Commentary for Pekuei

15 Mar

In this week’s parshah, the Israelites finally finish building the Tabernacle. With this important task now completed, they are ready to set out on their journey to the Promised Land, so the last few verses of the parshah explain to us how they knew when to head out. “When the cloud was raised up from upon the Tabernacle, the Children of Israel would embark on all their journeys. If the cloud did not rise up, they would not embark, until the day it rose up. For the cloud of the Lord would be on the Tabernacle by day, and fire would be on it at night, before the eyes of all of the House of Israel throughout their journeys (Ex. 40:36-38).”

 

This information leads us to an interesting question: If God can make these clearly supernatural occurrences to both guide the Israelites and remind them of God’s presence among them, then why instruct them to build the Tabernacle in the first place? Why not just build some altars and do the required daily sacrifices in front of this thick and impossibly low-hanging cloud or in front of the big floating fire in the sky? Surely such clearly supernatural phenomena would do a better job of focusing the people on our omnipotent God than a bunch of man-made tents and implements would.

In this week’s parshah we are told that it is on the first day of the first month of the second year that that the Tabernacle is put together by Moses and then Aaron and his sons begin their priestly duty as God had instructed. This seems to be Moses ignoring the instructions he was given by God in Exodus 29 in which God says that Aaron and his sons are to be anointed over a seven-day period in a ceremony which includes the use of the Tabernacle for sacrifices. Rabbi Avraham Mordechai of Gur resolves this issue by explaining that the Torah only mentions Moses raising the Tabernacle when it is erected for permanent use. For the seven-day period before that, though, Moses had been setting the Tabernacle up every morning and then breaking it down when he was done with that day’s inauguration ceremony.

 

Rabbi Avraham Mordechai also connects these seven times that Moses erects and then breaks down the Tabernacle to the seven places that would serve the Israelites as sanctuaries for the next thirteen-hundred years: The Tabernacle itself that was used in the desert, Gilgal, Shiloh, Nov, Givon, and the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem.

 

Midrash Rabbah takes a slightly different approach, first citing Song of Songs 5:1 and Genesis 3:8 to show that God’s Divine Presence (signified by the cloud and the fire) initially resided on Earth, but then, starting from the sin in the Garden of Eden, it retreated up to heaven, and would retreat up to a higher level of heaven following six other instances of large-scale human sin, but was also brought back down closer to earth by seven different righteous people, the final one of whom was Moses, as is evidenced by the cloud and the fire upon the Tabernacle.

 

Both of these explanations lead us to the same basic idea: That which can be destroyed by human hands can also be rebuilt by human hands. If the actions of others have made God seem absent in the world, we can bring God back into the world through our actions. If the institutions through which we connect to God appear desolate and barren, we, through our hard work, can revive them.

 

God could have simply appeared to the Israelites as cloud or fire, but that would have led to a similar situation as happened with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, or with the Israelites themselves when they thought Moses was gone on Mount Sinai for too long. The moment God (or God’s appointed representative) was out of sight, the people would panic and turn away from God. By having them build the Tabernacle, God teaches the Israelites that a connection with God is not something that simply falls into your lap. It is something that it takes time and effort to cultivate, as symbolized by the manmade Tabernacle surrounded by God’s Divine Presence in form of the cloud and fire. Thus only once they had put in the prerequisite time and effort did the Israelites merit a visual manifestation of God’s Divine Presence.

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