This Shabbat, we will read the portions of Vayakhel and Pekudei, the two parashot that conclude the Book of Exodus, the second of the five books of the Torah.
The five books of the Torah deal with various topics. The first book, Genesis, deals with the history of humanity and of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish nation. The second book, Exodus, describes the formation of the Jewish people in Egypt, the liberation from Egyptian enslavement, the receiving of the Torah at Sinai and the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, in the center of the camp of the wandering people in the desert. The third book, Leviticus, is largely devoted to the work of the holy Temple, the sacrifices and the laws of the priesthood. The fourth, the Book of Numbers, describes the winding journey through the desert on the way to the Land of Israel. And the Book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book, consists of a series of speeches by Moses in preparation for his separation from the people and the entry of the people into the Land of Israel.
At the end of Exodus, we read the description of the construction of the Mishkan and the utensils placed in it. The book ends with a description of the cloud that settled on the Mishkan.
The continuation from Exodus onward
There were two aspects of this cloud, as we can easily see.
The first aspect was the holiness that enveloped the Mishkan and prevented Moses from entering it: “And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud rested upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan” (Ex. 40:34-35).
“And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud rested upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan”Exodus 40:34-35
The continuation details another function of the cloud: guiding the Children of Israel on their journey through the desert. “When the cloud rose up from over the Mishkan, the Children of Israel would set out, throughout their journeys. But if the cloud did not rise up, they did not set out until the day that it rose. For the cloud of the Lord was upon the Mishkan by day, and there was fire within it at night, before the eyes of the entire House of Israel throughout their journeys” (Ex. 40:36-38).
In contrast to the simple reading that sees the five books of the Torah as continuing one after the other, we find that the continuation of the Book of Exodus is found in the two books that follow.
The Book of Leviticus begins with Moses’s entry into the Mishkan, thus continuing the first aspect of the cloud: “And He called to Moses, and the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting....” (Lev. 1:1).
In the book of Numbers, we find the continuation of the second aspect of the cloud, the guidance of the Children of Israel on their journey: “On the day the Mishkan was erected, the cloud covered the Mishkan, which was a tent for the Testimony, and at evening, there was over the Mishkan like an appearance of fire, [which remained] until morning... and according to the cloud’s departure from over the Tent, and afterward, the Children of Israel would travel, and in the place where the cloud settled, there the Children of Israel would encamp. At the bidding of the Lord, the Children of Israel traveled, and at the bidding of the Lord, they encamped....” (Numbers 9:15-18).
So, the cloud that enveloped the Mishkan had two functions. It conveyed a message to Moses, who wished to enter the Holy Place, and another statement was expressed to the people, who were led on their journeys by the cloud on the Mishkan. Indeed, the two books that continue the book of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, deal with these two aspects: the Book of Leviticus deals with the work of the Mishkan and the functions of the priesthood, while the Book of Numbers focuses on the nation, its tribulations and functions.
IN THE life of the person of faith, these two aspects work side by side: entering the sacred and following God. Sometimes a person experiences exaltation and holiness, in special moments or when he does noble deeds. These moments are moments of entering the sacred, an intimate encounter with the presence of God. In contrast, routine usually does not provide such uplifting experiences. In everyday life, we are called upon to walk by the light of the cloud, to keep the commandments and avoid prohibitions, and to turn our routine lives into life full of the exquisite flavor of Jewish values.
These two experiences, entering the sacred and routinely following God, complement each other. Ordinary life does not recharge itself. We draw strength from those rare moments in which we experienced closeness to the sacred. On the other hand, those rare moments must be realized in routine life, since without this realization, their meaning may easily dissipate. ■
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.