Parshat Pekudei –Exodus 38:21-40:38; I Kings 7:51-8:21.
By Rabbi Asher Lopatin
The last portion of Exodus is perhaps the most dramatic and significant of the Five Books of Moses. Here are the two most significant events in the story of the Jewish people: being freed from bondage in Egypt and receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. So, we expect a big ending. Instead, on the surface, are many details about the sanctuary and a few sentences about the cloud at the end.
The sanctuary, the home we are told to build for God amongst our people, represents something incredible: the ability for human beings and former slaves to give back to God and to take responsibility for partnering with God in this world to build something special. At the end of Exodus, God gives the Israelites, as a nation, a chance to get involved and become co-creators of a better world.
Parshat Pekudei does not only mean “numbers” and “accountings.” The root of the word, p-k-d, is about noticing — about either being responsible, effective and present or about being irresponsible lax or absent.
Betzal’el and Oholiav lead this effort to have God and the world notice us — through the design and building of the sanctuary — but this portion emphasizes that all were involved and had an opportunity to be noticed and make a difference.
The lesson for us is straightforward: We cannot rely on God’s generosity or anyone else’s; we must make sure that in life we are counted, we make a difference. That can be a warm “hello” in the morning, holding the door open for others or going over to someone standing alone at Kiddush and saying, “Shabbat shalom! Are you new here?”
It can be bigger things like taking an active role to fight racism, bigotry and xenophobia. We have a world filled with great possibilities, a world where the exodus from Egypt and slavery and the receiving of God’s holy word resonates loudly; but it is also a world that needs our help and nurturing.
At the end of the parshah, the cloud of God’s glory was so happy we took responsibility to build a home for God that it completely fills that home (Exodus 40:34). What could be more comfortable for God and for us than to dwell together in God’s glorious cloud, snuggling as God’s chosen people and enjoying each other’s holy company? Yet, that will not work.
We weren’t created and we didn’t receive the Torah for us to be smothered by God’s glory and be passive. God realizes we must be allowed to take responsibility and to act for ourselves and continue God’s creative work.
So “once the cloud lifted from the sanctuary, then the Israelites were able to move to their destinations. (Exodus 40:36).” God is still in our lives, helping us, guiding us, providing structure and truth, but God has to lift God’s self, lifting the cloud from smothering the Jewish people, so we can move to where we are supposed to go and do what we are meant to do in this world.
Exodus tells us God took us from slavery in Egypt and came down to Mount Sinai to talk to us because God values us as individuals and God knows we can make an impact in this world even God cannot make.
So, God lifts off us a little so we can move forward, inspired by all the people and institutions around us, but knowing that, ultimately, we are accountable for ourselves, and we bear the responsibility of free people to make our impact on this world.
Rabbi Asher Lopatin leads Kehillat Etz Chayim of Detroit and the Detroit Center for Civil Discourse.