Va’y’chal Moshe et ham’lach, va’y’chas he’anan et ohel mo’ed uch’vod YHVH malei et hamishkan… ki anan YHVH al hamishkan yomam v’esh tih’yeh laila bo l’einei chol beit Yisrael b’chol mas’eihem.
When Moses had finished the work, the Cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of YHVH filled the Mishkan… Over the Mishkan YHVH’s Presence rested as a cloud by day and as fire by night, in the view of the entire people of Israel, throughout their journeys. (Exodus 40:33-34, 38)
The Book of Exodus concludes with this description of YHVH’s sheltering, illuminating Presence, finally dwelling in the midst of the community of Israel. And with this satisfying image several narrative threads of the Torah are artfully brought to their completion.
The shortest of these narrative arcs began in Exodus, Chapter 25, when YHVH instructs Moses that the people should “build Me a sanctuary, that I might dwell among them.” (Ex. 25:8) While Moses is receiving these instructions on top of Mount Sinai, the people below are losing their faith and creating a Golden Calf to worship. After this debacle, Moses manages to reconcile the Children of Israel and YHVH, and finally the actual creation of the portable sanctuary known as the mishkan, meaning “dwelling place for God”, can begin. As Exodus ends, Moses erects the mishkan, and YHVH’s promise from chapter 25 is fulfilled.
Reaching back farther, I am struck by the manner in which the entire Book of Exodus is a satisfying epic. The book begins with our protagonists, the Children of Israel, in exile and distress. The Torah explicitly points out that the Children of Israel had lost their connection with their God – and that God apparently had lost connection with them, as well!
The Children of Israel were groaning under their bondage, and their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God remembered the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God saw the Children of Israel, and then knew of their plight. (Exodus 2:23-25)
Thus a great and unforgettable drama is set into motion so that the Children of Israel can be liberated from their grim exile and reunited with their God. A story that begins with profound distress and disconnection ends with reunion and fulfillment: Over the Mishkan YHVH’s Presence rested as a cloud by day and as fire by night, in the view of the entire people of Israel, throughout their journeys.
I think it would make a great movie!
But there is an even grander story that this week’s Torah reading brings to a climax, and that incorporates the shorter episodes: the story of the purpose of Creation itself. For millennia commentators have taken note of the many literary clues that link the end of Exodus to the beginning of Genesis, and have pondered their deeper meaning. The construction of the mishkan by Moses and the Children of Israel mirrors the language that describes God’s creation of the world:
Genesis 1:31, 2:2:
God looked at all that God had made, and behold, it was very good!… God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.
and Exodus 39:43:
Moses looked at all the work that the Children of Israel had made, and behold, they had made everything just as YHVH had commanded them! And Moses blessed them.
Completed now were heaven and earth and everything in them.
and Exodus 39:32:
Completed now was all the work of the Mishkan, the Tent of Meeting.
God completed the work on the seventh day
and Exodus 40:33:
Moses completed the work
Why does the Torah explicitly link the creation of the world to the creation of the Mishkan?
Consider this existential tale: When God created the world, God wanted much more than to just have a plaything or a work of art to admire. God wanted to be known. God wanted a relationship. So God created human beings in God’s own image, that is, endowed with the longing to know and be known, endowed with the capacity to search beyond their immediate survival needs, to expand in awareness and to live with purpose – in short, to seek God. It is a paradox: even the Creator of All, the Universal Consciousness, needs someone to relate to, and longs to be known and loved, and this desire inheres in the fabric of the Universe.
But the human beings were a confounding mixture of expansive awareness and base appetites. They sullied God’s creation as much as they elevated it. They even threatened to destroy it! God tried everything: wiping the earth clean with a flood and starting over; making a pact with Noah; befriending Abraham and his descendants, all the time hoping that perhaps this time the humans would grasp that, in the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, “we have not come into this world for the sake of hatred, jealousy, anger, or bloodshed; rather, we have come into this world only to know You, may You be blessed eternally!”
Finally God decided the humans needed a guidebook – a Torah – that would teach them how to fulfill their potential as divinely inspired beings. Through this Torah they would learn how to create a community in which the divine imprint in every individual would be recognized and honored. This Torah would teach them how to fashion a society that would be hospitable to the Divine Presence. This Torah would teach them how to make a figurative dwelling place for God in their midst, a Tent of Meeting. It would be built from the overflowing offerings of their hearts, from their deepest wisdom, and from their most elevated selves.
And as the Book of Exodus comes to its conclusion, the desire God expressed at the beginning of Genesis is finally fulfilled. Just as God in the opening of Genesis creates a blessed world for God’s children, so in the final chapter of Exodus those children at long last succeed in creating a blessed dwelling place for God in that world. A cosmic drama has come full circle, and for at least this climactic moment, we are one with God. In the words of the Prophet Isaiah (11:9), on that day
No one will cause harm or destruction on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the YHVH as the waters cover the sea.
Now, that’s a movie I really want to see. (I already love the book!)
Shabbat Shalom and Love,