Parshat Pekudei: Tents of meeting

Parshat Pekudei: Tents of meeting

Rabbi Neal Borovitz

Rabbi emeritus, Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, Reform

Pekudei, this week’s Torah reading, brings the Book of Exodus to a dramatic close. In these 40 chapters of Exodus, Israel has been transformed from an oppressed minority enslaved to Pharaoh to a nation of free willed servants of God. The Hebrew term eved means both servant and slave. Israel’s journey from being avadaim — slaves — to Pharaoh to becoming avdei Adonai — servants of God — has not been easy. Even after having been liberated from the anguish they suffered as slaves, throughout Exodus Israel remains true to our name of Yisrael, a people who, as it was revealed to us in the story of Jacob’s second dream, a community who will continually wrestle with the human and the divine. While the Torah’s narrative will now be interrupted in our weekly Torah reading cycle by the Book of Leviticus and its description of the rituals that will be performed in the Tabernacle, the building of which is completed in this week’s Torah reading, the people of Israel will continue, individually and communally, to wrestle with the challenge of retaining faith in God and being faithful to their responsibilities to God under the terms of the contract we call Torah.

Here in Pekudai and its sister portion Vayakhel, as well as in the earlier T’rumah and Tetzaveh, there are three distinct Hebrew terms used for this place of worship whose construction is now completed. It is called a mishkan, a dwelling place for God within the community; a mikdash, a sacred separate place, and an ohel moed, a tent of meeting, the place were Israel and God will meet. This concept of a sacred dwelling place where God and Israel can enter into relationship will remain a constant throughout Jewish history to this very day. Tradition teaches us that this movable sanctuary will not only accompany the people of Israel during the next 39 years of their wilderness journey, but will remain the focal point of Israelite life for the next 200-300 years of the pre Solomon Biblical experience. After that it will be incorporated into the two temples which together stood for a millennium in Jerusalem. Even after the destruction of 70 C.E., our rabbis retained the concepts of mishkan, ohel moed, and mikdash by creating the institution of a synagogue where we Jews can create holy space, where God can dwell, and we can meet together in relationship with God and with each other.

The completion of the Tabernacle as God’s dwelling place in our midst and our meeting place is a fulfillment of the mitzvah recorded 15 chapters earlier: Make Me a sanctuary so that I can dwell among them (Exodus 25:8).

Our parsha along with last week’s portion emphasizes the extraordinary outpouring of generosity that greeted Judaism’s first building fund campaign. The tabernacle was built from two distinct sources of contributions. The first was a minimal tax of a half shekel. The second was the free will offerings brought by the people. The Torah tells us, in last week’s Torah reading, that it was not a select few that contributed, but rather, the “whole community” (35:20) is so moved. In fact, the text makes a special point of showing that gender distinctions are irrelevant. Both men and women share equally in this outpouring of generosity.

But this successful fundraising effort needed something more. It needed the genius of an exceptional individual, in this case Bezalel and his aide, Oholiab. Bezalel is the ultimate architect/ contractor who is able to fashion this messy hodgepodge of gifts of earrings, rings, purple yarn, linen, dolphin skins, acacia wood, — as listed in Vayakhel and Pekudei — and turn them into a Tabernacle that was both functional and beautiful.

One lesson we can learn from this is that even though all of us are equal before God, and all of us should be considered equal in the eyes of each other, each of us is different. Each of us is unique and each of us possesses unique gifts and talents that we can choose to contribute to the service of God and to the task of building a better community and a better world for all. These past two years of isolation and social conflict has brought me to see in the story of the building of the sanctuary here at the end of Exodus the necessity that all human beings have for creating space where we can both give thanks to God for our blessings and where we can gather together and go forth out into the world as God’s Voice and God’s Hands to repair the world, “l’taken olam.”

Whenever we complete the reading of a book of Torah as we do this week, we are instructed to proclaim: “Hazak hazak v’nitchazak: Be strong! Be strong! May we be Strengthened!” Twenty three months ago on the secular calendar, but exactly two years ago in our Torah reading cycle, those of us in synagogues anywhere in the world, shouted out this proclamation with hope and fear as the covid-19 pandemic was shutting down our society and making it impossible for us to enter into our synagogues, the contemporary manifestation of the Tent of Meeting. Moreover, as the plague of covid was consuming us, we were already in the midst of the equally deadly pandemics of antisemitism and racism. Covid-19 has over the past two years morphed into newer and more deadly forms and the deaths which numbered in the hundreds two years ago are now in the millions worldwide. The same is tragically true for the plagues of racial hatred and antisemitism, which have infected human societies for millennium. Here in America, these plagues, which a decade ago I believed were in decline, have, like covid, morphed into even more deadly forms. While hope today increases that covid will become less deadly and less of an impediment to our ability to gather together as a community, the plagues of racism and antisemitism not only threaten the lives of African Americans and Jews individually, but, they are creating barriers to our ability and our willingness to open the doors of our synagogues and other communal places of gathering, our contemporary manifestation of the Biblical Tent of Meeting, to any and all who wish to enter. As has been true in the battle against covid, it is activism not apathy that can temper and hopefully one day eradicate these plagues.

The Book of Exodus began by describing Israel as avadim, slaves to Pharaoh, and ends this week with the creation of an institution through which we can be avadei l’adonai, servants of God. As we not only turn the page to a new book of Torah in the weeks ahead and turn the page on this pandemic oflovid which has plagued us these past two years, may we also emulate the efforts of the Israelites in these concluding chapters of Exodus and all contribute the best of our resources and our talents to the building of oheli moed, tents of meeting in our community, in our nation, and in our world where, free from fear, we can gather together to give thanks to God and from where we can go forth to bring an end to the plagues of hate in all its forms.

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