You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Pekudei.
From Rabbi Mel Gottlieb
Pikudei: The Psycho/Spiritual Dimensions of Counting
Let us study Torah. Our Parsha begins this week with the words, “THESE are the accounts of the Mishkan…”(38:21). Pekudei-Accounts-can also mean ‘to be missing’, for in counting there is limitation, and therefore the Gemara says: “Blessing is never found in that which is counted.” Not only is there an end, a limit in our counting, but counting also develops the habit of obsessing on how much we have or don’t have, it develops an emphasis of acquisitiveness which leads to greed. Also when we count, it may leave out someone or something that is not counted (and may deserve to be counted), and thus a negative energy is aroused in this process of counting. Some explain, therefore, that counting has the potential of attracting the “Ayin Hara-The Evil Eye, the eye of jealousy.’ So the Torah teaches us that it is prohibited to actually take a census, or even to count a minyan. In our Scripture we read of a punishment of a plague associated with the census in Ki Tisa and of the plague during the reign of King David (Tachanun). And when we need a minyan (a quorum of ten people for a prayer service), rather than counting with numbers, the custom is to use a Hebrew verse containing ten words identifying the minyan. (There is also a custom that when one hears praise and is singled out, one says ‘B’li Ayin Hara’- ‘May this praise not attract the evil eye’; there was even this custom in Europe to cover up one’s baby in the baby carriage, protecting the baby from praise and being singled out, preventing the attraction of the‘Ayin-Hara- the evil eye of jealousy).
Why then is there detailed counting allowed in the counting of the various objects of the Mishkan? The counting of gold, silver, and copper in the Sanctuary runs counter to the axiom of the Rabbis in the Gemara in Ta’anit 8B. It states, “Ein Habracha Matzui Ela B’Davar Hasomui Min Ha’ayin, Blessings exist only in something that is concealed from the eye, and not in something that has been measured and counted.”
The Holy Zohar asks this question and answers: “There are two kinds of counting, counting from the ‘left’ which is a counting from selfishness which is prohibited and counting from the ‘right’ which stems from gratitude which leads to blessing. The counting that stems from the side of holiness (right), creates a positive feeling of blessing and brings joy to the universe, like when we generously give charity because it is a sacred counting, and therefore blessing resides in it. The counting of the appurtenances of the Mishkan is a counting of gratitude recognizing and acknowledging G-d’s gifts to us. The Zohar points out that the first word in our Parsha (38:21), ‘Aileh-These,’ singles out the uniqueness of this counting. It states, “This was a counting that canceled all other countings.” ( Zohar Shemot, 221B,223A).
The Kedushat Levi points out that when Moses counted the materials, the same Moses who blessed them (39:43) he did it with a beneficent eye (Ayin Tov). This is different from one who counts just for the sake of accruing something, coveting it for him/herself, (ego) and neglecting the source of the blessing which is Hashem. Moses saw the Divine Light in everything! This is very different from people like Ba’alam and Korach who are ‘takers.’ Everything that they set their eyes on, they counted it for themselves, blinded by their selfish motives (Ayin Hara). When one sees objects as reflecting the divine blessing, and recognizes the root, the Source of this Blessing -Hakadosh Baruch Hu- this way of experiencing the cosmos brings blessing to the world. It is the elixir that brings peace and harmony to each person who is blessed to receive the power of giving, the benevolent heart, the benevolent eye of our fellows.
So the counting of the Mishkan was done in this way (with an Ayin Tov), everything was counted for the sake of dedicating it to G-d, so it did not detract from blessing but intensified the Divine Presence within it. Everything is good when it is counted and used for the purpose for which it was created; as G-d’s gift to us. This, as the Zohar says, is ‘different from all other countings’ done for private ends which sever the link with the Divine. This counting restores the link with the divine. This teaches us how to SEE. A jealous, critical eye (Ayin Hara) conceals the connection with the divine, a benign eye (Ayin Tov) sees the link between every aspect of creation, and the divine store of bounty. This way of seeing therefore will cast blessing and lift the spirits of all who are seen this way. What is counted in this way of seeing is not the sum total of individual greed, but the sum total of communal sharing. In this there is no envy but great appreciation.
Some commentators also attribute the necessity of counting the articles of the Mishkan to teach us of the importance of ‘accountability’ for those handling Public funds. Even the greatest leader Moses, and builder Bezalel and craftsman Oholiav had to give an account. They listed how much gold and silver came in to prevent any slander which people in Public office are vulnerable to. (There is a lot of envy and projection of hostility onto those in power, as both the Midrash Tanchuma (‘The people said: ‘Look how fat Moses is getting as he profits from our funds’), and Freud convey). So Moshe said, as soon as the Mishkan is finished, I will give them an account.
The halacha develops this notion. In the Mishna (Shekalim) it tells us that three times a year the Priests came to take money from the Shekel chamber where the annual shekel tax was deposited, a half month before Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot. The collector did not wear a sleeved cloak, or shoes or sandals to be above suspicion. Also the charity collectors had to come as 1) a twosome, and 2) could not separate from one another while collecting, 3) they could not give change from their own money, and 4) if they have to invest surplus funds, it had to be invested with others so they could not derive personal profit from the investment. (Bava Batra 8B, Mishnah Peah 8,7; Rambam, Mishnah Torah-Matanat Aniyim-9:8-9).
Let us all count every human being as a precious, unique creation, meant to bring something special to our world, and souls who deserve our honor, our “seeing’ them with a benign eye. This is the enlightened way of being the way to bring peace to our world, and make each of us feel special, the way we are seen as G-d sees us, precious, cherished and majestic.
Have a meaningful Shabbat,
From Reconstructing Judaism
Journeying From the Persona to the Communal
By Rabbi James Greene
Up until this week’s portion, the Israelites are generally referred to as “b’nei Yisrael,” the Children of Israel. Only once had we been called, “beit Yisrael,” the House of Israel. It is with the completion of the Mishkan, the traveling sanctuary, that the people are generally called beit Yisrael, the House of Israel. We have been transformed from a people who share a common history, to a group of people who now share a common destiny. While we may disagree on things, even important things such as the building of the Golden Calf, or whether or not to follow a rebellion (stayed tuned for parshat Korakh), we are tied by a bond of community.
But why is the change from “people” to “house” significant? Perhaps the word beit, “house of, ” highlights the relationship between the beginning and the end of Exodus. In both places the Jewish people are building great buildings of religious significance. In the beginning of Exodus, Pharaoh enslaves the Jews to build his pyramids. Rabbi Bruce Kadden comments that beit signifies a permanence of place that the word b’nei simply cannot. By creating a building, we establish ourselves in the world during our own time.
It is important to note that most significant Jewish institutions are “houses”: beit sefer, a school; beit knesset, a synagogue, and beit midrash, a house of study. Many synagogues choose to use “beit” in the name of their congregation, thereby creating a chain leading all the way back to the time of Solomon. Indeed synagogues have an ark representing the Mishkan, a bimah representing the altar of sacrifice, a menorah, and an eternal light, all of which help create that chain to our history. The prayer service itself is also drawn from the daily schedule of sacrifices offered in the Temple.
Perhaps the word “beit” is significant because the term “house” suggests permanence throughout the generations, throughout time. We move from one generation to the next, we are born and we die, but a building can live on. We may add additions, knock it down and rebuild, but the foundation remains. There is a link in this portion which connects it all the way back to creation. The root of the word vayak’hel, used here to signify the completion of the Mishkan, is also used in Genesis 2:2 to mark the end of God’s creation.
Brevard Childs, a modern biblical scholar, notes that in Exodus we often see beit used to mean a clan, a family structure. So perhaps this change from b’nei to beit is about a change of life, the change from the individuality of slavery to the family structure that is embodied in the word “home.” This is the change from youth to adulthood. It is a life cycle event for the Jewish people. In The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, Aviva Zornberg writes, “The ‘house’ is the place of sexuality, of momentary unions and abiding tension, a place where two partners, fiery substance, are connected by the presence of God.”
In my own life, my path toward marriage and family was launched as my then-fiancée Jen and I began to create our new home together, our new holy space. In that process, we made the change from individuality to community, from youth to adulthood, from single to partnered, and from being one generation of a family to beginning our own new family together. That transition marked the beginning of our journey not as b’nei, as individual members in a community, but as beit, as a family unit.
This parsha concludes with Moses working alone to establish the Mishkan. He then calls beit Yisrael together for the anointing of Aaron and the other priests. So we end Exodus not as b’nei Yisrael, but rather as beit Yisrael. This transformation that we see in Exodus teaches us how to grow and shape ourselves during our journey through life. As families, we evolve from living as individuals to living together, our lives forever intertwined. On a larger scale, synagogue communities must strive to take individual families, whatever their makeup may be, and craft them into a beit kedushah, a house of holiness.
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
If leaders are to bring out the best in those they lead, they must give them the chance to show they are capable of great things, and then they must celebrate their achievements. That is what happens at a key moment toward the end of our parsha, one that brings the book of Exodus to a sublime conclusion after all the strife that has gone before.
The Israelites have finally completed the work of building the Tabernacle. We then read:
So all the work on the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, was completed. The Israelites did everything just as the Lord commanded Moses … Moses inspected the work and saw that they had done it just as the Lord had commanded. So Moses blessed them. (Ex. 39:32, 43)
The passage sounds simple enough, but to the practised ear it recalls another biblical text, from the end of the Creation narrative in Genesis:
The heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. On the seventh day God finished the work He had been doing; so on the seventh day He rested from all His work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He rested from all the work of creating that He had done. (Gen. 2:1-3)
Three key words appear in both passages: “work,” “completed” and “blessed.” These verbal echoes are not accidental. They are how the Torah signals intertextuality, hinting that one law or story is to be read in the context of another. In this case, the Torah is emphasising that Exodus ends as Genesis began, with a work of creation. Note the difference as well as the similarity. Genesis began with an act of Divine creation. Exodus ends with an act of human creation.
The closer we examine the two texts, the more we see how intricately the parallel has been constructed. The creation account in Genesis is tightly organised around a series of sevens. There are seven days of Creation. The word “good” appears seven times, the word “God” thirty-five times, and the word “earth” twenty-one times. The opening verse of Genesis contains seven words, the second fourteen, and the three concluding verses 35 words. All multiples of seven. The complete text is 469 (7×67) words.
The account of the construction of the Tabernacle in Vayakhel-Pekudei is similarly built around the number seven. The word “heart” appears seven times in Exodus 35:5-29, as Moses specifies the materials to be used in the construction, and seven times again in 35:34 – 36:8, the description of how the craftsmen Bezalel and Oholiav will carry out the work. The word terumah, “contribution” appears seven times in this section. In chapter 39, describing the making of the priestly vestments, the phrase “as God commanded Moses” occurs seven times. It occurs again seven times in chapter 40.
A remarkable parallel is being drawn between God’s creation of the universe and the Israelites’ creation of the Sanctuary. We now understand what the Sanctuary represented. It was a micro-cosmos, a universe in miniature, constructed with the same precision and “wisdom” as the universe itself, a place of order against the formlessness of the wilderness and the ever-threatening chaos of the human heart. The Sanctuary was a visible reminder of God’s Presence within the camp, itself a metaphor for God’s Presence within the Universe as a whole.
A large and fateful idea is taking shape. The Israelites – who have been portrayed throughout much of Exodus as ungrateful and half-hearted – have now been given the opportunity, after the sin of the Golden Calf, to show that they are not irredeemable, and they have embraced that opportunity. They are proven capable of great things. They have shown they can be creative. They have used their generosity and skill to build a mini-universe. By this symbolic act they have shown they are capable of becoming, in the potent rabbinic phrase, “God’s partners in the work of creation.”
This was fundamental to their re-moralisation and to their self-image as the people of God’s covenant. Judaism does not take a low view of human possibility. We do not believe we are tainted by original sin. We are not incapable of moral grandeur. To the contrary, the very fact that we are in the image of the Creator means that we humans – uniquely among life forms – have the ability to be creative. As Israel’s first creative achievement reached its culmination Moses blessed them, saying, according to the Sages, “May it be God’s will that His Presence rests in the work of your hands.” Our potential greatness is that we can create structures, relationships and lives that become homes for the Divine Presence.
Blessing them and celebrating their achievement, Moses showed them what they could be. That is potentially a life-changing experience. Here is a contemporary example:
In 2001, shortly after September 11th, I received a letter from a woman in London whose name I did not immediately recognise. She wrote that on the morning of the attack on the World Trade Centre, I had been giving a lecture on ways of raising the status of the teaching profession, and she had seen a report about it in the press. This prompted her to write and remind me of a meeting we had had eight years earlier.
