Parashat Truma: Time travel in the biblical text

Are we being told that reading the Torah is like traveling in Dr. Who’s TARDIS, whose inside is larger than its outside dimensions and travels backward and forward in time?

 Life at times flows like a sweet melody, at other times there is dissonance (photo credit: Elia Pellegrini/Unsplash)
Life at times flows like a sweet melody, at other times there is dissonance
(photo credit: Elia Pellegrini/Unsplash)

The 25th chapter of the Book of Exodus opens this week’s parasha, Truma. Or does it?

According to many Torah commentators throughout the ages, Chapter 31 actually happened before Chapter 25. What is going on here? Are we being told that reading the Torah is like traveling in Dr. Who’s TARDIS, whose inside is larger than its outside dimensions and travels backward and forward in time?

Commenting on the golden calf episode in Chapter 31, Rashi explains: “There is no ‘earlier’ or ‘later’ [no chronological order] in the events related in the Torah: In fact, the incident of the golden calf happened a considerable time before the command regarding the work of the Tabernacle was given (Chapter 25 and the following chapters)” (Rashi, Silbermann edition, Ex. 31:18).

That is a bold statement by Rashi, claiming that the Torah was not written, dictated by God to Moses, in chronological order. On what does he base this radical approach to the text?

Explaining the mysteries of time surrounding the Torah

In the Talmud, there is discussion about two verses. The Book of Numbers, Chapter 1, reads, “The Lord spoke to Moses in the tent of meeting in the Desert of Sinai on the first day of the second month of the second year after the Israelites came out of Egypt” (Num 1:1). And in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 9, it states, “The Lord spoke to Moses in the Desert of Sinai in the first month of the second year after they came out of Egypt” (Num 9:1). Clearly, these sentences are not written in sequential order, which led Rav Menashya bar Tahlifa, quoting Rav, to conclude, “That is to say, there is no earlier and later in the Torah” (Pesahim 6b).

A simulated image of a black hole. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)A simulated image of a black hole. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

While this was recognized as an accepted hermeneutical tool in understanding the Torah, it was by no means accepted by all rabbinic authorities. It was one of the major differences between the schools of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael and how they understood the infrastructure of the Torah.

IN HIS magnum opus Heavenly Torah: As Refracted Through the Generations, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explores these two approaches. Akiva believed the Torah was written chronologically, and Ishmael followed the teaching of bar Tahlifa that there is not always a strict chronology to the words of the Torah. 

Heschel quotes Rabbi Judah the Patriarch who thought, as did Ishmael, “There are many passages linked to each other in the text, but in actuality they are as far apart as east from west” (Tucker edition, Heavenly Torah, p. 241; Sifre Balak 131).

Heschel also cites Rabbi Aha, who offers a very interesting explanation of why God would have written the Torah out of order:

“Rabbi Aha made this interesting observation: The fact that there is no chronological order in the Torah testifies that the sacred texts were uttered by the Holy and Blessed One. Otherwise, people would say, ‘They are merely fiction, written by someone who used his imagination, in the manner of a person who relates what happened in his lifetime’ (Genesis Rabbah 85:2). He concludes, therefore, that because they lack any chronological order, they must be the product of the Holy Spirit. Moses wrote them down in the order in which they were communicated to him through prophecy” (Heavenly Torah, p. 242).

Akiva, on the other hand, as Heschel says, “stated bluntly, ‘Every passage that adjoins another has to be learned in conjunction with it’” (ibid. p. 241; Sifre Balak 131). Akiva, according to Heschel, appears to base his thinking on this verse from Psalms, “The Torah of the Lord is perfect” (Ps. 19: 8).

We also find a synthesis of these two divergent positions. Heschel quotes Nahmanides: “The Torah follows a chronological order, except where it provides a specific explanation for placing a text earlier or later, depending on the demands of the subject or for other reasons” (Heavenly Torah, p. 243; Nahmanides, Num. 16:1).

With the two passages in the Book of Numbers out of order, it is clear how Rav Menashya bar Tahlifa came to his conclusion that those two sections, and some other passages within the Torah, were written in unchronological order. So, what drew Rashi to say that Exodus chapter 25 and chapter 31 are out of order? 

Rabbi Micah Peltz offers a beautiful and keen insight: “For Rabbi Ishmael, then, the order of the Torah is as follows: Sin of the golden calf; commandment to build, and the building of, the mishkan. Therefore, the sin of the golden calf actually happens before any talk of a mishkan. Suddenly the mishkan, which represented the Divine ideal for Rabbi Akiva, becomes a Divine concession for Rabbi Ishmael. Rabbi Ishmael believes that God never intended [for] Israel to build a mishkan – but then Israel sinned. Only then does God give the command to build the mishkan. God is abstract, and therefore wanted people to relate to God in an abstract way. But the people needed something concrete, something tangible, in order to relate to God, so God gives in.

“Through this example, we see that Rabbi Akiva views the world through the lens of heaven – where Divine desires come first. Rabbi Ishmael, however, views the world through an earthly lens – where human needs can affect God” 

Ross Benjamin, in the preface to his new and comprehensive translation of Kafka’s diaries, offers another way to grasp the written biblical text that in places appears random in its structure:

“Unlike the Brod edition, which imposed an artificial chronology on the entries, the critical edition retains the sequence as it appears in the notebooks. Kafka went back and forth between several of them at the same time, without dating every piece of writing” (Franz Kafka, Diaries, trans. Ross Benjamin, p. ix).

“There is no chronological order in the Torah” also sends us into the reality of Einstein’s special theory of relativity that time is not absolute; there is an elasticity to time: the faster one moves, the slower time is experienced; and the slower one moves, the faster time is encountered. In Einstein’s theory, chronology remains constant, unlike in the Torah, where we are told that the text does not always follow a direct time chronology. However, with Einstein’s theory of relativity and its fluctuation of the speed of time, along with the unchronological sequencing of the Torah, our perceived sense of time can be disjointed by both.

Perhaps that is the point. Life at times flows like a sweet melody, and at other times there is dissonance; things seem out of order. We harmonize those disparate moments by reading the text of the Torah through the lens of the Talmud, which presents the perspectives of Ishmael and Akiva as both having validity.■

The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.