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Paley’s Clock and Chekhov’s Gun (Pekudei)

Few things are more boring to read than a list. How surprising, then, when we come across a particularly long list of information lying smack in the center of a novel or memoir widely considered to be among the greatest works of literature ever written. But it happens more than we might expect. In The Great Gatsby, for instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald spends an entire page naming the guests who regularly attend Gatsby’s house parties. In Walden, Henry David Thoreau records all of his household expenses in point form. In Ulysses, James Joyce enumerates nearly one-hundred Irish heroes while discussing that nation’s history. This isn’t a conventional technique, nor is it an especially engaging one, to be sure. Sometimes, though, there’s really no better way to talk about facts or details than by simply listing them.

Ulysses, Walden, and The Great Gatsby include some of the longest lists in literature. For a list of fifteen lists in literature (that's pretty meta) see here.

Ulysses, Walden, and The Great Gatsby. For a list of fifteen of the greatest lists in literature, see here.

This week’s Torah portion, פקודי – “reports” or “inventories” – provides a pertinent a case in point. As the building of the Tabernacle comes to an end, the Torah seeks to summarize the quantities of each material used in its construction. Hence, it resorts to a list: we used this much gold, this much silver, this much bronze, and so on, and so forth. That’s what our Torah portion is about, in a nutshell. It’s the last Torah portion in the book of Exodus, and given everything else that happened in the book of Exodus until now – from leaving Egyptian slavery to eating the manna in the wilderness to receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai to worshiping the Golden Calf – its content strikes us as fairly anticlimactic. Frankly, the list seems to come out of nowhere.

But of course, it doesn’t.

Anybody who’s studied literature has heard of literary devices – a generic term encompassing the broad range of techniques which authors employ to convey meaning. Literary devices serve a number of different purposes, and one of the common purposes for which they are used is to unify, organize, or give coherence to one’s writing, either structurally or thematically. Two literary devices, in particular, which fill this function are: (1) inclusio (Latin), i.e. “literary envelopes,” in which we “frame” a portion of text by placing similar material at the beginning and end of the given section; and (2) leitwortstil (German), i.e. “leading words,” which, as we’ve mentioned several times in the past, are “verbal motifs” – words repeated throughout a text in order to emphasize key ideas and develop meaning. We mention these devices here because both of them – inclusio and leitwortsil – appear in our Torah portion, and if we understand their function, we may also begin to understand what the lists in our Torah portion are trying to accomplish.

In ending the book of Exodus with a list, the Torah is employing the inclusio device. After all, the very first verse of the book of Exodus reads, “And these are the name of the children of Israel who went down to Egypt…” Thus, we begin the book with the list of Israelites who descend into Egyptian slavery, and end it with the list of materials used to construct the Tabernacle.

In ending the book with a list, the Torah is also employing the leitwortsil device. Our Torah portion is called פקודי, which means, in this context, “reports” or “inventories,” as we said above. But the word פקד – which crops up at all the critical junctures in the book of Exodus – clearly means something else as well.  When God reveals Himself to Moses at the burning bush, He announces: “I have _____ (פקד פקדתי) the Israelites and what is being done to them in Egypt” (Exodus 3:16). When Moses performs miracles before the elders of the nation, they “believed in God for they heard that He _____ (פקד) them” (Exodus 4:31). When the Israelites leave Egypt, they recall the guarantee made by Joseph centuries prior, namely, that “God will certainly _____ (פקד יפקוד) you, and then you shall take my bones out of the country with you” (Exodus 13:19). When God delivers the Ten Commandments, He informs the nation that He is a “zealous God, who _____ (פקד) the sins of parents upon children” (Exodus 20:5). When God later utters the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy he repeats the same refrain (Exodus 34:7). So what does פקד mean, and why is it significant in the book of Exodus?

It seems that the Hebrew root פ.ק.ד is analogous to the French root conter, from which we derive the English words “count” and “account.” When the Israelites take stock of the materials with which they built the Tabernacle, they are counting them, or making an account. When God recognizes the plight of the Israelites, He is taking it into account. And when God punishes people for their sins, He is holding them accountable. Both in Hebrew and in English, then, counting and accounting are etymologically connected.

Russian author and playwright Anton Chekhov

Russian author and playwright Anton Chekhov, famously known for the eponymous “Chekov’s gun.”

They are also semantically connected. In the original French, conter meant both “to add up” (count) and “to tell a story” (account for). Until today, we combine these meanings idiomatically: when we suspect that a particular account doesn’t account for all of the relevant information – either it leaves some out, or it includes something irrelevant – we say that “the story doesn’t add up.” In literature, the principle that every element in a narrative must be necessary and irreplaceable is referred to as Chekhov’s gun. As Chekhov put it, “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

Behind Chekhov’s principle lies the conviction that everything has a purpose. Everything counts, and everything must be accounted for. Cast in theological terms, this is the thesis of the book of Exodus. In the first chapter, God lists the Israelites — he counts them by name , which, as Rashi points out, is supposed to teach us that we count, i.e. we matter to Him. Next God פקדs our situation – takes account of us; notices our personal plight, and responds to our individual needs. From there, God tells us that he פקדs our actions – not only are our lives important to God, but in fact, we are accountable directly to Him. And, finally, we ourselves פקד the materials used to build God’s Tabernacle: we list them, we count them, we make an account, because we understand that it’s not just humans that matter – everything matters. Nothing is random and nothing should be wasted. Everyone and everything which God created is significant, and everyone and everything has a role to play in moving the world towards where it ought to be.

In the book of Genesis, we meet the God who created the heavens and the earth. This is the God who William Paley, and others who take what’s known as the teleological approach to God’s existence, famously compare to a clockmaker: the God who, they argue, must be behind nature’s complexity. But, as deists like to point out, God can create a clock without caring about the clock. He can put it together, wind it up, and then walk away.

That’s why we need the book of Exodus. If in Genesis we meet the God of cosmology, in Exodus, we meet the God of history. At Mount Sinai, God introduces Himself not as the God who created the world, but as the God who took us out of Egypt. It is one of the most profound lessons of the Bible, that the personal is always more impressive than the purely powerful. To be a king, God didn’t need us — hence the lyric from the אדון עולם prayer, “God reigned before anything existed.” Yet God  does need us, as it were, because He seeks more than royalty. He also seeks — indeed, primarily seeks — relationships. So God doesn’t count His riches or His praises. He counts us — He counts His relationships — because He wants us to know that that’s what really “counts.” And we, in turn, count our gold, silver, and bronze only as part of the construction of the Tabernacle, to demonstrate that nothing “counts” more than anything else — not money, nor strength, nor good looks, nor even intellectual abilities — except to the degree that is used to foster meaningful connections based on the twin pillars of Judaism: gratitude, and giving.

This is the Torah’s message to us in the book of Exodus, and it is this message which our Torah portion with its lists, its פקודים, brings full circle: we are accountable to God, and He to us, because in this world, it’s not what you have, but how you use it that matters. And if that’s true, then indeed, everyone, and everything, counts. 

Shabbat shalom!


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