She was then, in 1993, the Head Teacher of a school that was floundering. She had heard some of my broadcasts, felt a kinship with what I had to say, and thought that I might have a solution to her problem. I invited her, together with two of her deputies, to our house. The story she told me was this: morale within the school, among teachers, pupils and parents alike, was at an all-time low. Parents had been withdrawing their children. The student roll had fallen from 1000 children to 500. Examination results were bad: only 8 per cent of students achieved high grades. It was clear that unless something changed dramatically, the school would be forced to close.
We talked for an hour or so on general themes: the school as community, how to create an ethos, and so on. Suddenly, I realised that we were thinking along the wrong lines. The problem she faced was practical, not philosophical. I said: “I want you to live one word: celebrate.” She turned to me with a sigh: “You don’t understand – we have nothing to celebrate. Everything in the school is going wrong.” “In that case,” I replied, “find something to celebrate. If a single student has done better this week than last week, celebrate. If someone has a birthday, celebrate. If it’s Tuesday, celebrate.’ She seemed unconvinced, but promised to give the idea a try.
Now, eight years later, she was writing to tell me what had happened since then. Examination results at high grades had risen from 8 per cent to 65 per cent. The enrolment of pupils had risen from 500 to 1000. Saving the best news to last, she added that she had just been made a Dame of the British Empire – one of the highest honours the Queen can bestow – for her contribution to education. She ended by saying that she just wanted me to know how a single word had changed the school, and her life.
She was a wonderful teacher, and certainly did not need my advice. She would have discovered the answer on her own anyway. But I was never in any doubt that the strategy would succeed, for we all grow to fill other people’s expectations of us. If they are low, we remain small. If they are high, we walk tall.
The idea that each of us has a fixed quantum of intelligence, virtue, academic ability, motivation and drive is absurd. Not all of us can paint like Monet or compose like Mozart. But we each have gifts, capacities, that can lie dormant throughout life until someone awakes them. We can achieve heights of which we never thought ourselves capable. All it takes is for us to meet someone who believes in us, challenges us, and then, when we have responded to the challenge, blesses and celebrates our achievements. That is what Moses did for the Israelites after the sin of the Golden Calf. First he got them to create, and then he blessed them and their creation with one of the simplest and most moving of all blessings, that the Shechinah should dwell in the work of their hands.
Celebration is an essential part of motivating. It turned a school around. In an earlier age and in a more sacred context it turned the Israelites around. So celebrate.
When we celebrate the achievements of others, we change lives.
 Sifrei, Bamidbar, Pinchas, 143.
וַיָּ֨קֶם מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶת־הַמִּשְׁכָּ֗ן וַיִּתֵּן֙ אֶת־אֲדָנָ֔יו וַיָּ֙שֶׂם֙ אֶת־קְרָשָׁ֔יו וַיִּתֵּ֖ן אֶת־בְּרִיחָ֑יו וַיָּ֖קֶם אֶת־עַמּוּדָֽיו׃
Moses set up the Tabernacle, placing its sockets, setting up its planks, inserting its bars, and erecting its posts.
וְעַל כֵּן אִי אֶפְשָׁר לְהָקִים אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן, אֶלָּא הַצַּדִּיק שֶׁהוּא בְּחִינַת עָפָר, בְּחִינַת מֹשֶׁה, שֶׁהָיָה עָנָו מִכָּל הָאָדָם, כְּמוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב (שמות מ׳:י״ח): וַיָּקֶם מֹשֶׁה אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן. וְאַחֵר לֹא הָיָה יָכוֹל לַהֲקִימוֹ, כִּי דַּוְקָא זֶה הַצַּדִּיק, שֶׁהוּא בְּחִינַת עָפָר, בְּחִינַת כֹּחַ הַמּוֹשֵׁךְ, יָכוֹל לְהָקִים הַמִּשְׁכָּן, שֶׁהוּא בְּחִינַת כֹּחַ הַמּוֹשֵׁךְ, לְהַמְשִׁיךְ הָאֱלֹקוּת כַּנַּ”ל:
Therefore, no one can erect the Tabernacle but the tzaddik who is the aspect of dust. This is the aspect of Moshe, who was the most humble of all men. Thus it is written (Exodus 40:18), “Moshe erected the Tabernacle.” No one else could put it up it. For only that tzaddik who is the aspect of dust, the attracting force, could erect the Tabernacle, the aspect of the attracting force for drawing Godliness, as explained above.
From My Jewish Learning
Why is Moses Kept Out of the Tabernacle?
How the deepest intimacy can be both binding and freeing.
BY RABBI MENACHEM CREDITOR
The closing portion of the Book of Exodus focuses on the construction of the portable desert Tabernacle or the Tent of Meeting, the Mishkan. The final verses read:
…When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of God filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the God filled the Tabernacle… over the Tabernacle the cloud of God rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys. (Exodus 40:33-38)
So strange that Moses, after dedicating years to connecting the Israelites to God, can’t enter into the very structure he has helped create for that same purpose. And why? Because there isn’t room. God’s presence is so filling that there just isn’t room for anyone. Even Moses. What must it have felt like to be Moses, closed out of the very place he could have received the ultimate validation, the deepest comfort in the face of ongoing hardship and a stiff-necked nation?
Consider, for a moment, the Jewish mystical notion of Tzimtzum, contraction. Jewish mysticism teaches that, in order to create the world, God needed to not be everywhere and everything. After all, how could anything independent exist if God were everywhere and everything? And so, God pulled back some of God’s self in order to provide physical space and spiritual independence. The Infinite had to contract to made room for the finite. Tzimtzum helps address questions regarding free will, suffering and existence.
The same model holds true for human relationships. I think of my precious children. If I hadn’t acknowledged the need for parental Tzimtzum, restraining myself enough to give them the room to make their own decisions — decisions that I might not make nor approve of — I wouldn’t have been prepared to have a child. Similarly, when we do not practice Tzimtzum and acknowledge the independence of others to act and think on their own, we miss the opportunity to model sacred relationship. A healthy relationship includes Tzimtzum and is infused with the obligation to grant each other the right to inhabit their own place in the world. (In truth, your space isn’t mine to grant in the first place. It is yours regardless of my acknowledgment.)
What do we learn from the end of Exodus? That the act of losing one’s self in a rapturous, sacred moment holds the potential to exclude others. That even the holiest of intentions can disrupt a relationship when mishandled.
A brief glimpse ahead to the next book of the Torah might help illuminate the path forward. The very first verse of Leviticus reads: “God VaYikra/Called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting…” (Leviticus 1:1) There is a peculiarity to the way scribes calligraph the word “VaYikra/called.” The letter aleph (the final letter in the biblical Hebrew word “Vayikra”) is traditionally written much smaller than the other letters. One of the explanations of the small aleph is that, originally, the Torah was written without spaces between the words. The aleph became lost between the words. Our small aleph is the result of scribal tzimtzum. The scribes found room to allow a letter to exist.
And so, perhaps we might imagine that the tenor of God’s call to Moses in Leviticus is the result of God witnessing Moses’ inability to connect at the end of Exodus. Perhaps the small aleph is a physical representation of God contracting just a bit, consciously making room for a sacred partner.
Tzimtzum is the heart of a mindful, relational Jewish practice. When I recognize the power of someone close to self-determine, my life changes. I become freer. As we read in Psalms: “Please God, for I am your servant, the child of your servant. You have freed me from my chains.” (Psalms 116:16)
The end of Exodus describes God as an inaccessible partner. The beginning of Leviticus describes God’s space-giving call. We can glean from this juxtaposition of verses that the deepest intimacy can be simultaneously binding and freeing, that we can learn from each experience to nurture that deepest of connections. Whereas the Exodus journey ends this week with no room for Moses, the small aleph of Leviticus re-invites Moses — and each of us too — into a gift of deepening sacred intimacy.
From Rabbi David Seidenberg
… I wonder if the Israelites felt nostalgia for the place where they camped last as they moved from place to place in the wilderness. Whatever they did feel, the transition was made easier because the most significant thing they could imagine was not the place they had camped in, but the mishkan or tabernacle, the movable Temple, which was broken down, carried and set up wherever they camped next. We think of the mishkan as temporary, but it was actually the only permanent feature of their world during forty years of wandering.
The inner tent enclosure, the mishkan, literally the dwelling place, gets set up by Moses for the first time in this week’s Torah portion. Inside he set the incense altar of gold, the golden table, the menorah,, and further within, the ark with the two pairs of stone tablets, broken and whole. Opposite the mishkan, he put the copper altar for animal sacrifices in place. Then he stood up the copper washbasin between the two:
And [Moshe] set the basin (kiyor) between the meeting tent (ohel mo’ed) and the altar of sacrifice, and he put water there for washing. And from it, Moshe and Ahron and his sons washed their hands and their feet. (Exodus 40:30-31)
Only priests could go into the meeting tent of the mishkan, but the courtyard where the altar and the washbasin stood was open to the community. The washbasin was therefore standing between the holy inner divine sanctum and the place of the community, the courtyard, where any Israelite could bring their sacrifice.
The priests didn’t just wash when they into the went into the meeting tent that wrapped around the mishkan. They also washed when they left to go back into the communal space:
In their coming to the meeting tent and their drawing near to the [sacrificial] altar they would wash, as YHVH commanded Moshe. (Exodus 40:32)
With every activity performed by the priests, whether they were coming from the altar to go into the mishkan, or going from the mishkan toward the altar, they passed the washbasin and washed their hands. Stepping into the mishkan was stepping into holiness, and so was stepping into the community. Every passage was a chance to affirm that holiness.
The washbasin and the base it stood on were made of copper, or possibly bronze – both are called n’choshet in the Torah. It turns out that copper is a powerful anti-viral and anti-bacterial: viruses and bacteria that land on a copper surface break down and die. Bronze has enough copper in it to do the same thing.
I don’t think it’s an accident that the metal of the washbasin was copper. The copper kept the water not just holy but clean and pure. Now we are striving for a different kind of purity and cleanliness. Maybe it’s not so different though, because whether we are going out into the world to take a walk or fetch groceries, or we are returning to enter our homes, we are negotiating places that we hope will stay clean, places that perhaps can become holy.
Copper is also reflective, and that was what mirrors were made from centuries before silvered glass was a thing. It was the copper mirrors of the woman who “served at the opening to the meeting tent” that were used to make the kiyor or washbasin. (Exodus 38:8) The mirrors or mar’ot, which also means visioning, imparted a special holiness to the washbasin, the midrash teaches.
Perhaps they were also important for the priests to see themselves reflected in that moment of washing. Perhaps it was also important for the priests to envision the women left out of the priesthood who instead served at the entrance instead of the altar, and who will become priestesses in a future mishkan.
The moment of washing can similarly become a moment to see ourselves, see what our hands our doing in the world and to the world. May it also give us a moment to see further ahead, to envision the world we want to create after this pandemic has subsided.
As we give the Earth a kind of extended half-Shabbat from our pollution and manipulation, perhaps we will be privileged to experience a renewal of the land and life around us, to witness the natural world fixing itself. I don’t think anyone will feel nostalgic for the world we have left behind…
… As we practice social distancing, we create what feel like barrier walls around our families. The last thing to go up when Moshe was erecting the mishkan was a big wall made of curtains that enclosed the space around the mishkan and altar and the copper basin, full with water for washing.
That was when the tent became filled with God’s glory:
And [Moshe] erected the courtyard surrounding the dwelling place and the altar, and he set the veil of the gate of the courtyard. And Moshe finished the work. And the cloud covered the meeting tent, and the glory of YHVH filled the dwelling place. (Exodus 40:33-34)
May the barriers we erect feel like curtains, and not like walls. May our washing be like the washing of the priests in the basin of mirrors. May we feel the presence of God within, and know that other families are having their own experience of God within, so that we may soon mish together to dance as one family, in this great mishkan that is the Earth.
Entering the Clouds of Glory
BY RABBI DANIEL NEVINS
“What do you mean, Rabbi? The clouds are mysterious—it’s like being on Sinai!” This statement by a rabbinical student consoled me several years ago on the summit of Giant Mountain in the Adirondacks. Each fall I take a minyan or so of students hiking for the weekend, and on that day, we had spent many hours climbing this enormous peak. On the way up, we enjoyed stunning views—of an alpine lake called “the Giant’s Washbowl” and the Great Range looming across the valley to our south. But when we reached the top of Giant a thick cloud had parked itself on the summit and would not budge. Visibility was limited to about ten feet, and wisps of mist skimmed between us.
Just a few weeks earlier I had previewed the route, and on that sunny day we could see for miles and miles. Not today. I felt terrible for the students—so much effort, and then no vista for a reward. But they responded with delight to the glorious cloud cover. Deprivation of the senses allowed for an expansion of spirit. We knew that there was a substantial reality just beyond the clouds, but our inability to observe it directly made it that much more majestic. I relaxed and joined my students, my teachers, in gratitude and wonder.
