Torah Portion of the Week: An Ongoing Tale

In Parashat Pekudei, the Tabernacle is built and God’s glory can now reside in his house.

Parashat Pekudei (Exodus 38:21-40:38) is the last weekly portion in the Book of Exodus. This is a technical matter, because the division into weekly readings is a liturgical convention, not indicative of separate literary units. It is aimed at synagogue-goers, not at exegetists. The type of study of the Pentateuch that is based on the weekly sequence of readings is not just an intellectual activity, but also – and primarily – a ritual signifying cultural affiliation.

Similarly, the division of the Pentateuch (the Five Books of Moses) into five books is not of great substance. These books are not really books in the usual sense of the term, but rather one of five parts (each one is called a humash, which comes from hamesh, five) of the entire work – not one-fifth in the mathematical sense (since they each vary in length). They are not five separate works collected in a single volume, but rather a single work divided into five sections for technical reasons related to the length of parchment scrolls. The Pentateuch is divided into these parts for the same reason that the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles are each divided into two: because of the length of the work and the limited space on the parchment.

The Hebrew names of the Torah’s five books as well as its weekly readings reflect the technical nature of the division. For example, the name of this week’s portion, Pekudei, and the Hebrew name of the Book of Exodus, Shemot, are not independent words but are rather the first component in the grammatical construct state (that is, pekudei = the tally of, and shemot = the names of). Who would read an article entitled “The tally of,” or purchase a book entitled “The names of”? In both cases, the title has been taken from the first verse of the portion or book and is not reflective of its content.

Nonetheless, there is a symbolic dimension in the completion of the reading of a book in the Pentateuch. In Ashkenazi synagogues, one hears the public declaration, “Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek!” (“Be strong, be strong, and let us be strengthened!”).

From the exegetical standpoint, the division into books and portions was carried out because of external, practical needs and not for substantive reasons stemming from the text itself. Nonetheless, the division itself is not completely arbitrary and often signifies the end of a certain topic or the end of a certain era.

The Book of Genesis, or Bereisheet – that is the first word in the first verse, which means “In the beginning of” – tells the story of the origins of humanity and the origins of the Israelite nation; it ends with the journey of the founders of that nation to Egypt. This is where the Book of Exodus begins. It describes Israel’s sojourn in Egypt, but not only that topic. The first three weekly readings depict the Israelites’ bondage in Egypt, and their liberation. In the fourth reading, Parashat Beshalach, the people leave Egypt with heads held high, and begin the journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land. In the next reading, Parashat Yitro, the nation stops at the foot of Mount Sinai, and this and the next four readings, up through Parashat Ki Tissa, are devoted for the most part to the giving of the Torah – the circumstances, its content and substance.

The dividing line between Genesis and Exodus is both geographical and inter-generational, and signifies the transition from Canaan to Egypt and from the era of the patriarchs to that of their descendants, who multiply and become a nation. At the end of Exodus, however, the Israelite nation does not enter a new destination. In fact, it remains at the foot of Mount Sinai for the entire duration of the next book of the Pentateuch, Leviticus (Vayikra), leaving that location only in the middle of Numbers (Bamidbar): “And it came to pass in the second year, in the second month, on the twentieth day of the month, that the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle of the testimony. And the children of Israel set forward by their stages out of the wilderness of Sinai” (Numbers 10:11-12).

Ostensibly, there is no geographic or historical dividing line between Exodus and Leviticus: Israel’s journey into exile, which begins at the start of Exodus, does not end when the book comes to its conclusion.

However, when we look carefully at Pekudei, we see one journey that does come to an end: At that point one of the narrative’s protagonists, perhaps the chief protagonist of the entire Pentateuch, finds a home after a period of wandering.

Parashat Pekudei, in continuation of Parashat Vayakhel last week, describes erection of the Tabernacle in precise accord with the many details of God’s instructions. This congruence is expressed in the formulaic phrase, “as the Lord commanded Moses,” repeated in Pekudei in different ways about 20 times. Finally, the text concludes, “So Moses finished the work” (Exodus 40:33), and readers are reminded of the conclusion of the story of the six days of Creation: “And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had made” (Genesis 2:2).

Then a dramatic event occurs, something that a large part of Exodus has been leading up to: “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of meeting, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exod. 40:34-35). If we wish to sum up this magnificent scene, we can say, “God has entered his new home.”

The term “the glory [kavod] of God” refers to the divine presence in space. In Parashat Yitro, God dwells on Mount Sinai, to which he summons Moses so that he can instruct him concerning the Tabernacle’s construction, and then waits on the mountain until that work has been completed: “And Moses went up into the mount, and the cloud covered the mount. And the glory of the Lord abode upon mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and the seventh day he called unto Moses out of the midst of the cloud” (Exod. 24:15-16).

These verses also convey a visual description of God’s glory: “And the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel” (Exod. 24:17). God’s glory is like fire covered by smoke. Apparently, Moses is afraid to approach, and therefore God, or God’s glory, calls to him and invites him to enter: “… and the seventh day he called unto Moses out of the midst of the cloud…. And Moses entered into the midst of the cloud” (Exod. 24:16-18).

At Pekudei’s conclusion, which is also the end of Exodus, the Tabernacle has been built and God’s glory can now reside in his house. A cloud envelops the structure in which God now dwells. Again Moses stands outside, perhaps out of confusion and fear, and is unable to enter the sanctified space that is suddenly full of the divine presence: “And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of meeting, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exod. 40:35). Again, God’s glory invites Moses to enter: “And he called [vayikra] unto Moses” (Leviticus 1:1) – and that is the beginning of the next book of the Torah.