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Pekudei 5774-2014

Moses Retires from Center Stage

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Pekudei, the moment for which the People of Israel have long been waiting, has finally arrived–the completion of the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.

According to tradition, on Yom Kippur, the 10th of Tishrei, Moses brought down the second set of the Tablets from Sinai. On the very next day, the 11th of Tishrei, the People of Israel began generously donating the varied materials for the building of the Mishkan. Some rabbinic commentators maintain that the Tabernacle was completed on the 25th of Kislev (the future date of Chanukah), but was not permanently erected until three and a half months later, on the first of Nissan. Others say that the Mishkan was not completed until the first of Adar. Most commentators maintain that the Tabernacle was set up for the very first time on the 23rd of Adar, and then dismantled each day, until it was permanently erected on Rosh Chodesh, the first of Nissan.

In Exodus 40:33, the Torah states that Moses erected the courtyard that encircled the Tabernacle and the Altar, and placed the curtain of the gate at the entrance to the courtyard. Exodus 40:33 concludes: וַיְכַל מֹשֶׁה אֶת-הַמְּלָאכָה,  with these final actions, Moses completed the work of the Tabernacle. What a dramatic moment!

But, the drama was about to intensify.

The Torah in Exodus 40:34 reports, וַיְכַס הֶעָנָן אֶת-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד; וּכְבוֹד השם מָלֵא אֶת-הַמִּשְׁכָּן, that a cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the L-rd filled the Tabernacle. The following two verses, Exodus 40:35-36, state that Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because of the cloud that rested upon it, because the glory of the L-rd filled the Tabernacle. However, when the cloud rose up from the Tabernacle, the Children of Israel would embark on their journeys. As we know from the description in Numbers 9:15-23, the cloud served as a would-be guide for the people of Israel, directing them when and where to travel and encamp.

Rashi is perplexed by the verse (Exodus 40:35) that records that Moses was unable to enter the Tent of Meeting. After all, the verse in Numbers 7:89, states clearly that Moses did enter the Tent of Meeting. This scriptural contradiction appears to be a classic case of two biblical verses that contradict one another.

The issue of the contradicting verses is noted in a famous Braita, a Talmudic teaching that was omitted from the formal edited version of the Mishna, and was cited in the discussions in the Talmudic academies. The Braita is known as the Braita of Rabbi Ishmael, and is recited every day at the beginning of the morning prayer service, as a way of including Torah study in the Jew’s daily routine.

Rabbi Ishmael says that the Torah is elucidated and interpreted through thirteen principles. The very last of these principles is when two passages contradict one another. The contradiction, says Rabbi Ishmael, is resolved only when a third passage is found to reconcile them.

Philip Birnbaum, in his classic translation of The Daily Prayer Book, provides the following example:

In Exodus 13:6 we read: “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread,” and in Deuteronomy 16:8 we are told: “Six days you shall eat unleavened bread.” The contradiction between these two passages is explained by a reference to a third passage (Leviticus 23:14), where the use of the new produce is forbidden until the second day of Passover, after the offering of the Omer. If, therefore, the unleavened bread was prepared of the new grain, it could only be eaten six days of Passover. Hence, the passage in Exodus 13:6 must refer to unleavened bread prepared of the produce of a previous year.

Thus, there is no contradiction.

Similarly, the contradiction between the verse that states that Moses was unable to come into the Tent of Meeting, and the verse that reports that Moses actually entered the Tent of Meeting is resolved by a third verse, or at least the end of one of the verses already cited. Exodus 40:35 states that Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting, because of the cloud that rested upon it, כִּי-שָׁכַן עָלָיו הֶעָנָן. Now it is clear that as long as the cloud rested on the Tabernacle, Moses was unable to enter the Tabernacle. However, when the cloud rose up, Moses could enter the Tabernacle and speak with the Al-mighty.

The Da’at Sofrim brilliantly elucidates this issue. Rabbi Rabinowitz maintains that Moses could not enter the Tabernacle because “the creations of his [Moses’] hands had exceeded Moses’ own greatness.”

The Tabernacle that was erected through the efforts of Moses was filled with a sanctity that even the most exalted of mortals (Moses himself) could not enter. The Da’at Sofrim points out that apparently the Tabernacle had varied levels of holiness. The verse begins by stating that Moses could not enter the אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, the Tent of Meeting, because of the cloud that hovered over it, but concludes by stating that the glory of G-d filled the מִּשְׁכָּן, the Tabernacle. The “Tent of Meeting,” had a lower level of holiness than the “Mishkan” (Tabernacle), a word that derives from the root of the Hebrew word “to rest.” This indicates that although the dwelling place of G-d began as a “tent” for gathering the people, it evolved into a Mishkan, a place where the Divine Presence filled every nook and cranny.

The lessons of the exclusion of Moses from the Tabernacle are profound, underscoring that there were times that even the great Moses, who had invested superhuman efforts to build the Tabernacle, could not enter.

Those who invest intensely in a project, no matter what it may be, a building, a musical composition, a work of art, designer clothes, often feel, when it is completed, a well-deserved sense of pride and satisfaction in the accomplishment. On occasion, they may even feel a sense of ownership, though the artisan is certainly not the owner.

Moses had every right to feel that the Tabernacle belonged to him. It was Moses who mobilized the people, called for the donations, and accounted for every gift that was donated. He was in charge of every detail, every wooden plank, every curtain, all the threads, the gold, the silver, the precious metals and precious stones. Suddenly, we are told that the great Moses, the foremost Jewish spiritual leader of all time, the master who chose Betzalel, the talented young architect, could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because of the cloud that dwelt upon it and hovered above it.

The great Moses experiences an uneasy transformation. He becomes as one of the nation. After all that Moses had done, he became just another plain Jewish citizen.

The Mishkan, the Tabernacle, was not Moses’ after all. It had become הָעֵדוּת מִּשְׁכָּן,  a Tabernacle of Testimony. It was now an אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד , a gathering place for the people. It was not the Tabernacle of Moses, it was the Tabernacle of the People.

Despite his tireless efforts, the Tabernacle did not belong to Moses, but to the nation. The great Moses was required to retire from center stage.

May you be blessed.

Please Note: This Shabbat is Shabbat Parashat Shekalim. On this Shabbat, an additional Torah portion, known as Parashat Shekalim, is read. It is the first portion of four additional thematic Torah portions that are read on the Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. This week’s supplementary Torah reading is found in Exodus 30:11-16 and speaks of the requirement for all the men of Israel, aged 20 and above, to bring a half-shekel in order to be counted as a member of the People of Israel. In later years, these shekels were donated to the Temple in anticipation of the festival of Passover, when funding for the daily sacrifice had to be renewed.