This week's Torah portion, Parashat P'kudei, brings the Book of Exodus to a close. The Israelites — who by this point in our story have been freed from Egyptian slavery, stood at Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and the Torah, and in this week's parashah, completed the construction of the Tabernacle — are finally ready for their long years of wandering that will take up the rest of the Torah's narrative.
If your only exposure to the Book of Exodus was through children's Bible stories, Hollywood, or even the Jewish calendar, you might easily overlook the part of the story about the Tabernacle. Big stories like the liberation from Egypt, the giving of the Ten Commandments, the building of the Golden Calf, and God's appearance at the Burning Bush are almost always portrayed as the major events of the Book of Exodus. The building of the Tabernacle — the portable sanctuary that will serve as God's dwelling-place among the Israelite camp during their wanderings — barely even registers. But when Moses finally completes the Tabernacle in this week's Torah portion, it is after five weekly Torah portions, fifteen chapters, and almost half the Book of Exodus that are mostly devoted to the detailed and often repetitive description of the Tabernacle.
It's a painstaking construction process, and much of the text can be hard to read and relate to, since the chapters about the Tabernacle are so overwhelmingly concerned with small and seemingly insignificant details. The Exodus from Egypt is about plagues and dictators, oppression and freedom; Sinai is about Revelation and ethics; the Golden Calf is about sin and forgiveness; the Burning Bush is about hearing God's voice. But on the surface, the chapters about the Tabernacle are about smaller, less significant things: "blue, purple, crimson yarns, and in fine linen" (Exodus 35:35), "the sockets for the posts of the enclosure" (Exodus 38:31), and "the copper altar with its copper grating, its poles and all its utensils" (Exodus 39:39).
Today's bar and bat mitzvah students aren't the only ones who wondered how they could find meaning from these details, how to find the forest amid so many trees. As we close the Book of Exodus and the building of the Tabernacle, I find myself thinking of a teaching from the Zohar, the medieval text usually considered the most important work of Jewish mysticism. The Zohar seems to anticipate how fragmentary the Tabernacle texts must seem to us, and challenges us instead to shift our perspective from the details to the greater whole:
Here (in the Tabernacle) we have another symbol of unity, for while the Tabernacle was made up of many parts, yet it says (Exodus 26:6), "so that the Tabernacle becomes one whole." Now just as the human body possesses many organs, higher and lower, some being internal and not visible, while others are external and visible, and yet they all form one body, so also was it with the Tabernacle: all its individual parts were formed in the pattern of that above, and when they were all properly fitted together "the Tabernacle was one." Of the commandments of the Torah the same is true: they are each and all members and limbs in the mystery above, and, when they all unite as one whole, they all ascend into one mystery. The mystery of the Tabernacle, which thus consists of members and limbs all ascending into the mystery of Heavenly Man, is after the pattern of the commandments of the Torah, which are all also in the mystery of man, both Male and Female, which, when united, form one mystery of Man.1
In this week's Torah portion, after so many chapters of instructions, so many weeks of building, so many details upon details, the pieces all come together to form the completed Tabernacle. Hamishkan echad, "the Tabernacle is one." The text echoes a more familiar phrase, Adonai echad, "the Eternal" is one, as we say in the Sh'ma, prayer.
I love the Zohar's metaphor of our bodies because it rings so true to many aspects of life. Looking in the mirror, it can be so easy to see a jumble of imperfect parts: thighs that are curvier or straighter than we'd wish, teeth that need to be straightened or whitened, a slowly receding hairline. And so it is with our lives: some days, it feels like living has been dissolved into a series of to-do lists, while something essential slips through the cracks. God is one, but we are so fragmentary, so often lost in mundane details.
And this, I think, is why our people spend so many weeks and so many chapters studying the Tabernacle every year. God is found in moments of oppression and moments of liberation, Exodus teaches us. God is found in the holiest moments like Sinai or the Burning Bush, and God is even found in our worst moments, like the Golden Calf. But most days, if God is to be found among us, it will be because we find a way to take the most mundane of moments, the smallest moments, and recognize that they are materials with which we might build a dwelling-place for God. Our task is to look in the mirror — beyond our thighs and hairlines — and see the beauty and the mystery of our bodies. Our task is to look at our days — beyond the carpool line and the checkout line, beyond setting the breakfast table and entering the door at night — and find the beauty and the mystery of a human life.
When we put the pieces together, when we glimpse the oneness for even a moment — then the Presence of God dwells within us, just as our ancient ancestors experienced in their camp. Exodus teaches us to fight for that glimpse. Take as much time as you need trying to find it. Only then will you be ready for your journey.
1. Quoted in W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed.,The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition (NY:URJ Press, 2005), p. 636
Most of our recent Torah portions have focused on the communal efforts to create the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that would serve as the central focus of the Israelite community in the desert. At the end of the book of Exodus, however, the completion of this sanctuary comes back into the hands of Moses, the organizer who started it all.
The construction of the Tabernacle required teamwork, volunteerism, and engagement of people from all parts of the Israelite camp. Yet, once their work was finally ready for its debut, God instructed Moses to set up the finishing touches of the Tabernacle by himself.1
In the quiet inner-sanctum of the Tabernacle, one can imagine Moses arranging the furniture (Exodus 40:21), putting up screens (Exodus 40:22), setting the table (Exodus 40:22-23), lighting the lamps (Exodus 40:25), and bringing in the water for ritual washing (Exodus 40:30-31), all tasks he easily could have given to someone else to do. Did these tasks help the extremely busy Moses to slow down and notice that the people who created such a painstakingly detailed building were no longer the scattered, ragtag group of former slaves with whom Moses had begun the project? Before he turned the page on the Tabernacle's construction, did Moses come to realize that a community of people, brought together through shared experience and unified mission, now stood before him? Did these final tasks help Moses to remember that, as a leader, God wanted him to serve those who built the Tabernacle and not the other way around?
Perhaps because Moses finished what he started, he was able to move into the next phase of his leadership with a better understanding of his community and his role. The strength of such reflection may have been what Moses needed in order to transition us into the book of Leviticus and its codes of how to fill the Tabernacle, and a community, with holiness.
1. The Hebrew verbs in Chapter 40 that describe the tasks assigned to Moses and the actions he took are all in the singular.
Rabbi Ari Margolis serves as the rabbi for the community of Congregation Or Shalom of Vernon Hills, IL.
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