I think often of that moment on Giant Mountain when I read the dramatic closing lines of Exodus. After all the effort to design, build, and assemble the Tabernacle, the divine glory enters the structure as a cloud, driving out Moses and obscuring the sacred precincts from view. In the priestly sections of the Torah, the divine glory (kavod) is enveloped by cloud cover, apparently to protect the people. Israel Knohl argues that these depictions also “serve to stress the impersonal aspect of divinity and to avoid anthropomorphic imagery” (Sanctuary of Silence, 130). Yet it could be that the clouds make divinity more approachable and give license to the imagination to find God in the mysterious mist. Divine presence will no longer be limited to the mountaintop but will be accessible to all, right in the center of the camp.
But not for long. After the incident of the golden calf, Moses moves the Tabernacle outside the camp—an apparent rebuke to the people for their insolence and “stiff necks.” Still, the Torah states that anyone who seeks God can step out of camp and approach the Tent of Meeting. Indeed, everyone could watch Moses doing just that, speaking face to face with God, who appeared in the guise of a cloud, (Exod. 33: 1–11). The divine glory has departed the camp, but not gone too far. All it takes is willingness to step outside to where the cloud and the glory await spiritual seekers.
Generations later Solomon will dedicate the Temple, saying, “The Lord has chosen to abide in a thick cloud” (I Kings 8:12; cf. II Chron. 6:1). This text, which is our haftarah for Shabbat Pekudei, demonstrates the persistence of the cloud as an Israelite metaphor for divine presence. The Midrash (Mekhilta Derabbi Yishmael, Pisha 12) asks: When did God choose to dwell in the cloud? It answers with another verse, Lev. 16:2, “For I appear in the cloud on the cover [of the Holy Ark].” What is interesting here is that the cloud of Leviticus refers not to a supernatural wonder, but to the smoke made by the High Priest: as we read in v.13, “He shall put the incense on the fire before the Lord, so that the cloud from the incense screens the cover that is over the [Ark of the] Pact, lest he die.” God dwells also in clouds created by humans.
There is a progression at play from the remarkable and unrepeatable moment of revelation on Sinai to the ongoing experience of our ancestors in the Tabernacle and Temple. God dwells in thick cloud—but where can that cloud be found? We who have not had the direct experience of Sinai, nor witnessed the clouds of glory over the Tabernacle, nor even seen the priest enter the Temple to burn incense on our behalf—where can we experience the divine glory?
We have two access points, both necessary. We may not be high priests, and we may not burn the sacred incense, but we do have the power to pray. In Psalm 141:2, David says, “Take my prayer as an offering of incense.” The Rabbis cite this verse to prove that prayer can take the place of sacrifice (BT Berakhot 6b; Sifre Devarim 41). God dwells in the mystery of invisible energy when a person or a group of people create a metaphorical cloud of glory. I cannot explain the power of prayer, but I know that it is in worship that I come closest to experiencing the divine presence.
No, let me qualify that claim. It is not only in prayer that I feel the divine presence, but also in places of natural beauty. Recently I snowshoed deep into the woods on a cloudy day. Eventually I found myself beside a frozen stream, with water gurgling deep below the ice. Snow fell softly on my cheeks and tall pines dusted white witnessed the wonder of the moment. I felt the divine presence there in the woods, and again several hours later as we lit candles to start Shabbat. The cloud followed Moses down the mountain, entered the Tabernacle and remained accessible to the people, just outside the camp. So too did it follow me from the woods to the house, from the stream to the candlelit room where wisps of smoke circled and summoned the divine presence.
Solomon said that God chooses to dwell in a thick cloud. In other words, the divine presence is hidden, but the absence is only apparent. In truth we each have points of access, both inside and outside the camp, in nature and in culture, in solitude and in community. When we allow each mode to inform the other then we can experience the paradox of absence as presence. Doing so, we become something more than our ordinary selves, beckoning mystery to enter our lives, even as the divine presence entered the Tabernacle. With wonder we approach the cloud, our faces lit by God’s glory.
The Give and Take of Strength
BY Rabbi Eliezer B. Diamond
Rituals of closure are common in both the secular and religious realms. An example of the first is the sounding of retreat and the lowering of the flag marking the end of the official duty day on military installations. An instance of the second is the siyyum, a liturgical ritual and festive meal that is occasioned by the completion of the study of a Talmudic tractate. Closure rituals relate not only to the past but to the future as well. On the one hand, the temporal demarcation of a past event facilitates the emergence of its distinct identity, internal coherence, and significance, thereby providing insight, understanding, and, at times, a sense of accomplishment. At the same time, by declaring an end, a closure ritual creates space in which one can—and must—begin anew; the past is to be neither prison nor refuge.
Immediately after the final verse of Shemot, the book of Exodus, is chanted this coming Shabbat we will call out to the reader, “Hazak, hazak, venit-hazek”, which might be translated as, “Be strong, be strong, and we will take strength from you.” (For some reason, it has not become the custom to modify the above declaration and use the gender appropriate “hizki, hizki” when a woman is reading the Torah.) The “hazak” declaration is a closure ritual, a performative parallel to the graphic demarcation in the Torah scroll of Shemot’s conclusion by means of four blank lines. It announces that the first part of the national saga has come to a close with the construction and completion of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. In that endeavor all of Israel was united in dedication to a common goal; each contribution of resources, talent, and effort was vital, while none was sufficient.
The Mishkan was of course of no worth without the presence of its designated occupant: the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence. “For over the Tabernacle the cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in [the cloud] by night in view of all the house of Israel in their journeys” (Exod. 40:38). With the advent of the Shekhinah’s presence the inert structure is animated and a new story begins: “The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting” (Lev. 1:1). Shemot’s static image of the Mishkan as a place of rest is replaced with Vayikra’s dynamic one: the Mishkan is to be a place where God and humanity meet, where God and Moses converse and where Aaron is to enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur.
Clearly, a closure ritual is appropriate as we conclude the reading of Shemot. But why choose “hazak” as the ritual? Why the need to urge the reader to be strong and to wish strength for ourselves? A moment of completion is a complex one. We may feel sad that the end has come. In addition, in the moment of completion we often allow ourselves to feel the exhaustion that we have denied in the pursuit of closure, rendering us unready and perhaps unwilling to face the next challenge that lies before us.
So too, with the completion of Shemot. The reading ends with a crescendo, and yet it will be followed by the blessing recited at the end of every aliyah. We the listeners are afraid that, as with the seven lean cows who ate the seven fat ones in Pharaoh’s dream, the drama and power of the words we have heard will be swallowed up by the ordinariness of the blessing that follows. We also know that more lies ahead, including the tragic death of Aaron’s sons, (Lev. 10:1–2) which will mar the dedication of the building the construction of which has been described so lovingly in Shemot. Therefore, we need strength. We need to be saved from the depression that accompanies endings and we need strength to face and navigate the stories that will follow.
Yet let us ask further: Why do we not simply declare, “Let us all be strong”? Why single out the reader? A teaching of Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, the mid-20th century author of Mikhtav Me’eliyahu, a collection of mussar essays, provides enlightenment. As we all know, says Rabbi Dessler, there are takers and givers. It turns out, however, that some give in order to take and some take in order to give. Suppose that someone agrees to donate a million dollars to a synagogue but then attaches all sorts of conditions to his gift, conditions that serve the needs of his ego but not those of the congregation. This man is giving in order to take; he’s a giving taker. On the other hand, let’s imagine a dedicated doctor who works night and day to spare his patients from illness and pain. One day, he tells his patients that he is suffering from exhaustion and will be taking a week’s vacation. Only a fool or an ingrate would see this as selfishness. This doctor is taking in order to give; he is a taking giver.
So too with us and our Torah reader. She is our Moses, declaring God’s word to the congregation. Reading Torah is a demanding and exacting task, even for those who have years of experience. (Not incidentally, Vayak-hel Pekudei is the second longest of the weekly Torah readings.) The reading is over, the reader is exhausted. We say: you give us inspiration through your chanting of the Torah. We wish you strength, both out of love for you and because we rely on your strength. You can give to us only if we also give to you.
We want our leaders to give us what we need and desire. Too often we are oblivious to their needs and to the limits of their time and energy. They want to give but unless we give too they will ultimately have nothing to give us. Let us make our leaders strong, through love, encouragement, and material assistance, so that we can be strengthened by them.
Avoiding Deification in Creating the Mishkan
If the Golden Calf was an abomination, why is the Tabernacle okay?
BY RABBI NOA KUSHNER
For the first time in the Torah, with the completion of the Mishkan, the presence of God has a regular home, an earthly residence. And this home is not only for God; it is a “Tent of Meeting” for Israel as well. When God’s presence enters the Mishkan, it is clear that Israel’s work in building this sacred structure has been blessed. For the first time, by learning from past mistakes, Israel — all Israel — has a place to experience God.
In other words, the same Israelites who once sought to contain power and divinity within the idol of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32) now create the Mishkan (Exodus 35-40), which, while made of the same materials and by some of the very same processes, emphatically does not attempt to contain God. Having been given an explicit opportunity to fall again into the trap of deifying something material, having been handed the opportunity to make a cage for God, the people instead create the Mishkan and regard it only as a space, not as a stand-in or a container for God (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg,The Particulars of Rapture, 2001, pp. 480-481, 330-333). Once this purpose is established, God’s presence dwells in the Mishkan, in their midst; the process of t’shuvah (repentance) is complete.
Given the prohibitions against making images of God, the disaster of the Golden Calf, and the lesson the Israelites have begun to learn that God cannot be represented physically, we might expect the presence of God in the Mishkan to be without form altogether, invisible. Wouldn’t God’s complete lack of form at this moment make perfect sense in light of the Israelites’ newfound awareness and understanding?
However, God’s presence is manifested in the Mishkan in not one but two different ways: as a cloud by day and fire by night. Why does God come to the Israelites (and to us, as we read) in these very common forms? Wouldn’t the lesson of the Golden Calf be more clearly enforced if now God’s presence remained untainted by any physical form?
God Is Not Abstract
Perhaps these manifestations exist precisely in order to teach the Israelites that an experience of God can exist within the visual and tangible realms. That is, the problem with worshipping the Golden Calf was not that the calf could be seen; it was that the Golden Calf was worshipped as if it contained God entirely, as if God was nowhere else. Here, the Israelites learn that an encounter with God does not have to be so abstract, so removed from their sensory experience that they are left without any means of comprehending or describing it. In other words, the divine experience can include things seen. However, it must also transform our grasp of the seen object, our understanding of God, and, by extension, the act of seeing and the seer.
Remember the narrative of the Burning Bush that was on fire but not consumed (Exodus 3:1-4). This phenomenon is contrary to our understanding of what happens when a bush catches on fire. For Moses, the very existence of the Burning Bush not consumed awakens the possibility that there is something divine in that fire. God could just have easily come to Moses without a Burning Bush; however, this is what enables Moses to find evidence of God’s presence. Before God even addresses Moses, he sees the fire acting differently and realizes that there is more to the world than what he knows.
Later, we read about two pillars that accompany the Israelites as they leave Egypt: a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:20-22). The cloud is a signpost and the fire an illuminated guide in the darkness; both show Israel the path to follow on their journey through the wilderness. But note that neither object acts naturally. The cloud does not blanket and obscure, as we expect clouds to do; instead, it is contained in a pillar and provides direction for the Israelites. Similarly, the fire does not spread and destroy whatever is in its path, as we expect fire to do; like the cloud, the fire is contained, a giant torch. In both of these manifestations, the Israelites began to see, just as Moses saw in the bush, the possibility of natural things, things of-this-earth, being bent and shaped in unnatural, divine ways.
The Familiar Becomes Unusual
Focusing on our portion (Exodus 40:34-38), God’s presence now dwells in the completed Mishkan, not as something invisible to Israel, but as something very familiar. Just as before, God’s presence is manifested as a cloud by day and fire by night. Here, too, the familiar acts in an unusual way. The cloud remains in the Mishkan; it does not drift or dissipate. Even more remarkably, the fire burns night after night and does not consume anything; each morning, the Mishkan remains intact (Zornberg, p. 492). These manifestations–these miracles–allow Israel to find and perceive God’s presence but still remain aware that their perceptions cannot begin to encompass the totality of that presence.
Had God dwelt invisibly in the Mishkan, had the Israelites never seen God’s presence there, they might have assumed that seeking visual encounters with God is a form of idolatry. By appearing “in the view of all the house of Israel” (40:38), God teaches that the problem with worshipping idols is not the visual experience itself; the problem occurs when the act merely confirms our preconceptions about God (Zornberg, p. 482). The Israelites see God’s presence in natural, familiar forms that then transcend and undermine those forms. This seeing, and this dissonance, tests their understanding of the world and leads to a more complex relationship with God.
