Parashat Vayak’hel-Pekudei

Exodus 40:1-38 Fire and Mist 09.03.13

Parashat Vayak’hel-Pekudei


Howard Adelman

Exodus is an amazing story. Passover will soon be upon us and we will retell the story of the escape from Egypt. But in many ways the trek across the Sinai is far more phenomenal, though perhaps not as appealing to children. The most amazing part of the story of this large horde travelling across the desert was that they took time to build a portable temple and a central place of worship. They left a place of bondage and were en route to a place where they would be rooted in the land and govern themselves according to the rule of law. Unlike most societies which begin where they were born and create laws afterwards, the Israelites received the law first before they acquired territorial ownership. What is perhaps more important and less understood, they also received the order of ritualistic practice. Both were necessary prerequisites to becoming a self-governing nation.

But before they could travel towards freedom, they had to fully escape their bondage. Recall how they found themselves trapped between the Reed Sea and the pursuing Egyptian cavalry with Egypt’s 600 best charioteers in hot pursuit. In Exodus 13:21-22 we read how the pillar of cloud that was leading the way went behind them between the trapped Israelites and the pursuing Egyptian forces.

And the Angel of God, who went before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud went from before them and stood behind them. So it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel. Thus it was a cloud and darkness to the one, and it gave light by night to the other, so that the one did not come near the other all that night.

In the face of an enemy in hot pursuit, what was a light cloud leading the Israelites became a dark cloud for the pursuing Egyptians. What was a fiery pillar of wrath to the Egyptians became a guiding light at night for the Israelites. The same thing was Janus-faced, a cloud of darkness to the Egyptians and a fire giving off light for guidance for the Israelites, thereby giving the Israelites time to escape until God parted the Reed Sea. But fire also separates and destroys, purifies and leaves only a residue of ashes. We need moisture to nurture and grow. What is this phenomenon that can be a dark cloud from one side and a fiery cloud from the other, a light cloud of leadership and a dark forbidding cloud of separation, a pillar of light and enlightenment and a forbidding pillar of fire to another? The cloud and the pillar of fire are but two versions of the same thing, and each of these two also has two sides. As Numbers 9:15 describes it:

On the day the tabernacle, the Tent of the Testimony, was set up, the cloud covered it. From evening till morning the cloud above the tabernacle looked like fire.

How is the same thing a cloud by day and a fire by night?

The last chapter (40) of Exodus deals with raising the Mishkan (tabernacle), the place of testimony, and then working our way from the inner centre of worship to the outside: where to put the ark, how to screen it, where to put the table with the bread and candlesticks, where to place the golden arc for incense and the screen of the door of the tabernacle, the altar of burnt-offering before that door, and water and a basin, and then a court and another screen gate to it, and then how to anoint the tabernacle with oil and all that is within to make even the furniture and vessels holy. Only then can Aaron and his sons be brought unto the door of the meeting and washed, anointed, dressed and sanctified. First we get the instruction booklet then the report that the instructions were followed.

When it was all done, the cloud covered the tent of the meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. (34) Because the cloud lived within the tabernacle, Moses could not.

Contrary to verse 40:35, Exodus 24:18 reads: “And Moses entered into the midst of the cloud.”

First, why would Moses of all the Israelites be forbidden entry into the tabernacle when God’s presence was there as a cloud? And yet the text also says that Moses was in the midst of the cloud. Further, as long as the cloud was in the Tabernacle, the Israelites could not move forward until the cloud lifted?

38 For the cloud of the LORD was upon the tabernacle by day, and there was fire therein by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys.

The Tyger


William Blake

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

We can get some insight into both questions – how Moses was not allowed into the tabernacle when it was occupied by the cloud of the Lord and yet could enter in the midst of the cloud, and why the cloud and the pillar of fire are both different yet two sides of the same thing, by comparing the two brothers, Moses and Aaron. Throughout the Tanach, whether it is Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, the relationship and difference between two brothers are often at the core of the message.

Moses was a political leader while Aaron rose from Moses’ public relations officer to his administrative assistant, to his right hand man. Moses was raised in the Egyptian court and was a son of privilege who used his younger brother, Aaron, as his go-between, whether to the people of Israel or to the Pharaoh. When Moses went up on Mount Sinai to receive the tablets, Joshua, not Aaron, accompanied him. Aaron was left with the people and tried to stall and placate them in their impatience. Aaron failed to stop the people from making the golden calf, but Moses cannot enter the tabernacle unless summoned by God. (Leviticus 1:1) Moses received the tablets of the law but in his rage also broke them. Yet Moses can speak to God face to face. (Numbers 12:8) When the temple was consecrated, Aaron in some sense became at least the equal of Moses, if not his spiritual superior as the High Priest.

