Parashat Pekudei 5782

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Making Space
A D’var Torah for Parashat Pekudei
By Rabbi Lizz Goldstein (’16)

Some weeks feel like there is just so much ungodliness in the world; it’s hard to know where to even begin shining the light of Torah. I believe in the power of Torah, of the Divine, of our spiritual connections, to help clear away the shadows of sadness and fear, but sometimes there are just too many shadows to get all of them, and I just feel overwhelmed.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Pekudei, our scripture may not directly address the horrors of war in Europe, refugees traversing continents, impending climate disaster, changes to public health recommendations that will surely continue to drag out the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, nor the regressive laws across the country right now attacking the bodily autonomy of people with uteruses and the rights of self-expression and partnership to LGBTQ people, especially children. However, it does teach us to make space for the Divine, and I believe if we all did a little more of that, these other tragedies would be less likely to unfold as easily as they do.

Exodus 40:33-35 says, “When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of HaShem filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of HaShem filled the Tabernacle.” In Talmud Bavli Yoma 4b, Rabbi Zerika raised a contradiction to this verse: “It is written elsewhere, ‘And Moses came into the cloud’ (Exodus 24:18). This teaches that the Holy Blessed One grabbed Moses and brought him into the cloud since he could not enter on his own.” Similarly, in the haftarah for Parashat Pekudei, when the Solomon’s building of the Temple is complete and a cloud of the Presence of HaShem settles over that, the priests are pushed out of the sanctuary by the cloud. Solomon asks just a few verses after where the haftarah cuts off, “But will God really dwell on earth? Even the heavens to their uttermost reaches cannot contain You, how much less this House that I have built!” (I Kings 8:27). Yet, just as Moses is brought into the presence of the Most High in the cloud on Mount Sinai and the priests are able to do their duties in the Mishkan and the Beit HaMikdash, we too can learn to live within the Presence of something far beyond ourselves.

Throughout the verses of Torah describing the building and preparations of the Mishkan, we are reminded again and again that all of the Children of Israel participated. Women and people from all the tribes bring the gifts of their hearts, bring what they are able, bring their materials and their skills and their enthusiasm and their joy. Though Parashat Pekudei concludes with phrasing of the cloud settling over the Mishkan, into a space where only Moses or the priests may enter, we are also told throughout this last half of Exodus that the purpose of the Mishkan is to give God a place to dwell “b’tocham” – in them – that is, within the people as well as among them. Just as the II Chronicles’ retelling of this week’s haftarah specifies the question: “But will God really dwell with man on earth?” (II Chron. 6:18). There is a sense through all this not only of tzimtzum – God contracting to make space for humans to enter into God’s presence – but also of humans needing to do their own tzimtzum to make space for God. We often understand the revelation at Mount Sinai to be the marriage between God and the Israelites or the Jewish people, but here we see the newlyweds navigating the early days of their cohabitation. It’s a dance, a giving and taking, of requesting attention and allowing for privacy or agency.

The Torah makes it seem so simple. The people build, and the Presence of HaShem settles. The people can’t enter within the cloud, but then they can enter into the places where the cloud had been and are able to draw close to the Divine indirectly through service and sacrifice and prayer. Now, without a Mishkan or a Temple, without a cloud or a pillar of smoke and fire, we are often less sure how to make space for the Divine or how to draw ourselves close to where we know the Divine presence has been. All the more so, humans seem to have this difficulty with respect to each other. We must also learn to practice something like tzimtzum to make space for others, for self-identifiers we may not understand, for the others’ health, for self-determination in each people’s sovereign lands. So much of the unholiness I see in the world today is the direct result of a human desire to take up the most space, to force others to live in a certain way, to assert our own comfort over other’s rights and lives. This Shabbat, may we take the day of rest to reflect and empathize. Next week, may we strive to open up our own Tents of Meeting to allow for all who seek the Divine to bask in its Holy Presence. And may we all find that Divine Presence reflected in each other.
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Rabbi Lizz Goldstein (AJR ’16) is the rabbi of Congregation Ner Shalom, a heimish Reform synagogue in Northern VA, where she lives with her husband and cat.