Listening to the Bible (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 25, March 30, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. The Torah portions Vayak'hel and Pikudei, Exodus 35-40, are read on Shabbat, March 21 "An audio book?" I tried to keep the sneer hidden. "No, I prefer to read books." To really earn your understanding of a book you have to struggle with it, master it. Listening, on the other hand, is easy. My snobbery was misplaced, of course - snobbery usually is. There's a noble tradition of people listening to books. Bands today tour to promote their albums as well as to make money, and during the 19th and early 20th centuries authors regularly held public readings from their works. A social evening at a friend's house might well have included the host reading aloud. Listening was a perfectly acceptable way to encounter the written word. If this was what literate folk who had easy access to printed material did, imagine what it would have been like before Gutenberg. How many people would have possessed even a single book? Consider: A Torah scroll takes about a year for a scribe to complete. Almost everyone was desperately poor and could barely afford the necessities, so they encountered the Holy Scriptures by hearing them read out loud. As historically authentic as it may be to hear a book read, it's a very different experience than doing the reading yourself. For one thing, you're at the mercy of the lector: You can't decide to skip ahead to the good stuff. A trivial point? Not if you're reading "Moby Dick." And not, perhaps, if you're reading Vayak'hel-Pikudei. To be sure, it is no small matter that the Tabernacle, the portable Temple, was completed along with its accouterments: the Ark, the altar, the menorah, the priestly vestments and the rest. The Temple was at the heart of biblical Judaism; in the desert, it was the locus of God's manifest presence. Stylistically, the bracketing of the work with references to the Sabbath (Ex. 35:1, 2 and Ex.: 39:43) indicates that it was a kind of mini-Creation; and the Sanctuary stood for the cosmos in miniature. And, as a plot point, it prepares the way for the next stage in the Israelites' journey. With the priestly system inaugurated, the Jews are ready to move on into the desert towards their promised home. Contributing Editor Rabbi Joshua Gutoff is a writer, teacher, and student in New York. He blogs at Extract from an article in Issue 25, March 30, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.