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Exodus Acknowledging Holiness Along the Way

By Rabbi Becky Silverstein `14
Becky Silverstein

Parashat Pekudei (Exodus 38:21–40:38)

One of the things I miss most about going to shul regularly is the moment when the final line of a book of Torah is read. In many places, the kahal (community) rises and calls out, “chazak, chazak, v’nit’chazek” (“be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened”). These words are then echoed by the Torah reader. This thirty second ritual takes an otherwise ordinary moment in the flow of Torah reading and transforms it into a reflection of what we have experienced and what we hope is to come.

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Pekudei, reveals a similar moment of enriching dissonance. Our text picks up on a rhythm begun weeks ago in Parashat Terumah, where Gd first tells Moses that the Israelites will build a sanctuary so that Gd may dwell among them (Exodus 25:8). What follows in the Torah is a rich description of this sanctuary, then the command to create the sanctuary, and, finally, the actual completion of the structure, vessels, and tools to be used within it. While this particular rhythm has already been interrupted by the episode of the Golden Calf and the rewriting of the luchot (tablets), it still feels palpable in the text.

In Exodus 39:32-33 our text reads

וַתֵּ֕כֶל ל־עֲבֹדַ֕ת מִשְׁכַּ֖ן אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד וַֽיַּעֲשׂוּ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל כְּ֠כֹ֠ל אֲשֶׁ֨ר צִוָּ֧ה יְהֹוָ֛ה אֶת־מֹשֶׁ֖ה כֵּ֥ן עָשֽׂוּ׃ 

וַיָּבִ֤יאוּ אֶת־הַמִּשְׁכָּן֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶת־הָאֹ֖הֶל וְאֶת־ ל־כֵּלָ֑יו 

All of the work of the Mishkan of the Tent of Meeting was completed. The Israelites did so; just like all that Gd commanded Moses, thus they did. And they brought the Tabernacle to Moses, the Tent and all its furnishings. (transl. JPS, adapted)

I imagine Moses at the edge of a large field, watching as the planks, posts, sockets, and bars that form the structure are laid to one side, then the curtains and coverings that will serve as walls, the ark with its poles and cover, the lampstand, and so on, until he is handed the priestly garments. I imagine Moses, perhaps overwhelmed, trying to steady himself, and nonetheless being pulled to set up the mishkan, Gd’s dwelling place, whose construction was the reason that the Israelites were brought out of Egypt. (Midrash Tehillim 114)

וַיַּ֨רְא מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶת־ ל־הַמְּלָאכָ֗ה וְהִנֵּה֙ עָשׂ֣וּ אֹתָ֔הּ כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה כֵּ֣ן עָשׂ֑וּ וַיְבָ֥רֶךְ אֹתָ֖ם מֹשֶֽׁה׃

And Moses saw all that was created and behold they had made it just as Gd had commanded—they had made it thus—Moses blessed them. (Exodus 39:43)

Moses responds to all of this labor of the Israelites by blessing the people. Why does he do this? And with what words? How can Moses’ action in this moment provide insight into the role that blessings can offer us and our holy community?

In reading this section of the parshah, I imagine that blessing is the best way that Moses knows to reground himself in the present and to express what he is holding in his heart. We learn in Sifrei Bemidbar 143 that, as he prepares to build the mishkan with the pieces laid out before him, Moses said to the Israelites: “May it be that the Shechinah dwells on the work of your hands.” And they said to him: “May the favor of Adonai, our God, be upon us; let the work of our hands prosper, O prosper the work of our hands!”

This exchange serves at least three purposes.

First, it provides an opportunity for connection between Moses and the Israelites. Moses can acknowledge that he has met some measure of success in his role stewarding the people out of Egypt to this moment, and he uplifts or appreciates the work that the Israelites have completed. Moses and the Israelites are in the project of creating a place for Gd to dwell on earth, together. Moses, as the one in power, makes it clear their work is valuable and necessary.

Second, the blessing allows the Israelites an opportunity to express their own relationship to the work they have completed; to place themselves in their journey from being enslaved by Pharaoh to being participants in Gd’s service.

Finally, it creates a moment of holy hand-off. The Israelites have completed a major project. The blessing takes a moment that could have been awkward or stressful and provides a transitional space—a beat in the rhythm. The Israelites are clear that they have completed what has been asked of them at this moment.

Blessings create space to breathe, they draw attention to a moment in time, and they facilitate relationship building. Just like the congregation chanting “chazak, chazak, v’nit’chazek” (“be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened”) at the end of a book of Torah, sometimes, we need to pause to celebrate milestones along the way, even as we continue the work. The language of blessing may or may not be an intuitive way for each of these to achieve these goals; our words and rituals might not resemble Moses’, but their presence is just as important.

Linguistically, the building of the mishkan parallels the creation of the world, a world which we are still creating. To keep people invested in the long project of building a world in which all people can live lives of dignity, we can take a page out of Moses’ book: starting with the language of the heart, honoring steps along the way, and providing opportunities for grounding systemic work in individual experience and relationship. What blessing can you offer someone today? Your team at work, your kids, your chevruta, your partners, your friends?

May all of our work be in service of allowing the divinity in our world, and the dignity of each person, to shine. In the words of the Israelites (Psalm 90:17), “May the favor of Adonai, our God, be upon us; let the work of our hands prosper, O prosper the work of our hands!”

Rabbi Becky Silverstein`14 is co-director of the Trans Halakha Project and a faculty member at SVARA: a traditionally radical yeshiva.

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