Parashat P’kudei — building the Mishkan

Parashat P’kudei — building the Mishkan

Congregation Beth Sholom, Teaneck, Conservative

Two ideas call out to me from Parashat P’kudei this year. At first glance, they seem unrelated to each other. Upon further reflection, however, I think that in fact these two ideas not only are related, but that one reveals the significance of the other.

The first idea is that Parashat P’kudei describes for us the completion of the building of the Mishkan, the desert tabernacle that the Israelites used during their wandering in the desert. The final third of the book of Exodus (with the exception of the story of the Golden Calf) is about the building of the Mishkan, describing to us in extraordinary detail what the structure has to look like, along with what the priests will wear while fulfilling their responsibilities within the Mishkan, and what furnishings and ritual items will be used in the holy space.

One overall concept seems to be best expressed in Parashat T’rumah, “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8). Depending on exactly how you understand that verse, it seems to be giving us the idea that God’s presence (or at least part of God’s presence) will dwell in the Mishkan, close to or among the Israelite nation. The process of building God’s dwelling concludes in Parashat P’kudei, and we read near the end of the parasha, “When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle” (Ex. 40:33-34). The cloud represents God’s presence, and we see with these verses that the construction was not complete, but it was successful.

The second concept that emerges from our parasha is on a totally different religious level. Instead of concerning itself with the presence of God and holy space, it is about the very practical and vitally important record-keeping about the donations to the building of the Mishkan. The opening verse of the Torah reading is the following: “These are the records of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of the Pact, which were drawn up at Moses’ bidding-the work of the Levites under the direction of Itamar son of Aaron the priest” (Ex. 38:21).

Remember that the materials used in the construction of the Mishkan were collected through donations from the Israelites (as opposed to the Holy Temples in Jerusalem, which were built through the collection of taxes). If there was any person who could be trusted with such a large number of donations, surely it would be Moses, right? Why did he have to give an accounting of every single piece of precious metal that was donated?

The midrash (Midrash Tanchuma) describes for us how the Israelites did not believe that Moses was honest about the donations — in fact, they believed the opposite. Of course he stole from the Israelites, they thought. With access to so much wealth, how could he not? At that moment, according to the midrash, Moses knew that he had to give a full accounting.

We learn from this parasha the extremely important duty that is upon every public servant, lay leader and professional, to give a full accounting of public funds and resources. In this way, we learn that being a public servant is about helping others and serving the public good as opposed to accumulating power or wealth and the public’s expense.

Two seemingly distinct and important themes emerge from this parasha. So how are they connected? They are connected because one can be understood as a pathway to the other. How are we to understand the concept of God’s presence resting (or residing) in the Mishkan in our own day, when we have no Mishkan, no Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and instead focus our prayers in synagogues, schools and homes throughout our community? One response to our post-Temple reality is to nurture strong communities with heartfelt tefilah (prayer), so that God’s presence can rest among us again, understanding that with no more ritual animal sacrifices, Torah study, prayer, and acts of loving kindness help create the kind of community that God might want to rest upon or within.

Another response is to understand that serving God and observing mitzvot is something we do not only on Shabbat and holidays, or even something that is confined to ritual matters. I find the story of Moses voluntarily giving an accounting of the donations to the Mishkan incredibly powerful, because it reminds us that our commitment to Jewish law, values, and traditions should permeate every aspect of our lives. Being honest in business? That is not only a matter of observing civil law and avoiding trouble with the IRS. It is also about upholding traditional Jewish values and our deep understanding of what we owe each other and how we are obligated to act toward the community.

Our actions toward our fellow human beings, combined with our actions directed toward God, help inform not only who we are in this world, but who we hope to be in the future. May the conclusion of the building of the Mishkan remind us to do our part to build strong communities and individuals who illustrate the very best of Jewish law, customs, and morality, so that God’s presence can rest among us once again.

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