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Vayakhel-Pekudei (5769) – Encampments and Journeys

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Right at the end of the book of Shemot, there is a textual difficulty so slight that it is easy to miss, yet – as interpreted by Rashi – it contains one of the great clues as to the nature of Jewish identity: moving testimony to the unique challenge of being a Jew.

First, the background. The Tabernacle is finally complete. Its construction has taken many chapters to relate. No other event in the wilderness years is portrayed in such detail. Now, on the first of Nissan, exactly a year after Moses told the people to begin their preparations for the exodus, he assembles the beams and hangings, and puts the furniture and vessels in place. There is an unmistakable parallelism between the words the Torah uses to describe Moses’ completion of the work and those it uses of G-d on the seventh day of creation:

And Moses finished [vayechal] the work [hamelakhah].

And G-d finished [vayechal] on the seventh day the work [melakhto] which He had done.

The next verse states the result:

Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.

The meaning is both clear and revolutionary. The creation of the sanctuary by the Israelites is intended to represent a human parallel to the Divine creation of the universe. In making the world, G-d created a home for mankind. In making the Tabernacle, mankind created a home for G-d.

From a human perspective, G-d fills the space we make for His presence. His glory exists where we renounce ours. The immense detail of the construction is there to tell us that throughout, the Israelites were obeying G-d’s instructions rather than improvising their own. The specific domain called “the holy” is where we meet G-d on his terms, not ours. Yet this too is G-d’s way of conferring dignity on mankind. It is we who build His home so that He may fill what we have made. In the words of a famous film: “If you build it, he will come.”

Bereishith begins with G-d making the cosmos. Shemot ends with human beings making a micro-cosmos, a miniature and symbolic universe. Thus the entire narrative of Genesis-Exodus is a single vast span that begins and ends with the concept of G-d-filled space, with this difference: that in the beginning the work is done by G-d-the-Creator. By the end it is done by man-and-woman-the-creators. The whole intricate history has been a story with one overarching theme: the transfer of the power and responsibility of creation from heaven to earth, from G-d to the image-of-G-d called mankind.

That is the background. However, the final verses of the book go on to tell us about the relationship between the “cloud of glory” and the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle, we recall, was not a fixed structure. It was made in such a way as to be portable. It could quickly be dismantled and its parts carried, as the Israelites made their way to the next stage of their journey. When the time came for the Israelites to move on, the cloud moved from its resting place in the Tent of Meeting to a position outside the camp, signalling the direction they must now take. This is how the Torah describes it:

When the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle, the Israelites went onward in all their journeys, but if the cloud did not lift, they did not set out until the day it lifted. 38 So the cloud of the LORD was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel in all their journeys.

There is a small but significant difference between the two instances of the phrase bechol mas’ehem, “in all their journeys.” In the first instance the words are to be taken literally. When the cloud lifted and moved on ahead, the Israelites knew they were about to travel. However in the second instance they cannot be taken literally. The cloud was not over the Tabernacle in all their journeys. On the contrary: it was there only when they stopped travelling and instead pitched camp. During the journeys the cloud went on ahead.

Noting this, Rashi makes the following comment:

A place where they encamped is also called massa, “a journey” . . . Because from the place of encampment they always set out again on a new journey, therefore they are all called “journeys.”

The point is linguistic, but the message is anything but. Rashi has encapsulated in a few brief words – “a place where they encamped is also called a journey” — the existential truth at the heart of Jewish identity. So long as we have not yet reached our destination, even a place of rest is still called a journey – because we know we are not here for ever. There is a way still to go. In the words of the poet Robert Frost,

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

To be a Jew is to travel, and to know that here where we are is a mere resting place, not yet a home. It is defined not by the fact that we are here, but by the knowledge that eventually – after a day, a week, a year, a century, sometimes even a millennium – we will have to move on. Thus, the portable Tabernacle, even more than the Temple in Jerusalem, became the symbol of Jewish life.

Why so? Because the G-ds of the ancient world were gods of a place: Sumeria, Memphis, Moab, Edom. They had a specific domain. Theology was linked to geography. Here, in this holy place, made magnificent by ziggurat or temple, the gods of the tribe or the state ruled and exercised power over the city or the empire. When Pharaoh says to Moses: “Who is the Lord that I should obey Him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go” he means – here, I am the sovereign power. Egypt has its own gods. Within its boundaries, they alone rule, and they have delegated that power to me, their earthly representative. There may indeed be a G-d of Israel, but his power and authority do not extend to Egypt. Divine sovereignty is like political sovereignty. It has borders. It has spatial location. It is bounded by a place on the map.

With Israel an old-new idea (it goes back, according to the Torah, to Adam and Cain, Abraham and Jacob, all of whom suffered exile) is reborn: that G-d, being everywhere, can be found anywhere. He is what Morris Berman calls the “wandering G-d.” Just as in the desert His cloud of glory accompanied the Israelites on their long and meandering journey, so – said the rabbis – “when Israel went into exile, the Divine presence went with them.” G-d cannot be confined to a specific place. Even in Israel, His presence among the people depended on their obedience to His word. Hence there is no such thing as physical security, the certain knowledge that here-I-am-and-here-I-stay. As David said in Psalm 30:

When I felt secure, I said,

“I will never be shaken.”

