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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Vayakel- Of Women and Gold

In describing Bnei Yisrael's donations to the Mishkan, the Torah includes a faintly familiar pasuk:

וַיָּבֹאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים, עַל-הַנָּשִׁים; כֹּל נְדִיב לֵב, הֵבִיאוּ חָח וָנֶזֶם וְטַבַּעַת וְכוּמָז כָּל-כְּלִי זָהָב
And the men went ___ the women, all who were willing brought jewerly, rings, signets and girdles, all of gold (35:22)

It is unclear what the word עַל means in this context and, as such, the Meforshim provide a variety of explanations. Some fill in the blank with "following," others as "together with," but either way, the verse is reminscent of a similar scene but a few perekim before, in the build-up to the Egel haZahav (Golden Calf).
וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, אַהֲרֹן, פָּרְקוּ נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב, אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵי נְשֵׁיכֶם בְּנֵיכֶם וּבְנֹתֵיכֶם; וְהָבִיאוּ, אֵלָי.
And Aharon said to them, break off the golden rings from the ears of your wives, sons, and daugters, and bring them to me (32:2)
Apart from the parallel themes of gold, donation, and men and women, both verses include the relatively rare term נֶזֶם, or ring. Indeed, the word is highly symbolic, and drapes another layer of meaning to our original pasuk.
נֶזֶם always seems to pop up in times of idol worship. Take for example, Bereishit 35:4, when Yaakov orders his family to hand over any idolatrous possessions:
וַיִּתְּנוּ אֶל-יַעֲקֹב, אֵת כָּל-אֱלֹהֵי הַנֵּכָר אֲשֶׁר בְּיָדָם, וְאֶת-הַנְּזָמִים, אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם
And they gave to Yaakov all the foreign gods that were in their hands, and all the rings which were in their ears
Turning to Nakh (Prophets and Writings), we find a similar phenomenon. Gideon asks of his people gold in order to form an ephod, one which is then deified and worshipped.
וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם גִּדְעוֹן, אֶשְׁאֲלָה מִכֶּם שְׁאֵלָה, וּתְנוּ-לִי, אִישׁ נֶזֶם שְׁלָלוֹ
And Gideon said to them, I make a request: that every man give me the rings from his spoils
Once again, discussion of Avoda Zara (idolatry) is accompanied by the ubiquitous נֶזֶם. Coumbined with the request for rings by the Egel haZahav, we have before us a formidable pattern.
And yet, there is one more area in Chumash where נֶזֶם appears three times: the betrothal of Rivka. Awed by her beauty and kindness, Avraham's associate decides he has found the woman for Yitzkhak As such, he places on her, "a golden ring of half-shekel weight." (24:22) The jewerly is symbol for her betrothal, and its central role is emphasized several times over: Lavan springs into action, "when he saw the ring and the jewerly" (24:30) on his sister. When retelling the narrative, the associate remarks how he "placed the ring upon her nose, the bracelets on her hand, and blessed God for leading me in the right path to take a daughter . . . for my master's son." (22:48) The two are intertwined: as should be no surprise for us, the exchange of a ring symbolizes a new connection between husband and wife.
Which takes us back to our original pasuk and its description of Mishkan donations. One way to fill in the blank is to have the men returning to their wives, asking yet again for their rings. (See Seforno and Lekakh Tov.) If that is indeed the case, the "healing parallel" becomes two-fold. For one, the classic material of Avodah Zara - from Yaakov, through the Egel, to Gideon - is now used positively, to construct the Mishkan. Secondly, recall the wives' reaction to the initial request for gold. When Aharon instructs the men to sieze jewerly for the Egel, a simple reading of the subsequent verse suggests that the women refused [1]:
וַיִּתְפָּרְקוּ, כָּל-הָעָם, אֶת-נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב, אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם
So all the men broke off the gold rings that were in their [own!] ears (32:3)
In that moment of sin, the men of the nation were distant from both God and their spouses. Their turn to idolatry was a turn away from their women. In their moment of repentance, they return once more requesting rings - that symbol of re-connection between man and wife- and this time, the request is granted.
QuickNotes for the Shabbos Table
-The Torah's description of men and women donating to the Mishkan parallels the scene of men and women involved in donating to the Egel HaZahav.
- In contrast, there the donations are for idolatry, here for God. There the women refuse to participate, here they join in.
-Particularlly suggestive in the parallel is the occurence of נֶזֶם, or rings, in both verses.
- That piece of jewerly primarily appears in two contexts: marriage and idolatry.
- We can understand 35:22 as the men once again asking their wives for gold, and the symboilsm of the ring fits like a ring: the building-block of idolatry is redeemed as a tool for Divine worship; the tension between families dies away, and husband and wife are reconnected.
[1] Ibn Ezra and several Midrashim read differently, that the men did indeed take take their wives jewerly. Even so, that was under force, while in the context of the Mishkan, only "the willing of heart" donated their gold.

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