Since the rabbis led the revolt against the priestly inherited aristocracy and revered the prophets about inherited religious rituals, hermeneutics above blind obeisance to ritualistic customs, independent thinking in contrast to dutiful service on the one hand and appeasement of the other, Aaron sometimes did not get as good an historical press. But the Tabernacle is a House of Testament, and it is attested that Aaron loved peace, loved the people and was near to them. Through Aaron, the people were drawn close to the cold and rigid requirements of the Law. If Moses was stern and uncompromising, quick to anger and condescending towards his followers, Aaron was the facilitator and reconciler, the pastoral teacher rather than the one full of fire and brimstone. As Martin Buber wrote, Aaron was called to kindle the light of the law that shall last forever whereas Moses was called upon to make the public rather than daily sacrifices as well as sacrifice himself. Aaron was loved. Moses was feared. Aaron was the merciful. Moses delivered the truth.

It is only when peace and righteousness kiss one another, when brothers so different can dwell together in unity, that we can comprehend God as both full of loving kindness, chesed, and a God of wrath and righteousness, a jealous, consuming and demanding God, elohei-mishpat. In the human world, we have a society of egos in tension. In the divine realm, the opposites are complementary. In the human world we have the cycle of day and night whereas on the divine level, cloud and fire are dialectically connected. The Exodus is a story of departure and escape from the demonic world of an existential hell, a nightmare in which the Hebrews were slaves and scapegoats, living in pain and bondage. However, to escape that world, it is insufficient to exercise wrath and righteousness against it. One must learn mercy. One must be taught to be human.

So the House of Testament was filled with the cloud of God, with God’s tears and moist softness, with God’s steadfastness and loyalty to the stiff-necked people He had chosen. Ritual is persistent and repetitive. However we fail as humans, ritual can be counted upon to restore us. By day, it was the merciful God who led the Israelites to the land of milk and honey. But when they travelled at night, they were guided by the pillar of fire, the light that pierced through the darkness and showed the way when everything looked bleak. Moses, the man of fire for his people, could walk amidst the cloud but could not be of it, just as the Israelites in the parting of the sea could march amidst the waves and not be drowned by them.

In William Blake’s poem, Ahania, Fuzon, tied up by the chains of darkness, out of cruel jealousy and self-destroying self-centred fear rebels against his father, Urizen.

"Shall we worship this Demon of Smoke,"

Said Fuzon, "This abstract non-entity

This cloudy God seated on Waters

Now seen, now obscur’d; King of sorrow?" (10-13)

Fuzon attacks Urizen with fire and declares himself God.

In Blake’s mythical world and his version of Exodus in The Book of Ahaniadiscusses, instead of Aaron and Moses adopting complementary roles, Orc and Unizen rival for dominance. Orc is the figure of fire seen at night. Urizen is the pillar of cloud that travels by day and is able to defeat Orc when the Israelites accept the Ten Commandments which will replace the magical world symbolized by the pole that Moses carries. In Blake’s Manichaean world, one must win and the other must die so we never really get beyond Cain and Abel. The cycle of conflict and strife merely recur at different levels.

Rashi wrote that only when the rule of mercy is joined with the rule of justice can we have redemption, but always the pillar of fire must be suffused by the tear drops of the cloud of mercy. The Tabernacle is the House of Testament because it is where Jews can be forgiven by God for their waywardness and their pride and self-assertion, but it is also where God can be at rest and everyone can feel and be in touch with the holy spirit through God’s tears.

38 For the cloud of the LORD was upon the tabernacle by day, and there was fire therein by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys.

Exodus ends, as does the other four books of Moses, with the admonition: "Be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened." Chazak chazak v’nitchazek. But the Sephardic tradition is truer to the textual meaning rather than Moses’ instructions. When Moses transferred leadership to Joshua, he told him and the Israelites to be strong. He repeated the instruction three times. And God also told Joshua to be strong three times. But that is only half the message. In Sephardi practice, at the end of every single Torah reading, they repeat, “chazak u’barukh”, “be strong and blessed.” This is the higher understanding of Torah.

[Tags mercy, justice, pillar of
fire, cloud, Moses, Aaron]

Vayak’hel-Pekudei.Exodus.40.Fire and Mist.09.03.13.doc