So it is for us: We need not be wary of looking for visual evidence of God’s presence in the world around us. Seeking God’s presence with our eyes is not idolatrous; it is only idolatry when we “know” in advance what we will see, when our expectations restrain us. Unfortunately, we may have been so afraid of making idols that we have limited ourselves to divine experiences that are abstract and often detached, expecting ourselves to develop a relationship with God without using our eyes. What would happen if we started looking for God’s presence in fire and clouds once more? How much do our relationships with God stand to gain from our actually seeing what may have been there all along? At the very least, we will benefit from the search alone, from our looking day and night. And at best, it is possible that if we look, we will see. And then, we will never see the same way again, for we ourselves will have changed.
Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
Making Space (Vayakhel & Pekudei 5778)
With this week’s double parsha, with its long account of the construction of the sanctuary – one of the longest narratives in the Torah, taking a full 13 chapters – comes to a magnificent climax:
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Sanctuary. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the Glory of the Lord filled the Sanctuary. (Ex. 40:34-35)
That is what the building of the sanctuary was about: how to bring God, as it were, from heaven to earth, or at least from the top of the mountain to down in the valley, from the remote God of awe-inspiring power to the Shekhinah, the indwelling Presence, God as shakhen, a neighbour, intimate, close, within the camp, in the midst of the people.
Yet for all this, we wonder why the Torah has to go on at such length in its details of the Mishkan, taking up the whole of Terumah and Tetzaveh, half of Ki Tissa, and then again Vayakhel and Pekudei. After all, the Mishkan was at best a temporary dwelling for the Shekhinah, suited to the years of wandering and wilderness. In Israel, it was superseded by the Temple. For two thousand years in the absence of a Temple its place was taken by the synagogue. Why, if the Torah is timeless, does it devote such space to what was essentially a time-bound structure?
The answer is deep and life-transforming, but to reach it we have to note some salient facts. First, the language the Torah uses in Pekudei is highly reminiscent of the language used in the narrative of the creation of the universe:
Genesis 1-2 Exodus 39-40
And God saw all that He had made and behold it was very good. (1:31) Moses saw all the skilled work and behold they had done it; as God had commanded it they had done it. (39:43)
The heavens and earth and all their array were completed. (2:1) All the work of the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting was completed. (39:32)
And God completed all the work that He had done. (2:2) And Moses completed the work. (40:33)
And God blessed… (2:3) And Moses blessed… (39:43)
And sanctified it. (2:3) And you shall sanctify it and all its vessels. (40:9)
Clearly the Torah wants us to connect birth of the universe with the building of the Mishkan, but how and why?
The numerical structure of the two passages heightens the connection. We know that the key number of the creation narrative is seven. There are seven days, and the word “good” appears seven times. The first verse of the Torah contains seven Hebrew words, and the second, 14. The word eretz, “earth,” appears 21 times, the word Elokim, “God,” 35 times, and so on.
So too in Pekudei, the phrase “as the Lord commanded Moses” appears seven times in the account of the making of the priestly garments (Ex. 39:1-31), and another seven times in the description of Moses setting up the Sanctuary (Ex. 40:17-33).
Note also one tiny detail, the apparently odd and superfluous “And” at the very beginning of the book of Exodus: “And these are the names …” The presence of this connective suggests that the Torah is telling us to see Genesis and Exodus as inherently connected. They are part of the same extended narrative.
The final relevant fact is that one of the Torah’s most significant stylistic devices is the chiasmus, or “mirror-image symmetry” – a pattern of the form ABCC1B1A1, as in “(A) He who sheds (B) the blood (C) of man, (C1) by man (B1) shall his blood (A1) be shed” (Gen. 9:6). This form can be the shape of a single sentence, as here, or a paragraph, but it can also exist at larger levels of magnitude.
What it means is that a narrative reaches a certain kind of closure when the end takes us back to the beginning – which is precisely what happens at the end of Exodus. It reminds us, quite precisely, of the beginning of all beginnings, when God created heaven and earth. The difference is that this time human beings have done the creating: the Israelites, with their gifts, the labour and their skills.
To put it simply: Genesis begins with God creating the universe as a home for humankind. Exodus ends with human beings, the Israelites, creating the Sanctuary as a home for God.
But the parallel goes far deeper than this – telling us about the very nature of the difference between kodesh and chol, sacred and secular, the holy and the mundane.
We owe to the great mystic, R. Isaac Luria, the concept of tzimtzum, “self-effacement” or “self-limitation.” Luria was perplexed by the question: If God exists, how can the universe exist? At every point in time and space, the Infinite should crowd out the finite. The very existence of God should act as does a Black Hole to everything in its vicinity. Nothing, not even light waves, can escape a Black Hole, so overwhelming is its gravitational pull. Likewise, nothing physical or material should be able to survive for even a moment in the presence of the pure, absolute Being of God.
Luria’s answer was that, in order for the universe to exist, God had to hide Himself, screen His presence, limit His Being. That is tzimtzum.
Now let us come back to the key words kodesh and chol. One of the root meanings of chol, and the related root ch-l-l, is “empty.” Chol is the space vacated by God through the process of self-limitation so that a physical universe can exist. It is, as it were, “emptied” of the pure Divine light.
Kodesh is the result of a parallel process in the opposite direction. It is the space vacated by us so that God’s presence can be felt in our midst. It is the result of our own tzimtzum. We engage in self-limitation every time we set aside our devices and desires in order to act on the basis of God’s will, not our own.
That is why the details of the Sanctuary are described at such length: to show that every feature of its design was not humanly invented but God-given. That is why the human equivalent of the word “good” in the Genesis creation account is “as the Lord commanded Moses.” When we nullify our will to do God’s will, we create something that is holy.
To put it simply: chol is the space God makes for humankind. Kodesh is the space humankind makes for God. And both spaces are created the same way: by an act of tzimtzum, self-effacement.
So the making of the Sanctuary that takes up the last third of the book of Exodus is not just about a specific construction, the portable shrine that the Israelites took with them on journey through the wilderness. It is about an absolutely fundamental feature of the religious life, namely the relationship between the sacred and the secular, kodesh and chol. Chol is the space God makes for us. Kodesh is the space we make for God.
So, for six days a week – the days that are chol – God makes space for us to be creative. On the seventh day, the day that is Kadosh, we make space for God by acknowledging that we are His creations. And what applies in time applies also in space. There are secular places where we pursue our own purposes. And there are holy places where we open ourselves, fully and without reserve, to God’s purposes.
If this is so, we have before us an idea with life-transforming implications. The highest achievement is not self-expression but self-limitation: making space for something other and different from us. The happiest marriages are those in which each spouse makes space for the other to be his or her-self. Great parents make space for their children. Great leaders make space for their followers. Great teachers make space for their pupils. They are there when needed, but they don’t crush or inhibit or try to dominate. They practice tzimtzum, self-limitation, so that others have the space to grow. That is how God created the universe, and it is how we allow others to fill our lives with their glory.
Encampments & Journeys (Vayakhel & Pekudei 5777)
Right at the end of the book of Shemot, there is a textual difficulty so slight that it is easy to miss, yet – as interpreted by Rashi – it contains one of the great clues as to the nature of Jewish identity: it is a moving testimony to the unique challenge of being a Jew.
First, the background. The Tabernacle is finally complete. Its construction has taken many chapters to relate. No other event in the wilderness years is portrayed in such detail. Now, on the first of Nissan, exactly a year after Moses told the people to begin their preparations for the exodus, he assembles the beams and hangings, and puts the furniture and vessels in place. There is an unmistakable parallelism between the words the Torah uses to describe Moses’ completion of the work and those it uses of God on the seventh day of creation:
And Moses finished [vayechal] the work [hamelakhah]. And God finished [vayechal] on the seventh day the work [melakhto] which He had done.
The next verse states the result:
Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.
The meaning is both clear and revolutionary. The creation of the Sanctuary by the Israelites is intended to represent a human parallel to the Divine creation of the universe. In making the world, God created a home for mankind. In making the Tabernacle, mankind created a home for God.
From a human perspective, God fills the space we make for His presence. His glory exists where we renounce ours. The immense detail of the construction is there to tell us that throughout, the Israelites were obeying God’s instructions rather than improvising their own. The specific domain called “the holy” is where we meet God on His terms, not ours. Yet this too is God’s way of conferring dignity on mankind. It is we who build His home so that He may fill what we have made. In the words of a famous film: “If you build it, he will come.”
Bereishit begins with God making the cosmos. Shemot ends with human beings making a micro-cosmos, a miniature and symbolic universe. Thus the entire narrative of Genesis-Exodus is a single vast span that begins and ends with the concept of God-filled space, with this difference: that in the beginning the work is done by God-the-Creator. By the end it is done by man-and-woman-the-creators. The whole intricate history has been a story with one overarching theme: the transfer of the power and responsibility of creation from heaven to earth, from God to the image-of-God called mankind.
That is the background. However, the final verses of the book go on to tell us about the relationship between the “cloud of glory” and the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle, we recall, was not a fixed structure. It was made in such a way as to be portable. It could quickly be dismantled and its parts carried, as the Israelites made their way to the next stage of their journey. When the time came for the Israelites to move on, the cloud moved from its resting place in the Tent of Meeting to a position outside the camp, signalling the direction they must now take. This is how the Torah describes it:
When the cloud lifted from above the Tabernacle, the Israelites went onward in all their journeys, but if the cloud did not lift, they did not set out until the day it lifted. So the cloud of the Lord was over the Tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel in all their journeys. (Ex. 40:36-38)
There is a small but significant difference between the two instances of the phrase bechol mas’ehem, “in all their journeys”. In the first instance the words are to be taken literally. When the cloud lifted and moved on ahead, the Israelites knew they were about to travel.
However in the second instance they cannot be taken literally. The cloud was not over the Tabernacle in all their journeys. On the contrary: it was there only when they stopped travelling and instead pitched camp. During the journeys the cloud went on ahead.
Noting this, Rashi makes the following comment:
A place where they encamped is also called massa, “a journey” . . . Because from the place of encampment they always set out again on a new journey, therefore they are all called “journeys”.
The point is linguistic, but the message is anything but. Rashi has encapsulated in a few brief words – “a place where they encamped is also called a journey” — the existential truth at the heart of Jewish identity. So long as we have not yet reached our destination, even a place of rest is still called a journey – because we know we are not here forever. There is a way still to go. In the words of the poet Robert Frost,
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
From Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks
The Carver, The Weaver, and the Embroiderer: Parshat Pedkudei
Don’t Sit: Walk (Pekudei 5776)
Sitting is the new smoking. So goes the new health mantra. Spend too much time at a desk or in front of a screen and you are at risk of significant danger to your health. The World Health Organisation has identified physical inactivity as the fourth greatest health hazard today, ahead of obesity. In the words of Dr James Levine, one of the world’s leading experts on the subject and the man credited with coining the mantra, says, “We are sitting ourselves to death.”
The reason is that we were not made to sit still. Our bodies were made for movement, standing, walking and running. If we fail to give the body regular exercise, it can easily malfunction and put us at risk of serious illness. The question is: does the same apply to the soul, the spirit, the mind?
It is fascinating to look at the sequence of verbs in the very first verse of the book of Psalms: “Happy is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly, or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of the scornful” (Ps. 1:1). That is a picture of the bad life, lived in pursuit of the wrong values. Note how the bad man begins by walking, then stands, then sits. A bad life immobilises. That is the point of the famous verses in Hallel:
Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but do not speak, eyes but do not see, ears but do not hear, noses but do not smell. They have hands but cannot feel, feet but cannot walk, nor can they make a sound with their throats. Those who make them will be like them; so will all who trust in them. (Ps. 115:4-8)
If you live for lifeless things – as in the bumper sticker, “He who dies with the most toys, wins” – you will become lifeless.
Except in the House of the Lord, Jews do not sit. Jewish life began with two momentous journeys, Abraham from Mesopotamia, Moses and the Israelites from Egypt. “Walk on ahead of Me and be blameless” said God to Abraham (Gen. 17:1). At the age of ninety-nine, having just been circumcised, Abraham saw three strangers passing by and “ran to meet them.” On the verse, “Jacob dwelled [vayeshev, the verb that also means “to sit”] in the land where his father had stayed” Rashi, citing the sages, commented: “Jacob sought to live in tranquility, but immediately there broke in on him the troubles of Joseph.” The righteous do not sit still. They do not have a quiet life.
Rarely is the point made with more subtlety than at the end of this week’s parsha and the book of Exodus as a whole. The Tabernacle had been made and assembled. The closing verses tell us about the relationship between it and the “cloud of glory” that filled the Tent of Meeting. The Tabernacle was made to be portable. It could be dismantled and its parts carried as the Israelites travelled on the next stage of their journey. When the time came for them to move on, the cloud moved from the Tent of Meeting to a position outside the camp, signalling the direction the Israelites were to take. This is how the Torah describes it:
When the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle, the Israelites went onward in all their journeys, but if the cloud did not lift, they did not set out until the day it lifted. So the cloud of the Lord was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel in all their journeys. (Ex.40: 36-38)
There is a significant difference between the two occurrences of the phrase “in all their journeys”. In the first, the words are meant literally. When the cloud lifted, the Israelites knew they were about to begin a new stage of their journey. However in the second instance, they cannot be meant literally. The cloud was not “over the Tabernacle” in all their journeys. To the contrary, it was there only when they stopped journeying and instead pitched camp. During the journeys the cloud went on ahead.
