Pekudei 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pekudei

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Parshat P’kudei is the final weekly portion of the Book of Exodus; usually, but not always, read with the preceding parasha. P’kudei relates the final details of the building of the Mishkan, and takes its name from the accounting of all the gold and other precious metals used in its construction. With all the details build and ready to go, God finally gives Moshe explicit permission to complete the Mishkan and dedicate not only its vessels and adornments but also the priests who were to serve within it. The final paragraphs of Exodus are the dramatic climax of the entire story of the Mishkan: once all the tasks were completed, God’s palpable Presence rests in it, in the centre of the Israelite camp, a Presence so powerful that even Moshe could not approach the innermost parts of the Sanctuary. The Presence appeared as a cloud by day and as fire by night, and lead the people in their long journey.

“These are the accountings of the Mishkan, the Mishkan of Witnessing, which were reckoned at Moshe’s instructions. . . ”
(Exodus 38:21)

Once most of the work of building the Mishkan is completed, Moshe apparently wants to make an accounting of all the precious metals used in its construction. The workers who did the crafting and all the specific amounts of gold, silver and copper are listed, as well as how much was donated from various sources and what was made from the metals.

This is an interesting verse, for several reasons. Morally, one could ask why Moshe felt it necessary to make such a thorough listing of all the precious metals used in the Mishkan; after all, he himself, along with Bezalel and Oholiab, who were chosen by God, supervised the collecting and crafting! Most commentators understand this to be an example of ethical responsibility: even though Moshe himself supervised the collection of the gold and silver, he owed it to the people- the donors- to account for every single coin. To put it another way, if the Mishkan was to attract the love and loyalty of the entire Israelite people, there could not even be the possibility of suspicion of the slightest financial impropriety. One commentator makes a comment to the effect that God’s Presence would dwell only in a place with absolutely “kosher” financial accounting practices! Tell that to Revenue Canada!

Our verse also presents a stylistic challenge: why is the Mishkan given two names? The first time it’s merely called ” the Mishkan,” and the second time it’s called ” the Mishkan of Witnessing” [Mishkan Ha’edut]. Ibn Ezra offers what is is probably the simplest and most direct explanation: the Mishkan is called the “Mishkan of Witnessing” because at its centre it has the “Ark of Witnessing,” [see 39:35], which contained the two Tablets that Moshe brought down from Sinai. The Tablets are also in places called the “Tablets of Witnessing” [luchot ha’edut; see 34:28-29, among other places.] For Ibn Ezra, the Mishkan gets its designation from the holy objects within it, which perhaps get their name from the idea that the people “witnessed” the giving of the Torah and thus willingly accepted the covenant that the Tablets represent.

Rashi has a less practical, more homiletic commentary: he says that the Mishkan is called the “Mishkan of Witnessing” here because it “witnesses” to Israel that they were able to reconcile with God after the sin of the Golden Calf- the Presence of the Shechina was a “witness” to God’s forgiveness of the people’s idolatry. A great Hasidic master, R. Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, [usually known by the title of his most famous book, the Sefat Emet] picks up on this this idea of the Mishkan being a “witness” to the reconciliation between God and Israel:

    Why did they need this witness? Israel had been deeply disgraced by that sin. Now God gave the [people] the tabernacle as witness, in order to strengthen their hearts, to show that had indeed repaired the damage wrought by their sin. The fact is that Israel are God’s witnesses, as it says: “You are My witnesses” [Isaiah 43:12] But how is it possible that Israel, who were created to bear witness to God’s oneness, could themselves worship idols? This thought caused Israel to neglect their witnessing, until God had to demonstrate that the sin was incidental to who they were, brought on by “mixed multitude.” Thus they really were worthy to witness God, just as they had been previously. The rabbis in fact teach that “Israel were not deserving of such a sin; it came upon them only to teach them the way of teshuvah.” It came to teach every person who returns not to let himself fall to low in his own eyes, for by teshuvah we really are restored to what we were before. [The Language of Truth*, 140-141]

The quote above was taken from a new translation and commentary on the Sefat Emet by the contemporary rabbi and scholar of Jewish mysticism Arthur Green.* Continuing the chain of commentary, Rabbi Green, in his explanation of the passage quoted above, challenges us not to despair in our spiritual strivings:

    The insight that guilt is the great impediment to true religious life is one that was well known to Hasidic masters, beginning with the Baal Shem Tov himself. Among the most essential innovations of Hasidism is the insistence that expressed here that teshuvah, return to God, really does work, and that the one who returns is fully renewed in God’s presence. The real task is to be sure that our witness goes forward, not interrupted by our own sense of inadequacy to the task. If we wait until we are perfect to attest to God, we will never do our job. [ibid.]

This whole line of interpretation is quite amazing: apparently, Rashi and those who follow him propose that the entire narrative of the Mishkan, which takes up a major portion of the book of Exodus, has at its symbolic core the repairing of the relationship between God and Israel. The Sefat Emet says that even the sin of the Golden Calf, which was ostensibly the cause of the problem in the first place, was actually only to teach Israel how to return! Taken literally, this is a problematic statement, as we would then have to assume that God caused the people to sin as a pedagogical device. However, as Rabbi Green points out, the inner meaning of these midrashim is to encourage and strengthen us in our spiritual strivings; the Sefat Emet is concerned with the psychology and emotions, not systematic theology.

Most of us don’t do anything as dramatic as build a golden idol, but many of us sometimes feel like we’re not going anywhere, we’re not growing or feeling any sense of spiritual wholeness or relationship with the Holy One. The Sefat Emet says: keep trying, and never let yourself believe that you are unworthy of a relationship with God. That’s not to say that living your life in the light of God and Torah (however we understand the term) is easy; after all, the Israelites had to build the Mishkan, with great effort and sacrifice and attention to detail. No less would be expected of anybody trying to repair a broken relationship; the extraordinary promise of the end of the book of Exodus is that broken relationships can be healed and broken souls can again be whole with God.

*The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, translated and with commentary by Arthur Green, Jewish Publication Society, 1998.

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