This week’s Torah portion, P’kudei, concludes the Book of Exodus. Its two and a half chapters summarize the previous instructions about building the Tabernacle and bring its construction to completion. While most of the parashah is a bit dry, the last few verses don’t disappoint: the defining book of the Torah ends on a grand note. According to the Hebrew literary scholar and Bible translator, Robert Alter, the language of the last four verses has the “resonant cadences of a kind of epic narrative,” (The Five Books of Moses, p.534). We read in Exodus 4:33-38):
... When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Eternal filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the Eternal 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 the Eternal rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.
Recognizing the eloquence of the language of these verses doesn’t mean that the intent is clear. On a narrative level, there are questions about why the completion of the Tabernacle is the final message of this book as compared with the grander story of Exodus or the theophany at Mount Sinai. On a canonical level, we wonder how the end of the Book of Exodus segues to the books that follow. And, from a theological perspective, we can read this passage as either an optimistic message of faith or a foreshadowing of the perilous journeys to come before the end of the entire Torah.
Sensitive readers of biblical language will realize the import of the Tabernacle’s completion since the very language, “When Moses had finished the work” (Ex. 40:33) is borrowed from God’s finishing the work of Creation (Gen. 2:1-3). The fact that there is now a designated place for divine-human interaction is presented as a fulfillment of the narrative that started with Adam and Eve. And, the Tabernacle’s completion is also connected to the Torah’s most climactic event – Sinai. As we read in this parashah, “the cloud covering the Tent of Meeting” (Ex. 40:34), we are drawn back to the cloud covering Mount Sinai when Moses was talking with God (see Ex. 24:15-17). Thus, according to Bible scholar, Nahum Sarna:
The function of the Tabernacle was to create a portable Sinai, a means by which a continued avenue of communication with God could be maintained. As the people move away from the mount of revelation, they need a visible, tangible symbol of God's ever-abiding Presence in their midst. (The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, commentary by Nahum M. Sarna, p. 237)
Commentators are divided about how the end of Exodus works with the rest of the Torah. Those who stress the importance of the storyline emphasize the link to the Book of Numbers:
The concluding words of Exodus point not to the priestly regulations of the Book of Leviticus, which immediately follows, but to the Book of Numbers, with its tales of Wilderness wanderings, near catastrophic defections, and dangerous tensions between the leader and the led. (Alter, p. 535)
In his interpretation of the very last word of the book, mas’eihem (“their journeys”), Rashi (1040-1105), the greatest of the medieval Torah commentators, brings out this connection to Numbers, and provides a sermonic framing about the concept of being on a journey:
... in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys” [Ex. 40:38] – At every masa which they made (according to Rashi this means: at every station at which they stopped), the cloud rested upon the Tabernacle in the place where they encamped. A place where they encamped is also called masa (the literal meaning of which is “journey”).... [as in Num. 33:1] “These are the mas’-ei – the places of encampment.” Because from the place of encampment they always set out again on a new journey therefore all the different stages of their journeys (including the places where they encamped) are called mas’aot. (Rashi on Ex. 40:38)
Rashi teaches us that there are two sides to a meaningful journey – being on the move and stopping at points along the way.
Other commentaries can’t avoid the immediate proximity to the Book of Leviticus. One line of interpretation in this direction notices a contradiction between “Moses could not enter the Tent” (Ex. 40:35), because of the cloud, in comparison to other places in the Torah where he enters into the cloud without a problem (see Num. 7:89). According to medieval commentator, ibn Ezra (1089-1167), the reconciliation is provided by the first words of Leviticus, “The Eternal One called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting” (Lev. 1:1) – Moses enters the Tent when he is invited. Many of us can relate to feeling intimidated at the entrance to a sacred space until we were made to feel personally welcome (see ibn Ezra on Ex. 40:35).
Here’s one last lesson that is more theologically oriented. After the Israelites’ tumultuous journey throughout Exodus, the ending of this book can be interpreted as imparting a stabilizing framework for what is to come before the end of the entire Torah. The text suggests that divine providence, represented by the cloud during the day and fire by night, is a source for finding direction. According to a few interpretations, God holds out the promise of a transcendent source of love and compassion for the human plight of feeling out of place, sometimes physically and often psychologically.