Rashi notes this and makes the following comment:
A place where they encamped is also called massa, “a journey” . . . because from the place of encampment they always set out again on a new journey, therefore they are all called “journeys”.
The point is linguistic, but the message is remarkable. In a few brief words, Rashi has summarised an existential truth about Jewish identity. To be a Jew is to travel. Judaism is a journey, not a destination. Even a place of rest, an encampment, is still called a journey. The patriarchs lived, not in houses but in tents. The first time we are told that a patriarch built a house, proves the point:
Jacob traveled to Sukkot. There he built himself a house and made shelters [sukkot] for his livestock. That is why he called the place Sukkot. Gen. 33:17).
The verse is astonishing. Jacob has just become the first member of the covenantal family to build a house, yet he does not call the place “House” (as in Bet-El or Bet-lechem). He calls it “cattle-sheds.” It is as if Jacob, consciously or unconsciously, already knew that to live the life of the covenant means to be ready to move on, to travel, to journey, to grow.
One might have thought that all this applied only to the time before the Israelites crossed the Jordan and entered the Promised Land. Yet the Torah tells us otherwise:
The land shall not be sold in perpetuity because the land is Mine: you are strangers and temporary residents as far as I am concerned. (Lev. 25:23)
If we live as if the land is permanently ours, our stay there will be temporary. If we live as if it is only temporarily so, we will live there permanently. In this world of time and change, growth and decay, only God and His word are permanent. One of the most poignant lines in the book of Psalms – a verse cherished by the French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas – says, “I am a stranger on earth. Do not hide your commands from me” (Ps. 119:19). To be a Jew is to stay light on your feet, ready to begin the next stage of the journey, literally or metaphorically. An Englishman’s home is his castle, they used to say. But a Jew’s home is a tent, a tabernacle, a sukkah. We know that life on earth is a temporary dwelling. That is why we value each moment and its newness.
Recently a distinguished British Jew, (Lord) George Weidenfeld, died at the age of 96. He was a successful publisher, a friend and confidant of European leaders, an inveterate fighter for peace and a passionate Zionist. In 1949-50, he was political adviser and Chief of Cabinet to Chaim Weizmann, first President of Israel. One of his last acts was to help rescue 20,000 Christian refugees fleeing from ISIS in Syria. He was alert and active, even hyperactive, to the very end of a long and distinguished life.
In an interview with The Times on his ninety-second birthday he was asked the following question: “Most people in their nineties slow down. You seem to be speeding up. Why is that?” He replied, “When you get to ninety-two, you begin to see the door about to close. I have so much to do before the door closes that the older I get, the harder I have to work.” That is a good formula for staying young.
Like our bodies, our souls were not made for sitting still. We were made for moving, walking, traveling, learning, searching, striving, growing, knowing that it is not for us to complete the work but neither may we stand aside from it. In Judaism, as the book of Exodus reminds us in its closing words, even an encampment is called a journey. In matters spiritual, not just physical, sitting is the new smoking.
 This was especially true of the ark. It was carried by staves that passed through rings on the side of the ark. It was forbidden to remove the staves, even when the Israelites were encamped (Ex. 25:15). The ark already had to be ready to travel at a moment’s notice. See the commentary of S. R. Hirsch ad loc.
 Note that Lot, in Sodom, lived in a house (Gen. 19:2). So did Laban (Gen. 24:23).
To join the tent together to become one
March 12, 2015,
In verse 36, chapter 18 of Exodus, we read that Bezalel made fifty brass clasps “to join the tent together to become one”. Besides the verse having a gorgeous numerology (double chai and chai), it seems like just another detail in a long list of things brought and fashioned — brass and gold, purple and scarlet, precious stones, hooks and beams and vessels. But to our ancestors, the verse meant much more.
The Tent of Meeting or Ohel Mo’ed and the Mishkan or Tabernacle within weren’t just works of beauty and places of holiness and worship. The Ohel and the Mishkan were a model of the entire Creation. Josephus wrote, “Every detail of the Tabernacle was made in way of imitation and representation of the universe” (Antiquities 3.7.7), and the sages wrote, “The Mishkan corresponds to the whole world” (Tanchuma Pekudei 3).
Midrash Numbers Rabbah 12:4 teaches that the silver or kesef represents the firmament that covers (m’khasef) the whole Creation. The gold, which can be yellow or green or red, represents the many colors of the fruits of the Earth. The purple-dyed thread or argaman represents the sun, which God created to weave (la’arog) the manna of fruits and grasses (and, we should add, plankton!) that nourish all life on Earth.
But this is more than just a matter of similes and puns. Tanchuma says, “When the Holy One created His world, the way a woman gestates a child is how He created it.” The way a body is woven out of so many parts and channels, sinews and organs — this is how the world was created, as one body (Zohar 1:134b; Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed 1:72). And this is what the Mishkan needed to become in order to fulfill its purpose (Zohar 2:162b).
So what was that purpose? If the Mishkan, and the Temple after it, had the job of bringing blessing to all of Creation, every part of Creation needed to have its representation within the Mishkan to receive that blessing. For when the priests served, they served not just on behalf of the Jewish people, and not just on behalf of humanity, but on behalf of all Creation.
The Kabbalists took this idea even further than the midrash. “As above so below” — the lower physical world corresponds to the upper spiritual worlds, so that what was done in the Mishkan actually changed the highest levels of reality.
The first published Tu Bishvat seder for the trees’ New Year, P’ri Eitz Hadar, written in the 17th century, quoted Exodus 36:18 in its kavanah (intentional prayer) for that seder, “You created the model of the upper worlds] on the earth below, making all of them with wisdom, upper above and lower below, ‘to join the tent together to become one / l’chaber et ha’ohel lih’yot echad‘”. In other words, the first Mishkan was not the Mishkan in the desert, but the Mishkan of Creation itself. The world is a Temple, a holy sanctuary, and a single living being.
Tanchuma Pekudei goes on to say that the Mishkan also corresponds “to the structure of the human, who is a small world (olam katan)”. And this inner small world, also called an “olam malei“, a complete world, is the image of God. But this image of God, in humanity and then in the desert Mishkan creted by human beings, is the image of Creation, the Mishkan that was gestated by God.
As we travel from Tu Bishvat to the spring festival of Passover, we are already blessed in the Northern hemisphere to witness the awakening of the trees and plants, what Jacob calls “the song of the land” (Genesis 43:11), and to see in them this unfolding of the image which sings within us. For from the corners of the land “hanitzanim nir’u, eit hazamir higi’a“, “the sparkling flowers appear, and the time of singing arrives” (Song of Songs 2:12).
In this year of Shmita, which invites us to watch and listen more carefully to the more-than-human world, may we sing this song of the whole world, and may we be witnesses to the truth: that the holiness we create is an image of the holiness from which we are created.
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson
When Having It All Isn’t Enough
Torah Reading: Exodus 38:21 – 40:38
Maftir: Exodus 30:11-16
Haftarah Reading: II Kings 12:1-17
We live in an age of great material abundance. It isn’t unusual for families to own several automobiles, for their homes to display telephones and televisions in more than one room, even to have several computers at home. We own multiple refrigerators and freezers, lavish amounts of clothing, and recreate in private facilities that offer state-of-the-art amusement.
With all the luxuries that Americans enjoy, it is surely anomalous that so many of us are bored and lonely. You would think that all our possessions and distractions would keep us buzzing contentedly from one diversion to the next, always fascinated by what we are doing, always anticipating our next bauble with joy. Yet that isn’t the case. The testimony we offer to our pollsters and social scientists is a nation so awash in fun things that we lack a sense of overriding purpose in our lives. We are bored not because there is nothing to do, but because there is too much to do and most of it has so little significance.
We’re not the first generation to face that issue. Wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, the Israelites also grumbled and complained because they had nothing to keep themselves busy, nothing that would fill their time with purpose and direct their energy toward attaining a worthy goal. After all, God provided everything – their food literally fell from the heavens, their clothing never wore out, their shoes never needed mending, their leadership resolved all their disputes and contentions. So there was absolutely nothing that needed their attention.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wisely noted that an apt definition of human happiness was being needed. Our ancestors in the wilderness weren’t needed to do anything, and that made them miserable indeed. In fact, Midrash Pesikta Rabbati notes that “Israel always used to grumble, as it is written: “And the people murmured against Moses and against Aaron.” And so too again, “And the whole congregation of Israel murmured.”
Because their complaints were non-stop, because God noticed that meeting all their material and security needs left them with no significant way to use their time, God devised an activity for the Israelites that would fill their lives with purpose and meaning. God instructed them to build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. As the Midrash observes: “It was because of their murmuring that the Holy Blessing One asked them to put their hand to the making of the Mishkan.”
In fact, the last several chapters of the Book of Sh’mot (Exodus) deal with the instructions and implementation of building the Mishkan. And, not coincidentally, there are no complaints, no rebellions, no strife recorded during any one of those chapters of the Torah. As the Midrash points out, “You find that the whole time they were occupied with the work of the Mishkan, they did not grumble.”
What a momentous observation! Once the Israelites were needed, once their lives were made significant by a consequential project, their kvetches and complaints evaporated! The Israelites had complained, in reality, because they felt superfluous and insignificant. It appeared as though God and Moses didn’t need them, as if they were extraneous spectators of a private affair. Work on the Mishkan gave them a way of meeting a divine need, of serving their God and their community at the same time.
We all face the same challenge our ancestors confronted: How to lend significance to our time here on earth, how to make a positive difference for our loved ones, our community, our heritage and all humanity. God saw that human beings need to be needed, that we rise to the expectations others place on us and we grow into the image others hold out as ideal.
The task of wresting meaning out of existence, of fashioning purpose out of mere being, is the great challenge of being human, and the great gift of Judaism. By holding out to us the opportunity to perform mitzvot at every turn, upon waking, at every meal, in every encounter with another human being, in repeated moments of prayer and contemplation, we erect a Mishkan of deeds, a structure of purpose and holiness that can launch our souls on a flight of discovery and of fulfillment.
Each time a Jew does a mitzvah, the deed helps to refashion that Jew a little better, a little more complete than she was before. Every time we stand before God in prayer, or we visit the sick, or eat a kosher meal, or refrain from waste, or any number of mitzvot Judaism summons us to observe, we contribute to a structure that has infused countless lives with direction, belonging, and transcendence throughout the ages.
The material riches around us may occasionally blind us to our true wealth. But by living lives rich in mitzvot, abounding in holiness, we can escape the urge to complain that simply masks the loneliness of being unnecessary.
The task is great, and the Holy One is waiting. Every Jew is needed.
Torah Reading for Week of February 23-March 1, 2014
By Rabbi Mordecai Finley
Many commentaries query and examine why such a detailed accounting of the materials of the Mishkan is proffered in this parsha; Moshe, despite having the full trust of the Divine, must provide a public accounting, lest suspicion of wrongdoing fall upon him. Moshe even needed another person, his nephew Itamar, with him to do the accounts.
This is because the Miskhan was built from generosity, accounted for with probity, and filled with K’vod HaShem, the glorious manifestation of the Divine. The promise from Exodus 25 was fulfilled: they built for God a Miskhan and God now dwelt among them. The anxious impatience for something tangible that had infected the people at Har Sinai and propelled them toward Aharon’s fashioning a Molten Calf, had now been addressed. In actuality, the Midrash tells us that God had devised a remedy before the malady; before the actual sin of the Calf, the orders for the Miskhan were already being given. Therefore, the details of the building we have in the parshah are, in a way, the details of the healing offered to a desperate people. They needed a material reminder of God’s presence and a place for the K’vod of HaShem to dwell. Even though “m’lo kol ha-aretz kevodo,” “the fullness of the earth is His glorious Presence,” God projected and concentrated an aspect of his presence into the Mishkan and on the first of Nisan, just short of a year since the Exodus, the Mishkan was erected.
As we know, however, the Divine diagnosis – that the problem was a lack of the reassurance of a physical reminder – was profoundly mistaken. Providing a physical reminder, rooting the Divine presence among the people, and inspiring them toward generosity and probity did little long-term good.
Subsequent narratives tell us: the people never got over the doubts, their suspicions, or their resentments. In Leviticus 9, shortly after the Mishkan is set up, it is fully functional and the K’vod HaShem appears to the people, who fall prostrate with enchantment. A short time later, however, on the 20th day of the second month (Numbers 10), the people leave Sinai with the Mishkan in their midst and immediately take to murmuring (Numbers 11). They reach the borders of Canaan in five weeks (Numbers 13), send out spies, and, after 40 days, rebel against the Divine (Numbers 14). This generation, which had suffered in slavery, experienced redemption, witnessed revelation, and had the Mishkan within them and God’s Shekhina among them, would die in the desert. The remedy for the malady, so lovingly detailed in our Torah portion, had failed.
