Vaykheil-Pekudei: Witnessing the Divine

The book of Exodus/Shemot ends this week with a double portion, Vayakheil (And he assembled) and Pekudei (Inventories).  The Israelites eagerly donate materials for the mishkan (the portable dwelling-place for God), and for ritual garments for the new priests.  They make all the parts of the mishkan, and Moses assembles them.  At the end of the book, God’s glory enters the Dwelling.

The portion Vayakheil begins:  And Moses assembled the whole community (everyone who would witness) among the children of Israel.  (Exodus/Shemot 35:1)

The portion Pekudei begins:  These are the inventories for the Dwelling, the Dwelling of the Testimony of God.  (Exodus 38:21)

kol adat = all the witnesses of, the whole community of

eidut = report of a witness, testimony (from the same root as adat)

ha-eidut = The testimony (This form is used for the testimony of God.)

In Vayakheil, the community of witnesses is also the community that donates and makes the mishkan.  Women as well as men are specifically included in this group.  In Pekudei, when Moses assembles all the parts of the mishkan, he puts God’s testimony, ha-eidut, into the ark, then inserts the carrying-poles into the rings at its corners, and puts the golden cover on as a lid.  The Torah does not specify what the testimony inside the ark actually is.  Classic commentary is divided on whether it consists of a parchment scroll on which Moses wrote down the first part of the Torah, or the stone tablets inscribed by the finger of God with the commandments (both the intact pair of tablets and the shards of the broken pair), or both the scroll and the tablets.

Either way, The Testimony is something the Israelites already have.  And Moses has already told the people that God is with them.  But seeing is believing.  The Israelites need to witness Moses putting God’s “testimony” into the ark, and then they need to witness God’s visible presence.  On their journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai, they followed a manifestation of God as a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.  But the pillar disappeared when they arrived at the mountain, and clouds of smoke and fire appeared only at the mountain’s peak.  This was not enough for the Israelites; when Moses was gone too long, they made a golden calf.  And soon they will have to leave Mount Sinai and journey on to the Promised Land.  How can they know God is really with them, and God’s testimony is really secure?

Their memories of God’s miracles in Egypt and manifestations after that are not sufficient.  The Israelites are like witnesses with poor recall.  In order to remain fully aware of God’s presence and God’s investment in them, they have to build a visible, tangible place for God to dwell, and then they have to witness something that indicates God’s presence in that dwelling-place.  Only then can they fend off their fear of abandonment.

This plan works.  The book of Exodus ends:

…and Moses completed the work.  The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of God filled the Dwelling … For the cloud of God was upon the Dwelling by day, and  fire was in it by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel on all their journeys.  (Exodus 40:33-38)

Today, our world has many sanctuaries designed to make people feel the presence of God, including many synagogues, cathedrals, and mosques.  (We also have a plethora of buildings intended for religious worship whose architecture is no more inspiring than a high school gymnasium—but that’s another story.)  Many religions also have fixed prayers or mantras, with words to be recited or sung at specific times, words designed to help people feel the presence of God.

Nevertheless, God’s presence is not concrete enough for most humans today to attest to it as witnesses.  And most thoughtful people know that any written “testimony” we have, however accurately copied, was written down by fallible human beings, which means that, at best, something was lost in translation. We have no ark, we have no mishkan.  We know that if we discovered the ark, buried away somewhere, and attempted to duplicate the mishkan described in the Torah, God would not manifest in it the same way.  We live in another time, millennia away from the ancient peoples who built the Dwelling for God on their journey across the wilderness.

Yet so many people, including myself, yearn for something ineffable, something so hard to name that we call it “God”.  Some find an anthropomorphic idea of God helpful.  Some find the idea of a being who is omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-benevolent helpful.  I am one of those who use the words “God” and “soul” when we want shorthand ways to talk about the mysterious feeling that there is some huge extra meaning in the universe and in ourselves.

No matter what phenomena I observe, I can always generate counter-explanations that prevent me from being a witness for “God”, whatever that word means.  Nevertheless, I have discovered that I can help my sense of a divine presence to grow.  I can build an imaginary mishkan inside my mind, and witness some  spirit of the divine, in the form of mystery and exaltation, obscurity and light …  cloud and fire.

May we all discover some of the divinity that dwells inside us.

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