‘TO LEAVE the world of Egyptian culture that is based on impure witchcraft and idolatry, which seeks to bequeath to man powers to control the universe through magic...’.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This Shabbat, we are going to read the final portion of the Book of Exodus, parashat Pekudei. This portion ends the topic of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the temporary Temple, and we will read the description of the construction of the Mishkan and the placement of the ritual objects inside it.
Actually, the Book of Exodus can be divided into three central themes: The first is Egypt, focused on the exile and the slavery, the 10 plagues and the Exodus from Egypt. The second theme focuses on the events surrounding Mount Sinai, at the center of which is the significant event of the Revelation and hearing the Ten Commandments. And the third theme is the Mishkan – the detailed commandments on building it, creating the complex ritual objects, weaving the priestly garments, and the precise implementation of all the directions.
Is there a connection among these three central themes? Is this some gradual process that leads to a defined goal?
Let us try to clarify this by paying attention to the Torah’s exact language, which directs us to a deeper understanding of the goal that remains relevant for each and every one of us even today.
The 10 plagues that were brought down upon the heads of the enslaving Egyptians prior to the Exodus were meant to educate the Egyptian nation about God, and to the recognition that it is not man who has the power to enslave his fellow man; rather, God is the sovereign before whom all men are equal.
It was not only the Egyptians who were meant to reach this awareness, but the Jewish nation as well. God clarified this to Moses before the 10 plagues began: “Therefore, say to the Children of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will take you out... and I will save you... and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments... and you will know that I am the Lord your God, Who has brought you out....’” (Exodus 6:6-7). And then again after the seventh plague: “and in order that you tell into the ears of your son and your son’s son how I made a mockery of the Egyptians... and you will know that I am the Lord” (ibid. 10:2).
Did the Jewish nation internalize this knowledge? It seems that despite the earth-shattering events, internalization demands a longer process. Therefore, when the nation faced hardships – on the banks of the Red Sea, with desert thirst, and later when food ran out – they complained to Moses and to Aaron and asked to return to Egypt. The answer they received even in the desert had a declared intent: “...you shall know that the Lord brought you out of the land of Egypt... and you shall know that I am the Lord, your God” (ibid. 16:6-12).
What is needed to create the kind of cognitive and cultural transformation we are talking about? To leave the world of Egyptian culture, which is based on impure witchcraft and idolatry, which seeks to bequeath to man powers to control the universe through magic, and causes man to trust his own powers while disdaining the honor of others, and enter a different world, the world of Judaism, which is the exact opposite. Judaism rejects idolatry, hates witchcraft and magic, and demands that man stand with humility in front of everyone who was created “in God’s image.” For that, one needs daily and consistent work. Not the kind that creates a powerful emotional maelstrom, but one that advances a person one step at a time and creates a real and profound change in his soul.
This is the Mishkan. The consistent work that does not change, the perfect order, the precision up to the smallest detail – this is what can bring the nation closer to the goal: “I will dwell in the midst of the Children of Israel and I will be their God. They will know that I, the Lord, am their God, Who brought them out of the land of Egypt” (ibid. 29:45-46). The parting of the Red Sea led to transcendent wonder, to exciting song; the Revelation at Mount Sinai led the nation to awe and to the expression of honest desire to accept the yoke of Heaven. But for the knowledge of God to be etched in their hearts, it was necessary to have the consistent and persistent work in the Mishkan.
The excitement that stems from a significant event ultimately fades and does not leave a lasting impact. But ongoing and persistent action has the power to create real change in someone’s life.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.
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