The idea of God’s omnipotence and God’s omniscience is severely challenged in this narrative – purposively, in my mind. The author (Author) wants to tell us: Not only can God not heal the people; God does not even seem to understand them. God is perplexed, outraged, and impotent before our recalcitrance. We are a mystery and a disappointment to God and a mystery and a disappointment to ourselves. We don’t know what ails us. We just know that we have developed to an art form the capacity to ruin every potential for redemption given us.
We are created with a “lev,” a “heart,” better translated as the “ego self.” However, as we know from Genesis: “kol yetzer machshavot libbo rak ra kol hayom” – “every form of the thoughts of his heart/ego self is all bad, all day long.” (This is probably an overstatement. Many of us wait until after breakfast.)
Nothing God (or anyone else, for that matter) gives us or does for us can heal our hearts until we have the will to be healed. This is the deeper mystery of faith. Faith, at a more profound level, is not the faith that God will provide, but rather the steadfast will, that God’s presence will make a difference in our lives.
From Rabbi Zelig Golden
God Fills the Entire World: Parsha Pekudei
Zelig Golden | May 7, 2008
In parsha Pekudei, the Torah sums up the intricate details of God’s instructions for building the Mishkan, the tabernacle or temporary sanctuary that our people would carry through the desert after the Exodus. This portion is particularly concerned with the details of what the Mishkan was built of; blue, purple and crimson yarns; the skins of rams and dolphins; refined sheets of gold; twisted linens; specific measurements for the Tent, Tabernacle and Altar.
Parsha Pekudei then describes how Moses, Aaron and the priests should relate to the Mishkan: How to wear the ceremonial robes, how to set up the tabernacle, where to place the table and the lamps – each action with a special instruction.
Given how sparing the Torah is generally with words, and that previous parshot have already gone through much of this detail, is it peculiar that the Torah would spend so many words describing these details? Well, as they say, God is in the details!
According to Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah (12:13), the sages understood the Mishkan to be a microcosm of the universe, with each of its aspects corresponding to another part of creation: the tent represented the heavens, the menorah represented the sun and moon, the laver (anointing oil and incense) represented the oceans, the wood representing the soil of the earth; each revealed in the Mishkan as all aspects of the world are revealed in the creation story.
From the midrashic perspective, then, the meaning of the recounting the Mishkan’s construction is a broader statement of how we are called to relate to the world. While revelation is thought of in grand terms – the splitting of the Red Sea, thunder from Mount Sinai – this parsha teaches us that the little details of the world are equally important.
Furthermore, at the end of Pekudei, when Moses had finished the assembly of the Mishkan, the Torah describes God entering and occupying the Tabernacle, seen by the people as cloud and fire. As the last words of the book of Exodus, these words carry much weight, teaching that by paying close attention to the smaller details of creation – soils, water, leaves on a plant, the rising moon, the setting sun etc. – we are able to find where God resides.
As the Tanya (a major Chassidic work) teaches, Mimale Kol Alamin, B’Sovev Kol Almin – “You (God) Fill all worlds and You surround all worlds” – God is not just found on the top of the Mountain – but God is in everything, is everyone – all you have to do is open your eyes to that truth to discover God before you.
From Chaya Lester
Pekudai: Accounting for the Flaws
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
Our Teacher is Smart
And see that you make it after the pattern,
which is being shown you in the mountain. [Ex.25:40].
Oh the pattern,
our teacher said.
The Holy One took him by the hand
showed him every detail from the Upper form
after which our teacher built it in the earthly form.
He was shown through a dark glass
as it were
a reflection of all the parts of the Sanctuary
as it existed in the Highest Form.
Our teacher was again confused
so G*d said,
trust your intuition.
Follow your inclinations here,
and I will follow Mine. [Zohar]
Our teacher, lured by perfectability
created the Sanctuary out of all his humanly imperfections –
G*d, as they say, gave him the permission he needed
to make it imperfect
but with the right supernal pattern in mind.
The two Houses were destroyed
but the Sanctuary always
so he built it.
O holy Shabbes Inspiration Pekudei
Maqam Nawa C  D [1/2] E-flat [1 1/2] F sharp
Maqam, cognate to Maqom
each Shabbes a particular musical figure.
From Reb Mimi Feigelson
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Shabbat Parashat Pekudei / Shabbat Shekalim
March 4, 2011 / 29 Adar I 5771
By: Reb Mimi Feigelson, Mashpiah Ruchanit
Where Does Commandedness Take You?
Torah Reading: Exodus 38:21 – 40:38
Maftir: Exodus 30:11-16
Haftarah Reading: II Kings 12:1-17
Being allocated approximately eight hundred to one thousand words for this d’var Torah means that in essence what I can offer is a format to pose questions and suggest a possible direction to embark on. The essence of the Work is in our hands and heart. For this is one of the concepts of our Torah reading this Shabbat – Kofer Nefesh / the ransoming, the atoning of one’s soul. One of many issues this Shabbat touches upon.
We are blessed this week with reading the portion of Va’yakhel – the completion and inauguration of the Mishkan / the Tabernacle; we read the extra section in Sh’mote / Exodus 30 that grants this Shabbat its special name: Shabbat Sh’kalim – the offering of the half shekel to the Mishkan and later the Mikdash / the Temple; we bless the new moon, ushering in the month of Adar and Purim. If that wasn’t enough to lay on the shoulders of one Shabbat than we can add to it the completion of reading the second of the Five Books of the Torah – we complete Exodus – while still wandering in the desert.
So why am I drawn to commandedness this week? When reading the Torah portion I found a repetitive rhythm in the form of “…as God Commanded Moshe.” Though I may be mistaken, I counted this phrase fifteen times. For the rationalists this will mean little, if at all; for the mystics it will mean heaven and earth, since the numeric value of 15 is the letters Yud and Heh, and the Talmud teaches us that God created heaven and earth with these two letters. And as you know, if I counted incorrectly and there are more, or less, I’ll have what to say about that number, too.
The Chassidic masters are those that are driving me to ask about commandedness. The Ma’or Ay’nayim, Reb Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (1730-1797), in his opening remark to our Torah portion says / asks: “These are the accounts of the Mishkan/Tabernacle”… for it is known that the Torah is God’s names… and what was in the time of the Mishkan, how does it teach us the way to walk / how to behave in our times…” The Yismach Yisrael (R’ Yerachmiel Yisroel Yitzchok Dancyger,1853-1910, asks regarding Aharon, on the pasuk/verse “…and Aharon did so” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 8:3): “Why do we need to be told that Aharon did so, could we imagine that he would change what God commanded of him, and act differently?” These two Chassidic masters ask of me to pause and ask, what am I meant to learn from the repetition of Moshe doing as God commanded? Does this concept of acting as God commanded inform the rhythm of my life? Especially when in the adjacent chapter the commands were given, why would we imagine that Moshe would do things other than the way he was told to do them? Do I / we have a way of walking in the world that mirrors this?
It is told that when the Ma’or Ay’nayim was still a disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov (the founder of the Chassidic movement, 1700-1760), his master sent him to a certain village to collect donations for orphaned brides and grooms; hours of knocking on doors, and not one donation in his hand. The Ma’or Ay’nayim sits himself down on a stone on the side of the road exiting the town, ready to give up, and from a distance he sees two policemen escorting someone to prison. He thought that he must be hallucinating from fatigue and despair, since the prisoner was dancing. The Chernobler Rebbe stops him and asks him who is he, and why is he dancing while being escorted to prison? The prisoner, in dismay:
“I’m Moisheleh Ganev / Moisheleh the thief, everyone knows me!” “Moisheleh Ganev, what do you mean that everyone knows you?” “This is who I am, this what I do. And every once in a while I get caught, they throw me into jail for a while and then I’m back again…”
The Chernobler tried to convince Moishele that this would be the last time, begged him to promise that he would stop.
“Stop???” roared Moishele Ganev, “How can I stop doing what I’m meant to be doing? How can I stop doing what God asks of me?”
And with these words he motions to the policemen and he continues dancing his way to jail.
The Chernobler sits again, recalling Moishele the thief’s words: “How can I stop doing what I’m meant to be doing? How can I stop doing what God asks of me?”, only this time he says them to himself. It is with these words that he dances himself, one more time through the same town, and within a short few hours he has all the money he needs for all ten orphaned brides and grooms! Just so you know, it is told that when he returned to the Ba’al Shem Tov, eager to tell him all that had happened, he was summoned immediately to the Ba’al Shem Tov’s study, and before he opened his mouth the Ba’al Shem Tov looked at him and said, “So, my dear one, what does Eliyahu HaNavi / Elijah the prophet look like when he’s dancing between two policemen?”
The last three verses of our Torah portion offer us the beginning of an answer to our opening question “Where Does Commandedness Take You?” to our question whether commandedness pulsates throughout our life, and to the understanding of what Kofer Nefesh could mean for us today:
“And when the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Yisra’el went onward in all their journeys: but if the cloud were not taken up, then they journeyed not till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was on it by night, in the sight of all the house of Yisra’el, throughout all their journeys.” (Sh’mot/Exodus 40:36-38).
I believe that what we are asked of today is to look at our lives and to ask ourselves, what does our journey look like? Are we living a life that God’s presence is in the background and the foreground of our steps? Can we trust to continue on our journey, regardless of the challenges, knowing that the pillar of fire and the cloud of glory are walking with us every step? Does this sense of commandedness lead us to dance our souls on their way to celebrate being who we are meant to be, and doing what we are meant to be doing in God’s world?
May we dance together this Shabbat. Shabbat shalom.
From American Jewish World Service
Dani Passow 5771
The Israelites’ first building project—the Mishkan—is about to be completed. We can recognize similarities between its construction and the building of our own communal structures: raising the funds, enlisting a contractor and choosing design elements. And yet, though modern communal leaders often ceremonially lay the cornerstone—complete with the entertaining and tellingly odd juxtaposition of dress clothes, shovel and hard hat—they rarely actively participate in the physical construction.
Not Moshe. We are told that the Israelite leader physically assembled the Mishkan himself: “God spoke to Moshe saying: ‘On the day of the first new moon, on the first of the month, you shall erect the Tabernacle.’”1 Though the entire nation donated materials, and Betzalel and his entourage created the Mishkan’s vessels and parts, the final paragraphs of the book of Exodus make it clear that it was Moshe alone who put those pieces together: “He took and placed the Testimony into the Ark…He put the Table in the Tent of Meeting…He placed the Menorah in the Tent of the Meeting…He placed the Gold Altar in the Tent of the Meeting.”2 And so on…
It is difficult to ignore the centrality of Moshe in this process. Moreover, it seems odd that he was engaged in physical labor altogether. Though Moshe certainly was a man of action, we’ve become accustomed to seeing him in the role of political leader and judicial scholar, not handyman. And he certainly didn’t have spare time on his hands; Parshat Yitro says that Moshe sat “from morning until night” adjudicating legal cases brought by the Israelites.3 Was there no one more skilled in construction than Moshe to put the finishing touches on the Mishkan, and wouldn’t Moshe’s time have been better spent in other ways?
In June of 2009, I and many of my fellow participants on AJWS’s Rabbinical Students’ Delegation to Senegal were asking similar questions. In our ten days in Senegal, we spent most of our time building latrines in two remote villages. If our aim was to promote social justice, shouldn’t we have used the skills in which we had been trained—writing and teaching—to help these people, rather than doing manual labor?
In order to answer this question, we need to ask ourselves about the purpose of service in general, whether it be religious worship or social justice. For whom do we act, ourselves or the other? The Torah asks us to love God with all of our “heart, soul, and might” and to love the neighbor and even the stranger as ourselves. We act not only to benefit others, but also to have an effect on our character. Perhaps we can discharge a specific duty to help the poor by writing a check of 10 percent of our income, but if love is the goal, we need to be overcome with care, with a drive to serve.
Thus, in order for Moshe to serve God with his entire being, he needed to leave the desert study hall and create holiness with his hands. If his study led only to more study, and didn’t cultivate a personality that strove to serve God with every faculty, the study itself would have been flawed. So too, if our internal passion for justice can be relegated to a specific form of action, a specific place or a specific time, then those very actions themselves miss the point as we fail to internalize the message that we must become consumed with a drive for justice, have our hearts torn open whenever we encounter suffering, and seek to address that suffering in every way we can. Just as Proverbs teaches us to “know God in all your ways,”4 so too with all of our being must we fight for justice.
