P'dukei, 21 March 2009
It's in the Cloud

Wilderness.

Blazing sun.

Black nights.

Silence.

Isolation.

The Children of Israel had something we lack.

The Cloud.

The visible Presence of God.

The Cloud guided us as we fled Egypt.

The Cloud separated us from Pharaoh’s armies at the Red Sea..

The Cloud was at Sinai at the giving of the Law.

The Cloud stood at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting when Moses was inside.

Today’s portion ends with the completion of the Mishkan.

The text reads:

"When Moses had finished the work, the Cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of Adonai filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the Cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of Adonai filled the Tabernacle. When the Cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys; but if the Cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. For over the Tabernacle a Cloud of Adonai rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys."

(Exodus 40:34-38, The Torah: A Women's Commentary, WRJ/URJ, New York, 2008).

Rabbi Elana Zaiman explains in The Women’s Torah Commentary(Jewish Lights) (pages 181-182) that by building the Mishkan, the Children of Israel “became connected to . . . God in a new way.”

Witnessing God’s Presence at Sinai “was frightening and distant, too unreal to comprehend. The act of God handing them an identity from above did not work for them. They had to be part of the process."

The Clouds and Fire at Sinai is followed by God’s command to build the Mishkan.

"By giving birth the the Mishkan, the Children of Israel experienced their identity as God’s people in a more intimate and involved way. God understood that they needed to be active participants in this process, for after the Mishkan was built, God covered it with a cloud by day and a fire by night. With the birth of the Mishkan, the experience at Sinai became a daily revelation of God’s presence. With the birth of the Mishkan, the experience of Sinai in the heavens above moved to the earth below."

As today’s text states, the Cloud and the Fire at the Tabernacle “would be in the view of all the House of Israel throughout their journeys.”

At the end of the journey, at the frontier of the Promised Land, the Cloud is about to disappear. The people would have to proceed on the basis of faith rather than vision.

Moses tells the people that he is about to die and that Joshua will be their leader.

Moses says that God will travel before them and wipe out the nations in their path.

Moses charges the people:

"Be strong and resolute, be not in fear or in dread of them; (meaning the Canaanites); for it is indeed your God Adonai who marches with you; God will not fail you or forsake you."

(Deuteronomy 31:6, The Torah: A Women's Commentary, WRJ/URJ, New York, 2008)

The Visual Presence of God ended with the lifting of the Cloud. However, the people still had a symbol of God’s dwelling among them. This symbol was the Mishkan, and later the Temple.

Rabbi Zaiman explains that with the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis found a way to preserve God’s presence, though not tied to a specific place.

The rabbis ceated a new name for God based on the word Mishkan. They created Shechinah a feminine name, "suggesting God’s presence in a very physical and imminent way. The rabbis understood that the people of Israel still needed to have a dwelling place for God. . . ."

Said the rabbis in Megilla 29a, “Every place to which they (Israel) were exiled, the Shechina went with them.”

Rabbi Zaiman explains, “Through the name Shechinah, the rabbis enabled God’s physical presence to exist in exile.”