Completing a National Project

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parashat Pekudei

Cloud of Glory, Restored

HaKetav VeHaKabbalah’s comment to 40;38 mostly echoes a passage in Aderet Eliyahu 34;10, by the Vilna Gaon [maybe this doesn’t interest you, but I only just paid attention to the fact that R. Mecklenburg quotes the Vilna Gaon often, even though Aderet Eliyahu was first printed, as far as I can tell, in the mid-1800s, when R. Mecklenburg would already have been a fairly fully formed Torah scholar. His absorbing and frequently quoting the Gaon’s ideas, speaks to a continued openness to learning and being markedly reshaped by new perspectives].

Although it perhaps doesn’t quite count as learning from HaKetav VeHaKabblah, he valued it enough to share it, and so do I. The verse in our parsha tells us the Cloud of Glory appeared on the Mishkan during the day, fire at night, in the sight of all the people, in all their travels. Except this should be old hat for us, since the Torah said much the same about the pillar of cloud or fire ever since the Jewish people left Egypt.

The Gra suggests the original pillar joined them only until they reached the Sea, without further explanation. [I wonder whether he thought the Splitting of the Sea a) completed the Exodus in one significant sense, since the Jews never again had to worry about Egypt during their journey to Israel, and therefore they no longer needed the Cloud, leading to b) a reduction in the direct Presence of God.]

How Manifest We Need God To Be

More significantly for our understanding of the Jews in the desert, the Gaon thought the original Cloud was visible only to the prophets of the nation (that certainly includes Moshe, Aharon, and probably Miriam; I’m not sure who else he means; it also means when the verse noted it at the beginning of BeShalach, as part of saying the Jews left be-yad ramah, a mighty Hand, only the most spiritually perceptive among them knew that first-hand). After the sin of the Golden Calf, when Moshe prayed ve-niflinu ani ve-amcha, 33;17, I and your nation will be differentiated, distinguished, distinct, Hashem eventually promises, 34;10 (where Aderet Eliyahu has the comment), to perform wonders before all your people, the entire people will see it.

At its plainest level, the Gaon (ratified by R. Mecklenburg) makes a claim about God’s revelation to the Jews in the desert: a pillar of cloud or fire led the camp for the first stage of the Exodus, visible only to prophets, lasting only until the Sea, resuming with the building of the Mishkan (to be restored, God willing soon, with the return of Hashem to Tziyon, the Gaon added).

[I think there’s more. While Rambam thinks people cannot achieve prophecy unless worthy of it, I think most Jewish thinkers thought God could choose to reveal Himself, as it were, or at least make the Presence known, to anyone at any time. If so, when the Gra says only prophets detected the pillars of cloud on the way out of Egypt, that’s a choice by God, to reveal Himself only to that extent. Perhaps everyone else believed those prophets’ claims about there being a pillar, but they wouldn’t have seen it. And it was temporary, as we saw.

After the Mishkan is built, Hashem makes the Presence more obvious, to every Jew, no matter how average [all Jews are average or above]. The Gra doesn’t say why, but perhaps the sin of the Golden Calf “showed” Hashem the Jews needed more to keep connection with the correct relationship with God.

The Gaon ends, it is for that we currently wait and anticipate, citing Yeshayahu 52;8, ki ayin be-ayin yir’u, be-shuv Hashem Zion, for every eye shall see, when Hashem returns to Zion. And then his final point about the future, when all Jews will see God’s return to Zion. As I look around at our times, I often wonder what it takes for people to recognize Divine intervention, and adjust their actions/perspectives accordingly. This isn’t the place for a fuller exposition, but it does raise the question: when do we, each of us, notice God, and what would it take to notice Him, as it were, all the time?

Rosh Chodesh Isn’t About the Moon

At the beginning of chapter forty, Hashem tells Moshe to establish the Mishkan, with an odd way of specifying the date, on the Chodesh day of the first month, on the first of the month. Had its only concern been to tell us which day it was, by the lunar calendar, it could have said, as it does elsewhere, on the first day of the first month.

R. Hirsch repeats a point he tells us he made back inBo, the significance of New Moons lies in its renewal. The moon’s renewal symbolizes renewals we should undergo, recommitting to creating a better society. With theMishkan, the Jews will have the Divine Presence to a greater extent, will have the greater “light” of their national “sun,” Hashem.

No better to have that happen than on the New Moon, the day of renewal, of the month when they became a nation, Nisan. The first Rosh Chodesh Nisan anticipated the leaving of Egypt, this new year (from the Jewish national perspective) brings another renewal, rendering permanent God’s Presence in their midst, and through the Jewish people, to all inhabitants of the earth.

Too, it was only with the enshrining of the Presence that the Exodus completed, the goal of the Exodus being the establishment of a nation who host the Divine Presence [this is in line with Ramban, who thought a Mishkan was always part of the plan, to continue the Presence of Sinai among the people permanently]. Nothing to do with the moon as a physical object or natural phenomenon, only the moon as an example of waning, waxing, starting again.

As we can and should, every New Moon.

The Work and the Service

When the work of the Mishkan completes, the Torah refers both to avodat ha-Mishkan and the melachah that went into it, Shemot 39; 32, 42, and 43. Similar to what we saw last week, Malbim manages to include all the people in those credited for the building. Melachah means the artisanship, where avodah, for Malbim, refers to the service of the heart of donating to the Mishkan, being involved with it, wanting it to come to fruition.

In physical fact, Moshe saw the melachah (verse 43), the tangible result of all the avodah, the melachah the realm of those with the skills. Moshe could see all that went properly, and bless them that the Divine should be Present in and on all their labors (Sifrei’s version of the berachah the Torah tells us Moshe gave them, in verse 43).

We complete a Mishkan, a place where God’s Presence is visible to all of us, regardless of spiritual stature, dedicate it on a day of national renewal, a reminder to repeatedly rededicate ourselves to being our best selves, and produce it both through physical efforts of those with the right skills, and the service support of the rest of the nation, who did what they could and therefore also count among those building it well.

Chazak chazak ve-nitchazek!

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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