The Ordinary and the Extraordinary

P'kudei, Exodus 38:21-40:38

D'Var Torah By: Harry K. Danziger

Focal Point

  • These are the records of the Tabernacle . . . which were drawn up at Moses' bidding. . . . All the gold that was used for the work . . . came to 29 talents and 730 shekels by the sanctuary weight. The silver . . . came to 100 talents and 1,775 shekels by the sanctuary weight. (Exodus 38:21, 24-25)

  • When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of Adonaifilled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of Adonai filled the Tabernacle. When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys; but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. For over the Tabernacle a cloud of Adonai 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)

D'var Torah

Three workmen were clearing away debris at the site where a synagogue would be built. A passerby asked, "What are you doing?" The first said, "I'm clearing away rubble." The second said, "I'm earning a living." The third said, "I'm building a house of God." Each of them was right, but each one expressed a very different reality.

Parashat P'kudei begins, like the first workman, in the most mundane way. It's an account book, a log of materials used to build the Tabernacle. It records such facts as "we used so much gold and so much silver and so much of this and so much of that." It continues with something like "instructions for assembly."

At face value, this last parashah of the Book of Exodus is not very exciting. And what an anticlimax it would be if after the sagas of slavery and redemption, the Red Sea and Sinai, Exodus were to end with this record of materials and building activities. Yet it is only when the mundane work has been done that the God-cloud that guides Israel's journey confers a sense of God's presence on a building. Without the gold and silver, and the physical labor, there would be no cloud of God residing at the Tabernacle.

The God-cloud assures Israel that they have not left God behind at Sinai. Nor need they fear that God abandoned them after the sin of the Golden Calf. So long as that cloud is there, they know that they are never a God-forsaken people in a God-forsaken place. God is with them.

Of course, some Israelites may have looked at it and said, "Big deal! A cloud! Seen one, seen them all." As in the case of the workmen, it depends on who sees it and what she or he brings to it.

Remember Jacob on his first night away from home. He went to sleep in a desert with a rock for his pillow. But after his dream, he woke and said, "Surely Adonai is present in this place, and I did not know it!" Shaken, he said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven" (Genesis 28:16-17). In one sense, nothing had changed. Jacob was still alone, still fleeing, still in a desert. Yet he saw the situation differently. A rocky pillow became a sacred pillar that he dedicated to God. A spot in the desert became "the abode of God" and "the gateway to heaven," but only because Jacob saw it that way. Another traveler in the same spot on the next night may have seen a barren wasteland, a rock, and nothing more. Later, in another desert, who knows how many people walked by the Burning Bush before Moses said, "I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight" (Exodus 3:3).

But what about those of us who don't see God beckoning from a burning bush? What happens to those of us who don't dream Jacob's dream, assuring us of God's promise, or don't have the God-cloud over the Tabernacle? How can we bring God into our lives rather than waiting for God to enter miraculously?

One way is to say a b'rachah, a blessing. To say HaMotzi before eating a sandwich or a feast—that is to make a God-moment. To say Shehecheyanu when a child first crawls or when we get a good report from the doctor or when a potential crisis is averted—that is to make a God-moment. To say asher kid'shanu, "who makes us holy," when writing a check for tzedakah or delivering meals to the needy or calling someone who is lonely—that is to make a God-moment.

You don't even need to know a special b'rachah. When you see a friend you've missed for a while, when your child gives you a hug, when your plane lands safely after an uneventful trip, just say, Baruch HaShem, "Thank God." When we do this, on the surface nothing changes, but, in a larger sense, everything does. We go from "clearing away rubble" to "building a house of God."

By the Way

  • "Where is the dwelling of God?"
    This was the question with which the rabbi of Kotzk surprised a number of learned men who happened to be visiting him. They laughed at him: "What a thing to ask! Is not the whole world full of his glory!"
    Then he answered his own question:
    "God dwells wherever man lets him in."
    (Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim [New York: Schocken Books, 1975], p. 277)

  • Earth's crammed with heaven,
    And every common bush afire with God!
    And only he who sees, takes off his shoes.
    (Elizabeth Barrett Browning, quoted in Gates of Prayer [New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1975], p. 658)

Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles. Adonai, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when the lightning of Your presence illumines the darkness in which we walk.
Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed .
And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:
How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it .
(Gates of Prayer , ibid., p. 373)

Your Guide

  1. At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, the Hebrews are put to work building treasure cities, and at the end, they build a Tabernacle. The former was slavery to Pharaoh that embittered their lives; the latter was service to God that enriched their lives. Does the meaning of work depend on the actual work we do or on the reason we do it? Can the same action be drudgery in one context and exhilarating in another? Does the purpose of our work count as much as the effort we expend on it?
  2. God said, "And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them" (Exodus 25:8). Does God need a home, or do the people need assurance of God's presence? Does God need our worship, or does worship benefit us? Does linking God to the good things in our lives make it easier for us to turn to God in the bad times?
  3. Is the goal of Jewish spirituality to detach ourselves from the world and ascend to God, or is it to bring God to earth through mitzvot and b'rachot? In prayer, are we supposed to leave the everyday to touch the holy or infuse the everyday with holiness?

Rabbi Harry K. Danziger is rabbi emeritus of Temple Israel, Memphis, Tennessee.

Reference Materials

P’kudei, Exodus 38:21-40:38
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 680-690; Revised Edition, pp. 627-636;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 545-566

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