Judaism: Pikudei: Present Presence
Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein
Exocus, Sefer Shemot, has taken us on a long, full journey. We started out being enslaved in Egypt, experiencing physical redemption, accepting the Torah at Sinai representing spiritual redemption, and we conclude with building the Tabernacle for God’s presence to dwell within us. The Book concludes with Moshe’s final actions for the Tabernacle’s consecration, the cloud that would always be above the Tabernacle, and the interaction between this cloud and Israel in the desert:
“He erected the Courtyard around the Tabernacle and the Altar, and he placed the curtain of the gate of the Courtyard… The clouds covered the Tent of Meeting, for the cloud rested upon it, and the glory of Hashem filled the Tabernacle. When the cloud was raised up from the Tabernacle, the Children of Israel would embark on all their journeys. If the cloud would not rise up, they would not embark until the day it rose up. For the cloud of Hashem would be on the Tabernacle by day, and fire would be on it by night, right before the eyes of all the House of Israel throughout their journeys.”
Since the entire purpose of the physical redemption was to serve Hashem at Sinai, and its physical manifestation would be reflected in the service in the Tabernacle, writes Rabbi Eliyahu Schlesinger in Areshet Sefoteinu, this passage seems a logical conclusion to the entire Sefer Shemot.
Nevertheless, the verses raise several questions which seem unrelated, but whose answers will indeed show a deep relationship. First, Rabbi Kofman asks in Mishchat Shemen whether the cloud was always on the Tabernacle, especially by day, or whether it did in fact rise up.
Then, Rabbi Dunner asks in Mikdash Halevi why, when the entire passage is written in the past tense, does the Torah then imply the future with, “For the cloud of Hashem would be on the Tabernacle by day and fire would be by night.”
Finally, Rabbi Kanatopsky asks in A Night of Watching why the Torah uses the unusual term Beis Yisroel – House of Israel - instead of the more common Bnei Yisroel – Children of Israel.
Rabbi Dunner answers very simply that this passage is meant not only as a record of what happened in the wilderness but also to act as a guide for our path in life. In this context, the Torah is teaching us that Hashem will be with us not just here, but also in the future, throughout our dark exiles, and the fire will illuminate our nights, provided we follow the path Hashem has set for us. Just as in the Egyptian exile Hashem was with us, so will He be with us in future exiles.
Similarly, the Sifsei Reem notes that the cloud by day refers to the eras when we had the Beit Hamikdash, whereas the fire by night refers to the dark stages of our exiles. Just as we felt the closeness to Hashem through the Mishkan, writes Rabbi Schlesinger, will we be able to bring Hashem closer to us through Torah learning even when we seem to have pushed Him away through our sins. We can still keep the link to Hashem, for, as Pirkei Avot testifies, ten who learn Torah together, God’s presence rests between them. Just as the cloud was not directly on Bnei Yisroel when they traveled, but more symbolically within them, so can we keep Hashem within us through our own travels.
Rabbi Reiss expands on this idea in Merosh Tzurim.When the Temple, Beit Hamikdosh, existed, one could see the fire around it, but even in the darkness, the hidden fire illuminates the night, and we have the power to stoke that fire. When the first Beith Hamikdosh was consecrated, Shlomo Hamelech davened that Hashem should dwell in the arafel, the darkest of the dark; likewise, the fire is always here, even in the darkest times of our lives and history. There is a light of Godliness that illuminates each Jewish soul. The moment we reveal that spark within ourselves, we can tap into the fire from above. In our darkest hours, we must try to feel that fire.
How do we ignite that fire within ourselves? In Einei Yisroel, Rabbi Belsky begins discussing the process by examining what Moshe did to consecrate the Tabernacle after he erected it. The Torah enumerates three things: Moshe prepared the Table and the showbread upon it, he kindled the Menorah, and he burnt an incense offering on the Gold Altar. Rabbi Belsky then asks why these actions were recorded here, in Sefer Shemos, the Book of Redemption, rather than in Leviticus, Sefer Vayikrah, Toras Kohanim, where the actual service is set down.
Rabbi Belsky’s answer is remarkable. Since the purpose of the physical redemption was to lead to spiritual redemption, to bring us back to the spiritual state of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, it is indeed fitting that these three areas be consecrated in reference to the redemption itself rather than in the tasks of the priests. Rabbi Belsky sees each of these consecrations as symbolic of the holiness that defined the tents of our Forefathers. We are familiar with those three signs: their dough (bread) was blessed, the cloud of Hashem’s presence hovered continually over their tents, and the light of their Shabbat candles remained from one Shabbat Eve to the next.
Rabbi Belsky sees a parallelism between the three vessels that Moshe used for the first time in service to Hashem and the three traditional symbols of God’s presence in the homes of our Matriarchs. Moshe preparing the showbread on the Table reflected the blessing in the dough; the Menorah Moshe lit paralleled the Shabbat candles that would never go out; finally, the incense offering on the altar represented God’s cloud on their tents.