And yet, our own passion for justice shouldn’t be cultivated at the expense of those we are seeking to help. It’s important that Moshe’s foray into carpentry was a one-time act, and that he didn’t eclipse the contributions of the artisans and carpenters and craftsmen whose expertise was necessary to build the Mishkan. Similarly, my week of service was designed as a full-bodied sharp awakening, a reminder that my every-day activities must be infused with this same passion for stopping injustice that I felt in Senegal with a shovel in my hands. But the long-term labor of building communities and the sense of accomplishment that comes with it—belongs in the hands of those most knowledgeable and experienced—the community members themselves.
Torah Reading for Week of February 27 – March 5, 2011
“To See or Not to See”
By Rabbi Diane Elliot, ‘06
Our Torah portion this week, the last one in the Book of Exodus, begins with the words, “eleh p’kudei ha-mishkan, mishkan ha-edut, asher pukad al-pi moshe,” “These are the reckonings of the Mishkan, the Dwelling Space of Witness, which were reckoned at Moses’ behest…” (Exodus 38:21) For the past few weeks, Torah has been exhaustively describing the materials, dimensions, appurtenances, and holy technologies of the Mishkan, the portable Sanctuary to be built from the free-will offerings of the people. First G-d conveys them to Moses, then Moses conveys them to the people. Between these two tellings comes a great rupture—the fabrication and worship of a calf of gold, a solid object born of the fears that arise in Moses’ absence, which becomes, for the Israelites, G-d’s absence.
The Netivot Shalom, a 20th century Hasidic commentator, brings a teaching from the mystical tradition: the word edut—testimony or witness—is composed of the same letters as the word da’at—intimate knowledge. The golden calf signifies a major falling away from the awesome, direct knowing of Divinity that the people momentarily experience at Mt. Sinai. The holy work of creating the Mishkan ha-edut represents a tikkun, a repair of da’at. Participating in its creation, we are fortified in our ability to witness the truth of Oneness in the face of fear, disappointment, personal distress, even boredom. As contemporary mystic and scholar Rabbi Miles Krassen writes, “We need such sacred constructions because our little eyes are too weak and easily distracted and cannot recognize directly that we are already blessed to be present within a Divinely constructed sanctuary, the Earth Herself….”
In my own experience “knowing” and “vision” are intimately related. Lately I’ve been experimenting, literally, with seeing. Each day I remove my glasses and stand looking at the panoramic view beyond our living room window, breathing deeply and inviting my naked eyes, near-sighted since age ten, to focus on one new thing—the crisp fronds of the palm tree just outside the window, the purple and green yard umbrella next to the neighbor’s house, the stripe around the RV parked several blocks downhill, a distant spire across the Bay in hazy downtown San Francisco. There is a wonder growing in me as I reawaken long-dormant visual pathways. It’s as if all the years of wearing glasses and contact lenses, while allowing me to see the world clearly, have narrowed my vision, preventing me from deeply witnessing the world’s richness.
Spiritually speaking, this witnessing flows both ways. In our parsha, before the great Israelite artisans can begin to carve and weave and build all the pieces that will be assembled into the Space of Witness, Moses makes a pikudei ha-mishkan, a detailed accounting of every person’s contribution of gold, silver, copper, wool, and linen to the Mishkan. The Zohar, the essential text of Jewish mysticism, relates that Moses’ accounting is actually G-d calling out to each person her or his “essential name,” her or his function or role (taphkid, same root as pikudei) in the exact way that that person needs to receive it.
Only after G-d has witnessed, acknowledged, “known” each member of the community can their contributions be fashioned and assembled into the physical structure of the Mishkan. Only then can the opacity of the precious metals and fabrics that the people have contributed be transformed into a sacred emptiness that will mirror back to each one the Truth of who we all are.
Thus the Book of Exodus, which began with a litany of sh’mot, the names of the band of souls who came down to Egypt with Jacob, ends with the completion of this melekhet ha-kodesh, this holy project, in which each Israelite’s true name becomes an essential element in building an edifice capable of channeling Presence through and for the whole community. In these days, when our fears and sense of lack so easily blot out our deep knowing, let us be firm in our resolve to see and to know, to witness and to receive the Light of Oneness, wherever it shines. Khazak, khazak v’nit’khazek, be strong, be strong, and may we strengthen one another.
Note: with much gratitude to my study partner, R. SaraLeya Schley, who helped birth the insights of this d’var.
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Week’s Energy for Parshas Pikudei
This week’s Torah reading begins with the words “These are the accounts of the Mishkan/Sanctuary, …as they were accounted by Moshe/Moses.” (38:21)
Thus begins the final portion in the book of Shemos/Exodus.
The second half of the book of Shemos speaks of the Mishkan. Beginning with the instruction to Moshe to build a Mishkan, the actual building of the Mishkan and finally, in this reading, a detailed accounting of all the individual contributions, listing the various types and amounts of materials that were created and given towards the construction.
Following this accounting, the verse says “A cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of Hashem/the Divine, filled the Mishkan” (40:34)
The presence of Hashem could not fill the Mishkan before this detailed accounting of each individual piece that went into its creation.
The Mishkan, upon its completion, was a reflection of the creative totality of the people of Israel.
This building project united the 12 tribes of Israel in a very powerful way. They came together with a common goal and became solidified as a nation.
Yet, the emphasis here is on the individual within the group.
In order for Hashem’s presence to rest within the Mishkan, the whole was not allowed to become a homogenous mass of humanity, wherein the individual disappears into the collective. Each unique contribution was listed, acknowledging the unique gifts of each individual who contributed towards the common goal. The creation of a collective space which could house Hashem’s glory, required distinct, unique abilities and talents of individual people.
“They shall make Me a sanctuary (singular form) and I will dwell among them (plural form).” (Shemos, 25:1:8).
This is the vision of what the Mishkan can achieve. While the verse begins in the singular, mentioning only one Mishkan, it concludes with the plural – “I will dwell among them” – meaning that the collective creation of the Mishkan will serve the purpose of Hashem’s presence being revealed to each individual person. Hashem will rest “among each one of you.”
Much like a beautiful puzzle seen from a distance, appearing as a glorious whole. Upon closer examination, one finds that it is formed of thousands of completely distinct shapes, each containing its own image and colors. Were even one of these pieces to go missing, the puzzle would forever appear incomplete.
Each one so different from the next, yet all crucial to the complete picture.
Such is the individual within the collective. Each person must carefully retain their uniqueness, and honor the individuality of others. To create a beautiful space worthy of Hashem’s presence, there must be unity, and true unity can never come at the expense of individual expression.
THE ENERGY OF THE WEEK
Honoring IndividualityThis week’s Torah reading imbues us with the energy of expressing our unique individuality within the greater whole.
This may express itself in our personal relationships, in our presence within a community or in our workplace setting.
We must always be a part of something bigger than ourselves, and yet, we must remain true to our own self within this collective to actualize our full potential.
Honor the individuality of the people within your sphere, and remember to respect and express your own uniqueness within the context of the collective, ensuring that your expression of self is both present and contributing to the growth of the whole.
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
Please click on the link below for a commentary on Aharon’s robe with the hem hanging with bells and pomegranates.
From Melissa Carpenter
Pekudei: Basin of Mirrors
He (Moses) put the basin between the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and he placed water there for washing. Moses and Aaron and his sons washed from it, their hands and their feet. When they came into the Tent of Meeting, or when they came up to the altar, they washed as God had commanded Moses. (Exodus/Shemot 40:30-32)
The last Torah portion in the book of Exodus/Shemot, Pekudei (“Inventories” or “Commissions” or even “Searches”) lists once again all the items made for the sanctuary and the priests’ garments, this time including the weight of the donated gold, silver, and bronze. Moses assembles all the parts, and then God’s cloud appears and fills the new Tent of Meeting. The portable dwelling-place for God is complete.
Its front half is a roofless courtyard surrounded by curtains, and contains the altar where slaughtered animals and grain are burned. The back half is the new Tent of Meeting, which is both curtained and roofed, and contains the holiest objects: the gold incense altar, the gold-covered bread table, the solid gold lamp-stand, and the gold-covered ark inside its own curtained alcove. Only priests, and Moses, can enter the Tent of Meeting.
The wash-basin in front of the entrance to the Tent is critical for the transition between the public courtyard and the inner sanctum. Washing in water symbolizes inner purification, the mental preparation necessary to enter a space where there will be closer communion with God. In the Torah, hands stand for action and power. By washing their hands, Moses and the priests dedicate their power and actions to divine service. Feet are related to one’s path in life, the direction one is going psychologically as well as physically; the greatest men in the Torah are described as “walking with God”. By washing their feet, Moses and the priests rededicate themselves to walking with God.
The wash-basin where this ritual takes place is made of bronze—but it’s not the same as the bronze donated by all the people with willing hearts and melted down to make the altar and its utensils. Last week’s Torah portion says the basin is made out of bronze mirrors:
He (Betzaleil) made the basin of bronze, and its stand of bronze, with the mirrors of the army (of women) who mobilized at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (Exodus/Shemot 38:8)
nechoshet = bronze, copper. From the same root as nachash = snake; and nicheish = practice divination, seek omens.
marot = mirrors; apparitions. (Mirrors in the ancient Middle East were made of highly polished bronze, and were luxuries for the rich.)
tzav-u = mobilized, went to war, served in the cult, joined in public service
The unusual donation of mirrors led to a story in Midrash Tanchuma, a 5th-century commentary, that when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, the women used mirrors to entice their husbands into lying with them and producing more children. Moses hesitated to make a holy object out of mirrors, which are instruments of vanity. But God overruled him on the grounds that the women had used their mirrors for the good deed of multiplying the children of Israel. And the master-craftsman Betzaleil used the mirrors to make the wash-basin.
This fanciful story was accepted by many subsequent commentators. But I think it is inconsistent with the descriptions in Exodus/Shemot of the Israelite slaves as poor and oppressed. Surely they could not afford anything as expensive as bronze mirrors! The only time in the book of Exodus when the Israelite women could acquire mirrors is the day before they leave Egypt, when Moses tells them to take gold and silver jewelry from the Egyptians.
So why does the Torah say the wash-basin at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting is made out of bronze mirrors?
It’s always possible that an odd detail in the Torah refers to some ancient practice that occurred outside the story, perhaps in the cult of another group of people. But what I notice is that a priest washing his hands and feet at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting would see a double reflection: a reflection on the surface of the water, and a reflection from the polished bronze basin. Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th-century rabbi, wrote that the language in this verse might mean the mirrors were not even melted down, but only welded together in a form where they could still be recognized. Perhaps the basin would even show a different reflection in the surface of each mirror.
Furthermore, the basin was made by Betzaleil, whose name means “In the Shadow of God”. A shadow provides protection from the harsh sun of the Middle East, so some commentary notes that Betzaleil is under God’s protection. But a shadow is also a type of reflection; the original thing casts a shadow on the ground, just as the original thing casts a reflection in a mirror. The Hebrew word for shadow, tzeil, is the root of the word tzelem, which means “image”.
So when a priest steps up to the bronze basin, he sees multiple reflections of the sky and of his own body, and perhaps multiple reflections of the heavens, his own soul, and other aspects of God. After all, the basin was made by “In the Shadow of God”, and the word for “bronze” comes from the same root as “divination”. All of these reflections from the basin, besides reminding him that he is preparing to come closer to God, provide food for the priest’s inner reflections. Has he been using his body the right way? Has he been mired in harmful thoughts and emotions? Has he been acting like someone made betzelem elohim, in the image of God?
After he has reflected, the water from the basin purifies him as he washes and rededicates himself to the path of holy service.
We could all benefit from washing at a basin of mirrors before we pray, or meditate, or take a moment to reflect on our lives.
Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
In the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov:
“Every single prayer that each one prays is a ‘limb’ of the Shechinah (Divine
Presence). All of the ‘limbs’ and component parts of the Sanctuary are ‘limbs’
of the Shechinah. And not one Israelite has the power to put all the limbs and
parts together, each one in its proper place, except for Moses alone. For this
reason, it is necessary to bind all our prayers to the Tzaddik of the
generation, as it is written, ‘And they brought the Sanctuary to MOSES’ (Ex.
39:33). And the Tzaddik knows how to put the parts together to make a complete
structure, as it says there, ‘And MOSES erected the Sanctuary’ (Ex. 40:18). It
seems as if every day we are crying out to G-d yet we are not saved, and some of
our people, the Children of Israel, err in their hearts thinking that all the
prayers are in vain. But in truth the Tzaddikim in every generation take all the
prayers and lift them up, putting each component and each limb into its proper
place, building the structure of the Shechinah little by little, until finally
the entire structure will be complete, and then Mashiach will come and finish
everything.” (Likutey Moharan Vol. 1, Lesson 2).
Rabbi Nachman’s above teaching draws out the Messianic allusions contained in
the conclusion of this week’s parshah of PEKUDEY, when Moses FINISHED the work.
This was on the 1st of Nissan, when “the Cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and
the Glory of G-d filled the Sanctuary.” (Ex. 40:33-4).
