Peter J. Rubinstein | March 16, 2012
Typically, whenever we have two portions that are coupled, that means that we’re coming to the end of a book as it is this evening. We are reading a double portion, Vayak’heil–Pekudei. It is the end of the book of Shemot which means, for those of us who are in the business of the rhythm of the year, we know we’re two-fifths towards the High Holidays. Just something to keep in mind.
But this an evening, as we’ve come to the end of the book of Shemot, we also know that this book has been rather extraordinary, and always will be an extraordinary part of the history of our people. The great event of the Exodus, the giving of the Ten Commandments, the passing through the sea: these are the alpine moments in our people’s history.
And so it’s very important I think that we take note of that which would seem coincidental, but there is nothing really coincidental in the reading of Torah. And so as we come to the last verses, which Cantor Buchdahl will chant this evening, I think it’s important that we pay special mind to it.
And in order to do that, we’re going to act as though we’re sitting around a study table, in the other building if need be, but we’re all here as part of the people trying to study Torah. And so if you would take out your Chumash, it’s the larger blue book, and open to page 687.
And this bit of show and tell, we’re reading at the very last verses on page 687, actually beginning the way it reads here, I’ll deal with the middle of verse 33, but we’ll read to the end, but now as you keep your hand on that—but let me just read so those who are listening in through the phone or livestreaming can know what we’re reading.
It says, after they had constructed the Mishkan, the Ohel Mo-eid, the Tabernacle and the Tent of Meeting, it says when Moses had finished this work—now take note of this sentence: “The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.” (Exodus 40:34)
Now for those of us who appreciate that no word in the Torah is arbitrary, we actually have two words here—in the Hebrew it would be “Mishkan” for the Tabernacle and “Ohel Mo-eid” which is the Tent of Meeting—two words that seem to be used somewhat interchangeably. And in order to understand this a little bit better, if you’d keep your hand there and then turn to page 601, you’ll see a schematic of what is being considered here.
Now what we need to recall is that in some way, this Mishkan, this Ohel Mo-eid, was supposed to, throughout the history of the people’s wandering the desert, represent and remind them of the event that happened on Mount Sinai. The Ohel Mo-eid was the place where the people and God would meet.
And so as we read these lines, this is not simply a matter of a particular physical edifice or a Tent of Meeting that’s as we know carried through the desert. But in some way it’s supposed to represent that eternal event, which is our being at Mount Sinai and that closeness of God being with us.
But there is something else happening here and in order to understand that, if you look at page 601, you see as I said a schematic of the Mishkan and the Ohel Mo-eid. The reality is no one’s quite sure, we’re not quite sure, what refers to what, but usually it is said that the Mishkan is the entire enclosure, and the Ohel Mo-eid is this tent which would be, as you look at the page, just the left side of the page, the left half of the page, in which there is the Aron HaKodesh, the Holy of Holies.
But the rabbis saw this somewhat differently. Remember, they’re understanding it in a way that we can’t as it’s plotted on this page, because if you were to turn this page so that the edge of the page is on the top rather than holding it this way, so that it’s vertical rather than horizontal, an understanding that the rabbis weren’t all that clear about spatial arrangements.
They saw this schematic as representing something more than a place. For them it represented a metaphor for the human being, in which the top half was considered the head with the brain, and it was the place in which we have our sensory and our intellectual parts of us, our thoughts, the way we reason, and the bottom half then represents everything else, it represents our soul, our longings, our joys. It is more than the intellect, it is our total being. And as the rabbis saw this, they saw in that top half—I know it’s difficult for you to imagine—they actually saw eyes and a nose and a mouth, which is what gave rise to this thought that this was our intellect and then they saw of course the rest of it.
And what they saw in this, the building of the Ohel Mo-eid and the Mishkan—which includes the word that then gives rise to Shechinah, God’s presence—well they saw in this was not only a place, but it was a representation of each one of us. It is not only where the people met God, but in fact what this is is a metaphor for each one of us meeting God.
And so it says that according to this reasoning, there are two ways that we know God. We know God intellectually, the words that we use to reason about God. We have his series on the G Word, in which our speakers come and teach us about theology, the study of God, the way we understand God, that’s the intellect.
But the way that most of us experience God that gives rise to the way we speak about God is an experience of God in our own life. And often those times, those experiences are twofold: they are an encounter, those moments in which we are so extraordinarily aware of the presence of God that it literally takes our breath away. In which there are no, in the words of Psalm 19:3, “There are no sounds, there are no words, neither is their voice heard.” It is beyond the intellect, it is beyond the words. It is the sickness of a friend, it is a death, it is the celebration of a marriage, it’s meeting a new friend, it is the birth of a child. It is simply in friendship and love. It is the moments when we are so overcome with God’s presence that we’re not able to give it words. And in those moments, it is as though God’s cloud is in us. It is upon us.
And when we read—I’ll read it to you so you don’t have to turn the page—it says in the verses we’re going to read, “Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. And only when the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys; but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys” (Exodus 40:35–40:38).
And what they said is this is each one of us. It is not simply a historical event where the people were at the Tent of Meeting. But those moments of encounter in which God is so fully within us we literally cannot move. It is though we are so overcome there are no words, there is no voice, we are simply breathless with the event and only when there is a second encounter with God, when we go about our lives, we’re ware of friendship but it is not that searing, poignant, powerful, breathless, voiceless time, it is when we’re just simply grateful for God in our lives.
When we can move, when we can function, when we would hope that though the passing moment of encounter has resided a little bit with us, but we can’t live in those moments of encounter and that depth all the time. It is when God rises from that moment but is always just above us that it says we cannot lose sight of or the experience of God.
And so this Ohel Mo-eid about which we’re reading tonight, the cloud lifting is not only about Israel: it is about us. And how we sometimes have those moments of breathless silence in an experience and encounter with God and how at other times God lifts above us and we are always aware but it allows us to move on from moment to moment in our life.
And I would hope that each of us has both kinds of experiences with God, both the powerful, breathless, voiceless, wordless moment of encounter and the ongoing experience of God in our life. Those moments when we can move forward, always aware of God, but able to function with joy and celebrate our lives throughout
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