Pekudei: Waves of luck on the sea of life

Pekudei: Waves of luck on the sea of life

Congregation Beth Shalom, Pompton Lakes, Conservative

Mazal tov! We’ve entered the second month of Adar and we begin — what  for Jews — is considered a particularly auspicious time of the year, a time of miracles and joy. This month and the next contain the birthday (and yahrzeit) of Moses (7 Adar), Purim and its attendant days, and Passover (free from Egypt!) The rabbis even say “mishenichnas Adar, marbim be-simcha — When Adar enters, joy increases!” What could be better?

But this expression makes success and joy seem almost automatic, a foregone conclusion, rather than past historical events that have signaled good fortune but might not in the future. Are we to believe, then, that there are guarantees, that God has somehow rigged the system so that the Jews always win? If so, most if not all the joy at surviving and thriving would be removed from our lives and our world, like a continuous jackpot of coins sluicing from a broken slot machine in a run-down Atlantic City casino. With no other possible outcome, we may end up with wealth, perhaps, but little to no delight.

This quandary is addressed (appropriately enough) in a costumed or masked manner in our Torah portion, Pekudei (often read together with the preceding Vayakhel). The final scenes in the book of Exodus, Pekudei recounts the building of the Mishkan (tabernacle) with all its accoutrements and all the clothing of the Kohanim. 

As each step is completed, moreover, we read that it was done “as God commanded Moses.” Perhaps we might wager that if we want things to go well, we should go with Team God. Indeed, the last few verses reassure us that the Israelites continued to be guided by God in the guise of a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, echoing the events at Sinai when, presumably, the relationship between the people and the Deity were most harmoniously in tune.

We might even see, as the Zohar explains, that the construction of the Tabernacle is a masked recapitulation of the seven days of creation in Genesis. Every piece is in place and together they create a harmonious and well-functioning whole, such that the beginning of Bereishit and the end of Shemot bookend a brief novella with a well thought out plot and a happy ending for the Israelites who, despite the occasional slip up, seem to be friends of God and Moses. Why can’t this be the entire Torah? Why can’t our lives work out in such a tidy manner?

One answer seems to come smack dab in the hurly burly of all the mishkan finishing, in Exodus 40:7. In every other verse, we see that the puzzle pieces God has commanded have been expertly manufactured by willing and capable artisans, as we might expect. There’s just one fly in the voluminous ointment: “And you shall place the washbasin between the Tent of Meeting and the Altar, and you shall put water within.” The furniture is manufactured, but the water is “found.” The Meshech Chochmah questions whether the water is sourced from rainfall or from a spring, whether it is pure enough to drink (after all, the Sotah — the suspected cheating wife — is forced to drink from it!) or merely for washing. Is it, when we get to the nub of the matter “mayim chayim — living water?”

We might have thought that we could control every single aspect of the Tabernacle, as a manufactured, built environment, but there will always be some contingency that nature throws our way between the ohel moed (tent where God speaks to us) and the mizbeach (the altar where we respond to God), blocking the clear shot “between (as T.S. Elliot puts it in his masterful poem, The Hollow Men) the idea and the reality… between the emotion and the response;” there “falls the shadow,” for we can see that “life is very long.” 

Water — as Jacob the Patriarch describes it in his blessing (Genesis 49:4) of Reuven, his first-born — is unstable, undependable, formless and tricky. Perhaps, as some commentators note, water has been here since before the earth was formed, older and more primal, but much less willing to be tamed than any intentional human artifact. Water is the shape of tohu va-vohu, the primordial chaotic motion. Water represents the sin and deception of a firstborn son that strips him of his inheritance.

But water also represents the mikvah that purifies, the handwashing that helps you overcome impure deeds and thoughts, the Sea of Reeds through which fleeing slaves can become masters of their own fate and intimates of God. It is the natural roll of the dice that can mean the difference between Blessed is Mordechai and Cursed is Haman. Despite every way in which we try to control life, there is a watery sea of unpredictability that can ruin all our best laid plans. Even being the firstborn, the intended leader, we never know whether that sloshing wild card is contained within ourselves, made of 65 percent water. But this unpredictability contained within us that we need to tame is what has the true transformational power to change our lives and our world and, ultimately, to bring us to lives of dignity and joy. This shimmering water is at the heart of everything.

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