifying an open unit) or samekh (parashah segura signifying a closed unit). The accompanying English translation is ordered according to these units as well as by chapters and verses. Thus, for example, the book of Exodus, which we finished last Shabbat, contains 164 such units.

The reason the Rabbis noticed the number of times the phrase" as the Lord had commanded Moses" appears is because all of the units in chapters 39 and 40 of Exodus, except the last two, end with that refrain. In other words, the units were demarcated by the phrase to underscore that the construction of the Tabernacle and all its appurtenances complied fully with God's word.

Nor is this the only instance where God calls Moses by name before instructing him. The midrash states that in fact each time God addresses Moses, be it to teach, converse or command, God first lovingly calls him by name.

Could it be, the midrash finally speculates, that God might also precede the cessation of communication, the void between the visitations with a fond mention of Moses's name? And if that is unimaginable, then what is the purpose of the interruptions in revelation or the empty spaces in our text? To which the midrash responds with psychological insight: to absorb and internalize what has just been transmitted. Without the benefit of frequent stretches of silence, the Torah turns into a mere torrent of discordant voices. In truth, were our lives punctuated with periods of silence, we would hear God calling us by name more often.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.