Parashat Pekudei 5784

14 March 2024 – 4 Adar II 5784

Rabbi Elisheva Salamo

The end of the book of Exodus is occupied with the details of building the holy space, the mishkan (tabernacle and tent of meeting) for the Presence of the Divine to reside in the midst of the people. After all is set in place a cloud descends upon the tent, and the space becomes filled with the Presence. During this time, we are told that Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it, nor could the Israelites journey while the cloud was resting. This cloud turned to fire at night, and as long as there was activity over the tabernacle, the Israelites stayed in place. We know about this arrangement from before, as the Jews are leaving Egypt after the last plague, where ‘the Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud to guide their way by day, and in a pillar of fire to give them light by night, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place before the people.

I love this image of the untouchable and insubstantial cloud ‘corking up’ the sanctuary, so that not only do the people not move, but even Moses cannot enter. A cloud in the desert is indeed unusual, much like a bush that burns without being consumed, a smoking mountain, and a flame that appears nightly in view of all of the house of Israel. Clouds do stop us in more temperate climes: the threat of rain, the deep and impenetrable fog, the low riding dark before the storm, but what a novelty this must have been for the Israelites. This is not a cloud that sends us into our tents, but one that comforts us with the knowledge that we have gotten it right. It is a cloud that invites relationship – gentle and dense, it settles over the spiritual center of the people, and glows at night. It is protective, provocative of curiosity, special. Its cool presence is warming, though it is untouchable, it touches the people.

The cloud of yore invited the Israelites to stay near, and its legacy lives on in the soft filtered light that illuminates so many of our sanctuaries.  The fire is there too,  in the Ner Tamiid, and the cloud rests peacefully in the frequent use of  Torah verses that invite both the Divine Presence and our own human divinity to be manifest. The Shma, our eternal proclamation of the unity and uniqueness of the Divine, “sheviti Shekhina le’negdi tamid” from Psalm 16 – I have set the Holy One before me at all times, ‘v’ahavta le’reikha camokha’, you shall cherish your neighbor as yourself, or the really obvious ‘make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among you’ from earlier in Exodus all adorn our spaces, harking back to the cloud and the fire with the voice of that sort, insubstantial presence. So strong is this feeling that many architects turn our synagogues to face the holy of holies in Jerusalem, where still perhaps a molecule of the Cloud of Glory plays in the motes of dust and the sharpness of the sun on stone. Yet even with the fleeting trace of the past, we are reminded that the cloud is here with us, for us, an invitation to reach into the unknown and connect with each other, and thus to G!d.

We are always surrounded by this cloud and emboldened by this fire as we move from the relative ‘holiday drought’ following Khannukah towards Purim. It is as if the wild abandon when we turn our vision of the world upside down invites us again to see that in everything we do, we can find a way of connecting ever more deeply with our values, with the material world, and with our shared humanity.  As we reopen the megillah, the only book which is, like the Torah, usually preserved in a parchment scroll, we encounter the necessity to act as if we were surrounded by clouds, and emboldened by flame. The book of Esther does many things , among them is that it shows us the hand of the Divine where we do not see the name of the Divine, and it elevates people who do not seem like they are the most diligent in their halakhic practice.

I think the first point is so essential in helping us to see the unity of the world of science with the world of the spirit. Yes, there are things we can touch, measure, and predict.  These things are biological, chemical, physical. Scientific enquiry has taken us to the moon, to our mitochondria, into the genome and back to our Australopithecine ancestors. Even though we know a great deal about oxytocin and brain receptors,  it still does not serve as a good platform for the reality of love, of awe, of loyalty. If we are living in a created world and are created in the image of the creator, then both science and spirit share in the act of creation and the ongoing well-being of the created. When we allow for the Divine to be present if unseen, we acknowledge the truth of our own magnificence. Mordecai and Esther show us a way to uncover the hidden blessing that we all carry.

The second point is wonderful for creating compassion – there was a moment when confronted with fear and uncertainty that Esther could have shifted the whole story – and yet she realized that even with her own frailty, she had a role to play in tikkun am, tikkun olam.  Her courage was not to approach to king but to leave her own self-construction and become the true queen that we see in all of our daughters, all of our sons, laughingly trying on the role of royalty, the role they will take on in earnest as they grow, for they are our heritage, as surely as they will be tried and given the opportunity to change their lives, this world, our world, and the world of our great grandchildren. When we can be the needed and not tangle ourselves in the expected, we transcend the self to become, even if briefly, the construction team of hope. Esther and Mordecai teach us that anyone can do this.

I like to think that this is one of the reasons that our sages say that Purim is eternal.That the unseen can push us to become more than we are and to relight the fire of what we could be.  There is a gentleness to the methods of our heroes, and a courage to speak up for their people, for the possibility of inclusion, for the end of decrees of death.  Like all of us, I do not understand the retaliation, and I wonder if that is part of the upsidedownness that Purim pushes us into: How can we live with others without violence? How can we imagine the flame of revenge and protection being quenched in the drops of evaporated but still visible water, the very basis of life? How do we hold all of this as real and hard and still have hope and light and joy?

Perhaps the conjunction of the cloud and the mishkan at this time tell us that there are some places we have yet to be able to enter, some ways that in spite of our bravery, the coincidence of circumstance, the most brilliant minds gathered to debate, and our fervent desire for the good of all of creation, that the time of redemption is still elusive. Will it always be so? I hope not. Can we create from our sorrow an end to the evils that beset humanity, even in the absence of the miracle of the cloud? I hope so.  When the day seems too long and we are weary and heartsick, then it is time to rest and recover our hope, rekindle the flame, invite the cloud, reach through the mist of the unknown to one another in compassion. And so we return to the blazing incomprehensibility that clouds our way along the path to peace. Lo aleinu hamlakha ligmor: It is not our job to complete the task (if only we could!), but, like Esther, it is not yet our time to give in, or to give up.

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