by Rabbi David J. Cooper
At the Shabbat service on March 12, we are completing the Book of Exodus where a little sacred magic happens. But more on that later.
The first parashah (torah segment) in Exodus begins with a list of people who went down to Egypt in Joseph’s time (“These are the names…”). The last parashah, Pekudey, begins (Ex. 38:21) with a list of all the accouterments of the desert sanctuary (“These are the records…”). And then, the parashah completes the Book of Exodus with the sanctuary “turned on.”
Thus the book takes us on what Joseph Campbell called the “journey of the hero” but the character corresponding to his “hero” is more the Israelite people than it is Moses. They have made the descent into a different world. This new world starts safe but becomes dangerous and oppressive. Like many of these journey-heroes, their parents are gone (the generation of Joseph). They must extricate themselves from this situation. They cross a body of water (like all the heroes), they receive direction at a great mountain, and then continue in their search for a safe haven. But neither the Book of Exodus nor the Torah end with them at some geographic home. Instead, Exodus ends with them finishing a construction of a spiritual home, the sanctuary, which is built so that it can be a nomad’s temple – every piece capable of disassembly and easy transport.
On and off for the last 15 chapters, the book describes the design of the sanctuary, the materials necessary for its construction, the gathering of these materials from the free-will contributions of the people, the selection of the artists and craftspeople who turn the designs into the vessels and accouterments of the Tent of Meeting and its Holy of Holies. It describes whether the materials are carved or shaped, whether of solid gold or gold leaf. Each decorative motif of the sanctuary and the fabric and chestplate of the priests’ garments is carefully described.
Finally, we reach chapter 40. Every item is put before Moses. The Torah describes him placing each item in its proper place and taking a fragrant oil to anoint its surfaces and to anoint the attending priests as well. The priestly garments are put on.
At what point does the sanctuary become itself? I think of the assembly of an automobile. It isn’t just its motor, nor is it its chassis, not its controls nor its seating. It is the entire assembly complete, lubricated (anointed?) and fueled up. But in some sense it is not complete until the key is turned and the first ignition happens. And then it is a car.
So it is with the sanctuary. Only when all of it is carefully assembled with all its parts, then Moses or God “turns it on,” and cloud of divine presence fills the structure. It is the engine that will be both their spiritual home, but also their vehicle to guide them on their journey with a column of cloud by day and fire by night. (Frankly, I don’t know why they leave this cinematic moment out of the movies of the Exodus story.)
The books of Samuel and the rabbinic tradition view this nomadic sanctuary as a temporary measure until a permanent home can be established. But there is nothing that I see in the description that speaks of it as temporary, only that it is portable. And then the book ends saying that the cloud and the fire of the sanctuary would lead the people “on all of their journeys.”
I have no idea about the historicity of that desert sanctuary nor its magic. But that final verse of Exodus sticks with me as a mytho-poetic truth. We are still on those journeys, and that journey is our home.