However, it would appear that anointing these vessels would already have consecrated them. Why did Hashem command Moshe to actually use them in the Tabernacle? Hashem understood that He must teach us the difference between potential and actualization. Anointing the vessels conferred upon them the potential for sanctity, but potential alone when it is not actualized is merely a road to depression rather than to elevation. For the Divine Presence to appear, the potential for sanctity had to be actualized. Moshe’s service actualized the inherent sanctity originally conferred on these vessels through their anointing, and created the pathway for Hashem’s Presence to descend into the Tabernacle.
Every Jew, continues Rabbi Belsky, has innate sanctity. Will it remain unfulfilled potential or will it be actualized and create a mini Tabernacle within himself? We have the tools to bring God’s Presence to earth. We can utilize the three pillars of the earth’s continued existence, pillars that represent these same symbols of our Matriarchs and the vessels in the Tabernacle. We can spread the light of Torah through continued learning, we can do our avodah shebalev, our service of the heart, through prayer, both for ourselves and for others, and we can engage in acts of chesed, of loving kindness by helping to provide for the needs of others, providing the “bread” of sustenance, whether financially, physically, emotionally, or spiritually. By utilizing our potential in these areas, we too can bring down God’s presence to this world.
Tov Hapeninim offers yet another insight into our discussion. Citing Rashi, he writes that even when Bnei Yisroel was encamped, they were traveling. For daily life is also a journey. In this context, the cloud was always with them, whether they were eating bread, whether the priests were cleaning the ashes from the altar, or whether they were stopped to rest so they could continue on their journey. Similarly, we too must seek to find Hashem wherever we may be on our journey, not only in the openly spiritual activities of life, but also in the mundane activities of life.
Along these lines, Rabbi Kofman in Shemen Hatov offers that our “down time” is not a time devoid of importance, for it is during this time that we regroup to strategize and regain strength for our continued ascent, much as a lion crouches in preparation for his attack. In short, resting is part and parcel of the journey itself. As proof, Rabbi Kofman cites the Netziv of Volozhin’s comments on the Seder when we start reciting the Hallel prayer before the meal, break to eat the festive meal, and resume Hallel after the meal. How are we permitted to interrupt a prayer to eat? Because the meal itself, as physical an activity as it is, is also part of our service and we are sanctifying the very food we eat.
Continuing this train of thought, the Slonimer Rebbe in Netivot Shalom presents a homiletic interpretation to our discussion. From the moment we leave the womb, he says, we have embarked on our journey of forty-two stops, similar to the stops in the desert journey. God’s cloud is always protecting us to destroy the “snakes” and “scorpions” along the way and help us on our journey and help us destroy the yetzer horo that is trying to consume us. Our mundane journey through the world is in fact a spiritual journey. If we understand this analogy correctly, we will understand that just as Hashem’s presence existed in the physical structure of the Tabernacle,
He exists within each of us, writes Rabbi Gamliel Horowitz in Tiv Hatorah. And just as we moved or stopped according to Hashem’s command through the cloud, so must we let Hashem take the lead in our lives, for we are never alone.
This point is further emphasized by Rabbi Wachtfogel in Leket Reshimot. The mitzvoth in the Torah are mitzvoth for all generations, so that if Bnei Yisroel is to follow the cloud of Hashem’s presence throughout their journeys, says Rabbi Wachtfogel in the name of Rabbi Yerucham, we are commanded to follow that cloud through all the generations, to search for the spiritual cloud that will guide us, for the more we bring His presence into our lives, the more we will merit feeling His presence.
Now ending this passage with Beis Yisroel, the House of Israel, makes perfect sense, for we must try to recreate the mini sanctuaries in our homes, homes that will reflect the sanctity of the Tabernacle and the sanctity of the homes of our Matriarchs.
Rabbi Pincus in Nefesh Shimshon gives us some guidelines to achieve this goal. First, let the aura of the Shabbat candles permeate the entire week until the next Shabbat, so that there remains an air of harmony within the household. Then make your “dough” blessed by spending it on necessities rather than frivolities that will distract you from your true purpose. Finally, surround yourself, both your bodies and your voices, with a veil of modesty.
A house is not just four walls and a window, for the walls serve three purposes, writes Rabbi Zev Leff in Outlooks and Insight. First, they create an interior, private area where Jewish values and morals are nurtured. Second, the walls unite the members of the household, while free to express their individuality, learn to use their uniqueness in harmony with each other, creating a peaceful oasis in the home. When that inner area is infused with sanctity, the inner light can then be projected to the outer world.
The goal of mitzvah performance, reminds us Rabbi Pincus, is to have a personal relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu. We desire to bring Hashem’s presence into our selves and into our homes, so that my inner candle can unite with the fire from above, and my home can become a Sanctuary where Hashem’s presence can come down and feel at home with me and my family. The mission of the Jew is to transform the sanctity within him from potential to actual so that God’s presence can become manifest in his home and, through the home, to the world.