For Rashbam (1085-1158), Rashi’s grandson, the description of God’s Presence filling the space so soon after it was completed is a sign “of demonstrating [God’s] love for the people Israel” (see Rashbam on Ex. 40:35). An earlier Rabbinic midrash sees the Tabernacle’s completion as the formative experience that solidifies a harmonious relationship between God and the people:
The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: "Formerly there was hostility between Me and My children, there was enmity between Me and My children, there was contention between Me and My children. Now, however, that this Tabernacle has been made there will be love between Me and My children, there will be peace between Me and My children." (B’midbar Rabbah 12:1)
I’m inspired by how contemporary Israeli poet, Rivka Miriam (b. 1952), makes the lofty idea of Divine love more accessible, more tangible to the everyday human experience. In a very short poem, “They are alone in the wilderness. And no one seeks their souls,” (found in an untranslated collection of poems as contemporary midrash, called Moses), Rivka Miriam describes the cloud in very human terms in this excerpt:
... And the soul, that no one seeks
during the day it directs itself by the Pillar of Cloud, turning to the Pillar
of Fire at night,
the powerless soul is restless in their bosom...
when God, through tenderness one can’t feel, caresses their foreheads.
(Reuven Greenvald, trans., from the Hebrew collection by Rivka Miriam, Moses: Poems (Jerusalem: Carmel, 2011), p. 100)
Rabbi Reuven Greenvald is the director of Israel engagement for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ).
Rabbi Greenvald’s survey of the historical views on the end of the Book of Exodus provides us many perspectives as to how to understand this moment in the journey of the Israelites. This Tabernacle is the beginning of a new chapter in the continuity of Israel’s – and God’s – grand narrative. From a Reform perspective, this moment is monumental: it is one of the primary shifts in the relationship between God, Israel, and the world.
The Children of Israel journey through the wilderness on their way to the next step in their development, but this journey itself is a synecdoche for the rest of Jewish history. For the Israelites, Canaan glimmers as an abstract hope just beyond the horizon, and the memories of Egypt begin to transform into a pseudo-nostalgia for the comforts and safety of a stable existence. Already the Israelites have looked back to their time as slaves (Ex. 16:1-3) as one of plentiful food, and therefore succor, beginning to take for granted the miracles wrought for them on their way to independence.
Parashat P’kudei describes the way the Israelites will be constantly reminded of God’s presence. God is dwelling amongst them, in the cloud and the flame, in the Tabernacle itself, and in the words that Moses transmits from on high. This new formulation is an echo of God’s past construction of the universe and a foreshadowing of the future during the height of Israel’s settlement in the Land – the Temple of Solomon, which itself is based on the shape and arrangement of the Tabernacle.
Reform tradition sees these steps as a pattern of progress toward continually more universal and enlightened forms of connection with God, as well as the enacting of the mission of Israel: to bring world peace under one understanding of God. From the destruction of the Temples our Reform predecessors found a light in the darkness: the Diaspora was truly a scattering of seeds, seeds of light to be spread to the world. The synagogue was one institution that developed and flourished from these seeds, so much so that the Reform Movement saw synagogues as the continuation of our spiritual progress and began calling them Temples unto themselves.
As the great Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler wrote in his book, Jewish Theology:
“it is not enough that the institutions and ceremonies of the Synagogue are testimonies to the great past of Israel. They must also become eloquent heralds and monitors of the glorious future...They must help also to bring about the time when the ideal of social justice, which the Mosaic Code holds forth for the Israelitish nation, will have become the motive-power and incentive to the reëstablishment of human society upon new foundations.” (Kaufmann Kohler, Jewish Theology, [Macmillan Company, 1918], pp. 442-443, Kindle Edition)
The Tabernacle allowed God to dwell amongst the Children of Israel and to thereby cohere them into a people. Just as this step led towards a new constellation of Israelite identity and existence, we today must rethink what the Israelites (that is, those who struggle with God) of our day need to encounter the Divine. What forms will provide the best inroads to spiritual experience, and self- and world-improvement for today’s strugglers-with-God? Just as Moses worked together with Bezalel and Oholiab to create the foundation for this new step in the process of Israel’s becoming, let us today empower those with talents and skills, with passion and love for the Jewish people, and partner to create the next mode of inviting God to dwell amongst us.
Rabbi Andy Kahn is the assistant rabbi at Temple Emanu-El of New York City.
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
Haftarah, I Kings 7:51-8:21
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 728-730; Revised Edition, pp. 637-639