. . . but when You hid Your face,

I was dismayed.

Security belongs not to place but to person, not to a physical space on the surface of the earth but to a spiritual space in the human heart.

If anything is responsible for the unparalleled strength of Jewish identity during the long centuries in which they were scattered throughout the world, a minority everywhere, it is this – the concept to which Jews and Judaism gave the name galut, exile. Unique among nations in the ancient or modern world, with few exceptions they neither converted to the dominant faith nor assimilated to the prevailing culture. The sole reason was that they never mistook a particular place for home, temporary location for ultimate destination. “Now we are here,” they said at the beginning of the seder service, “but next year, in the land of Israel.”

In Jewish law (Yoreh Deah 286: 22) 7, one who hires a house outside Israel is obliged to affix a mezuzah only after thirty days. Until then it is not yet regarded as a dwelling-place. Only after thirty days does it become, de facto, home. In Israel, however, one who hires a house is immediately obligated mishum yishuv eretz Yisrael, “because of the command to settle Israel.” Outside Israel Jewish life is a way, a path, a route. Even an encampment, a place of rest, is still called a journey.

There is a marvellous scene in the 19th chapter of the First Book of Kings. The aged Elijah encounters G-d on the mountain, in the “still small voice” that follows the wind, the earthquake and the fire. G-d tells him that he must appoint Elisha as his successor. He does so:

So Elijah went from there and found Elisha son of Shaphat. He was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen, and he himself was driving the twelfth pair. Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak around him. Elisha then left his oxen and ran after Elijah. “Let me kiss my father and mother good-by,” he said, “and then I will come with you.”

“Go back,” Elijah replied. “What have I done to you?”

So Elisha left him and went back. He took his yoke of oxen and slaughtered them. He burned the ploughing equipment to cook the meat and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out to follow Elijah and became his attendant.

Elisha was not expecting the call. Yet without delay, he abandons everything to follow Elijah. Almost as if terrified at the sheer starkness of the demand he is making of the younger man, Elijah seems to change his mind at the last moment: “Go back. What have I done to you?” (There is an echo here of an earlier passage in which Naomi tries to persuade Ruth not to follow her: “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home . . . Return home, my daughters, why would you come with me?” In both cases, Ruth and Elisha prove their calling by refusing to be dissuaded). At the end of his essay, The Lonely Man of Faith, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik gives a deeply moving analysis of the encounter:

Elisha was a typical representative of the majestic community. He was the son of a prosperous farmer, a man of property, whose interests were centred around this-worldly, material goods such as crops, livestock, and market prices . . . What did this man of majesty have in common with Elijah, the solitary covenantal prophet, the champion of G-d, the adversary of Kings, who walked as a stranger through the bustling cities of Shomron . . . What bond could exist between a complacent farmer who enjoyed his homestead and the man in the hairy dress who came from nowhere and to finally disappeared under a veil of mystery? [Yet] he bade farewell to father and mother and departed from their home for good. Like his master, he became homeless. Like his ancestor Jacob he became a “straying Aramean” who took defeat and humiliation with charity and gratitude . . . Elisha was indeed lonely, but in his loneliness he met the Lonely One and discovered the singular covenantal confrontation of solitary man and G-d who abides in the recesses of transcendental solitude.

That scene was repeated time and again during the years 1948-51 when one after another of the Jewish communities in Arab lands – the Maghreb, Iraq, Yemen – said goodbye to homes they had lived in for centuries and left for Israel. In 1990, the Dalai Lama, who had lived in exile from Tibet since 1951, invited a group of Jewish scholars to visit him in North India. Realising that he and his followers might have to spend many years before they were allowed back, he had pondered the question, “How does a way of life sustain itself far from home?” He realised that one group above all others had faced and solved that problem: the Jews. So he turned to them for advice (the story is told in Roger Kamenetz’ book, The Jew in the Lotus).

Whether the Jewish answer – which has to do with faith in the G-d of history – is applicable to Buddhism is a moot point, but the encounter was fascinating none the less, because it showed that even the Dalai Lama, leader of a group far removed from Judaism, recognised that there is something unparalleled in the Jewish capacity to stay faithful to the terms of its existence despite dispersion, never losing faith that one day the exiles would return to their land.

How and why it happened is contained in those simple words of Rashi at the end of Shemot. Even when at rest, Jews knew that they would one day have to uproot their tents, dismantle the Tabernacle, and move on. “Even an encampment is called a journey.” A people that never stops travelling is one that never grows old or stale or complacent. It may live in the here-and-now, but it is always conscious of the distant past and the still-beckoning future. “But I have promises to keep / and miles to go before I sleep.”