The month of Nissan — in the spring, time of rebirth — has always and will
always be a time of redemption for us. As we now conclude our study of the
second book of the Torah, the “Book of Names” — SHEMOS, Exodus, the Torah
focuses our minds on the redemptive quality of the month of Nissan. This is
signified by the fact that it was on 1st Nissan that the Shechinah came to dwell
among the Children of Israel with the inauguration of the Sanctuary.
The book of Exodus started in a state of exile: “These are the names of the
Children of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his house.” (Ex.
1:1). After their grueling servitude followed by the plagues that afflicted the
Egyptians, the light of redemption truly began to shine on the 1st of Nissan:
“And G-d spoke to Moses and to Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying: This month is
for you the first of the months.” (Exodus 12:1-2). After narrating the drama of
leaving Egypt, the Splitting of the Sea, the Giving of the Torah and the loss of
innocence with the sin of the calf, Exodus concludes with the structure of the
World of Repair as exemplified in the form of the Sanctuary.
It was when the Shechinah came to dwell in the completed Sanctuary on 1st Nissan
that “He called to Moses and G-d spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.” These
are the opening words of the third book of the Torah, Leviticus, which introduce
the commandments relating to the sacrifices that were to be offered in the
Sanctuary. These portions were revealed to Moses on 1st Nissan.
From Reb Sholom Brodt for this year:
Shkalim, Zachor, Parah and Hachodesh
These are the four additional Torah readings of the last few weeks, that read in preparation for the establishment of the Mishkan and the holiday of Pessach. The names and the content of these four ‘parshiot’ provide us with much guidance for returning to the home of our souls.
The Mishkan is called Mishkan haEydut – the Mishkan of Testimony. Rashi explains:
The Mishkan of Testimony: So-called because it bears witness for Yisrael that G-d pardoned them for the deed of the [Golden] Calf, for [through the Mishkan] He rested His Shechinah among them.
Tragically our Beit Hamikdash has been lying in ruin for close to 2000 years. We hardly have a sense of what life was like and would be like with the Shechinah’s presence in our midst. It is our deepest yearning, we pray for it three times a day: “Return in mercy to Yerushalayim Your city and dwell therein as You have promised.” (the daily Amiddah)
We also strive for the rebuilding of Hashem’s dwelling place as we are commanded: “And they shall make for Me a Mishkan and I shall dwell in their midst.” As we have learned on numerous occasions, this is both a communal and personal command. Each one of us individually is commanded to transform our beings into a dwelling place for the holy Shechinah.
Parshat Shkalim teaches us to contribute generously to the Mishkan [as we have learned in the last few weeks]. All contributions of material goods were to be made with a ‘generous heart’ – Hashem desires contributions of the heart; He desires our hearts.
The word ’shkalim’ is the plural form of ’shekel’ – a coin consisting of a certain weight of silver. In the infinitive ‘lishkol’ is to weigh; to take. The first step in making a contribution toward the building of Hashem’s dwelling place is to weigh, to consider what we are about to do, why we wish to do it and how best to do it. Consider whether our actions are nourishing or starving our souls. Consider the soul’s loneliness and its yearning for union with Hashem. May we be compassionate and generously nourish our souls.
Parshat Zachor teaches us to beware of being affected by the evil dangers of Amalek – the dangers of doubting the worthiness of our good deeds and of serving Hashem in a cold manner. We must do every mitzvah with love and passion and even when we don’t manage to do so, we must believe and completely trust that every one of our ‘contributions’, even the smallest of contributions is worthy and valuable.
Parshat Parah teaches us that in order to enter Hashem’s dwelling place we must be tahor – purified of anger, of the anger of death. The Talmud teaches when one wants to be tahor he is given help from heaven. Hashem desires and is waiting to help us live true life. We must first ‘come forward’ to be purified and then Hashem will purify us.
Parshat Hachodesh teaches the importance of renewal. Reb Shlomo zt”l taught that a ‘neshamah person’ is always new. King David, concludes the Book of Psalms with this verse: “Let every ‘neshamah’ – soul, praise the LORD. Hallelujah! (Tehillim 150:6) The Rabbis explained the verse as follows: praise Hashem for every single breath. The word ‘neshamah’- soul, is the same word as ‘neshimah’- breath. A healthy living person breathes and doesn’t stop breathing, he doesn’t say “I already took a breath, why do I need another one?” At every moment Hashem is breathing new life into our nostrils; and we in turn must be fresh and new at all times, even when doing a mitzvah for the hundredth or thousandth time we must strive to do it as if this is the very first time.
In the first month… on the first day of the month, the Tabernacle was erected (40:17)
On the 25th of Kislev the work of Mishkan was completed, and its components sat folded up [for three months] until the 1st of Nissan, because G-d wanted that the Mishkan should be erected in the month that Isaac was born… The month of Kislev was thus deprived. Said G-d: “I must compensate it.” How did G-d compensate the month of Kislev? With the dedication of the Temple by the Hashmoneans (on Chanukah).
From Rav Kook
Pekudei: Always on His Mind
It is said that the brilliant Gaon of Rogachov (Rabbi Joseph Rosen, 1858-1936) would compose complex Halachic responsa while simultaneously conversing in totally different matters. When questioned how he accomplished this feat, the Rogachover humbly replied that his talent was not at all remarkable. ‘Why, have you never heard of a Jew saying his morning prayers while mentally planning out the day’s business trip?’
Constant Awareness of the Tzitz
One of the eight special garments worn by the High Priest was the tzitz. This was a gold plate worn across the forehead, engraved with the words, “Holy to God”.
The Torah commands that the head-plate “will be on his forehead – always”. (Ex. 28:38) The Sages understood this adjunction not so much as addressing where it is worn, but rather how it is worn. It is not enough for the tzitz to be physically on his forehead. It must be “always on his mind”. The High Priest must be constantly aware of plate and its short but powerful message — “Holy to God” — while performing his sacred duties in the holy Temple. His service required conscious recognition of the purpose of his actions, without extraneous thoughts and calculations. He could not be like the Jew who thoughts revolved around business dealings while he mumbled his daily prayers.
Awareness When Wearing Tefilin
The golden head-plate resembles another religious object worn above the forehead: tefilin. In fact, the Sages compared the two. Like the tzitz, one wearing tefilin must always be aware of their presence: if the tzitz, upon which God’s name is engraved just once, required constant awareness, certainly tefilin, in which God’s name is mentioned many times, have the same requirement. (Shabbat 12a)
This reasoning, however, appears flawed. Do the Sages really mean that tefilin, worn by any Jew, are holier than the sacred head- plate worn only by the High Priest when serving in the holy Temple? Also, why is it that the head-plate only mentions God’s Name once?
Connecting Life to Our Ultimate Goals
Life may be divided into two parts: ultimate goals, and the means we use to achieve those goals. We must be careful not to confuse one for the other. It is easy to loose sight of our true goals when we are intensively occupied with the ways of achieving them.
Even those who are careful to ’stay on track’ may not have a clear understanding of the true purpose of life. The Sages taught that “all actions should be for the sake of Heaven”. (Avot 2:12) Knowledge of what God wants us to do in each and every situation is by no means a simple matter. Our success in discovering the highest value, in comprehending the true meaning of existence, and being able to relate all of life’s activities and circumstances to this central theme — is dependent upon our wisdom and spiritual insight.
Regarding the High Priest, we expect that the person suitable for such a central and elevated position will have reached the level of enlightenment whereby all activity revolves around one ultimate goal. For the High Priest, everything should relate to the central theme of “Holy to God”. Therefore, the tzitz contained only one mention of God’s name — one single, crowning value.
The common person, on the other hand, may not have reached such a high level of enlightenment. For him there exist many goals — Torah study, acts of kindness, charity, prayer, serving God, acquisition of wisdom, prophecy, etc. These are all true spiritual values; and by relating various activities to each of these values, we succeed in elevating ourselves and recognizing the underlying central goal. For this reason, tefilin contain God’s name many times, reflecting the various spiritual goals that guide us.
We see how much people need physical reinforcement in order to keep the ultimate goals of life in sight. This is the underlying logic of the Talmudic comparison between the head-plate and tefilin. Even the High Priest, despite his broad spiritual insight, needed to be constantly aware of the tzitz on his forehead and its message. Certainly the average Jew, with a multitude of spiritual goals, needs to maintain contact and recognition of his tefilin.
(adapted from Ein Eyah vol. III, p. 26)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
INSTRUCTION (PEKUDEI) 2009
How often I wish
for such clear instruction.
Build a structure
to house what you long for
inserting golden post
in golden socket
as though you understood
the grand design.
Anoint the dinner dishes
with Joy. Wash hands
and feet every time you enter.
Rest when the work is done.
And when the presence lingers
in your neighborhood
you’ll know to sit still
and watch your breath
and when the cloud lifts
have your bags packed
be ready to leap
From Rabbi Shefa Gold
Exodus 38:21 – 40:38
An accounting is given of all the work and materials used to build the Mishkan.
The Mishkan is dedicated.
PEKUDAY BLESSES US WITH AN ACCOUNTING of all the work we have done to build a spiritual life. All the components are there. The effort and artistry and riches that have gone into this life-project are made visible to us. This is why I came here… to do this work.
I look back at my journey and remember the days when my resistance to the work took up most of my attention. I still have days like that. Yet today, as I bask in the blessing of Pekuday, I can remember, above the din of my whining and complaint, that this is the work that I was born for. In the big picture, there is nothing more compelling or that gives me more joy than to make a place for the Divine Presence to dwell among us, between us and within us.
To this project I have brought the gold of my love and the silver of my shining desire for Truth. I have made hooks and sockets to connect me with the whole of Creation. I have brought every color of my changing moods, offering them up to that which is eternal. I have mined carnelian, turquoise, topaz, sapphire, emerald, agate, onyx, jasper, crystal, lapis lazuli, and amethyst – in the Ground of My Inheritance. I have faceted these jewels with tools of mind and heart. I have chiseled, cleaned, and polished these collected treasures and arranged them for my descendants.
And this Mishkan that I have built, and that we have built together, will, with its beauty, send us to the holy dimensions where God dwells beyond conceptions, beyond form or religion.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
LEGEND TELLS US that all of the components for the Mishkan were completed to Moses’ satisfaction and he blessed all the Israelites who had created such beauty… yet the people had to wait for three months until it was erected and consecrated. Those three months of waiting might well have been more difficult than all the time spent in creative work.
THIS IS THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE that confronts us when we learn that we are not, and have never been, in charge of the timing of God’s grace. Without that grace all of our efforts are worth little, because we are building this Mishkan for it to be filled with Divine Spirit. And Spirit moves in ways we cannot control. We can only create the space. We can only invite that Presence in. This waiting time is a period of gestation. It is the darkness and cold of winter. It is the long wait for spring.
Moses was told to wait for the first of Nisan, the month during which we are liberated from the narrowness of Egypt and the time of the recreation of the world. In Nisan, color and life return to the Earth; flowers begin to show their buds; the grasses sprout their new green; the miracle of re-birth surrounds us. During those cold dark months of winter waiting, it seemed like nothing was happening, but now we realize that beneath the ground, beyond our awareness, miracles were stirring. The waiting time was necessary to this re-birth of possibility.
Still, this waiting time is a test of our faith and patience, in which we ask: “I have done all the ‘correct things.’ I have been faithful to my practice. I have followed the rules. I have crafted each piece of the Mishkan with beauty and precision. I have said the right words and acted righteously…. So why has Grace not descended? Why hasn’t my life come together in the way it’s supposed to? Why do I not feel loved and appreciated? Why is it still dark and cold? Why is the world still filled with misery?”
During this long winter waiting, all the voices of impatience emerge as the spiritual challenge of Pekuday, and Faith rises to that challenge as we learn to wait and intuit the miracle that is stirring beneath the frozen ground.
WE CAN STUDY THE NATURAL WORLD to understand the process of our own spiritual growth. I was studying at a yeshiva in Jerusalem in March of 1991. It had been the wettest winter remembered in a hundred years. I walked into my Midrash class and Melila, a very special teacher and wise soul waited for us; everyone could tell she was very excited. “Class is cancelled,” she shouted. “Everyone, go to the desert above Qumran. All the flowers are blooming.”
My classmates went home, happy to have the day off . I raced to the Central Bus Station and boarded a bus for Qumran. There I climbed up above the desert floor to the heights that offered views of the Dead Sea in the distance. I sat on a rock and looked around. The desert heights, once barren and brown, now were covered with flowers. I tried to think of a color that wasn’t there… and I couldn’t. Every color that I could imagine was accounted for. Seeds that had been buried in the hard dry desert ground for a century were blooming.
All afternoon I sat there and did the work of Pekuday, the accounting for this Mishkan. I wondered what seeds were buried in me. Every color nurtured my faith.
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