Parshat Pekudei: What’s the story with Exodus?

Rabbi Melanie Aron
Rabbi Melanie Aron (Courtesy of Rabbi Melanie Aron)

By Rabbi Melanie Aron

When we give a talk or write an article, we take special care with the beginning and the ending. The opening is important as it needs to catch the attention of the audience, and the ending is what psychologists tell us people usually remember.

The Book of Exodus has a great opening — the suffering of the enslaved Israelites and their dramatic redemption — but I can just imagine a reviewer complaining about how the last third of the book trails off. The portions Terumah and Tetzaveh are filled with details about the construction of the tabernacle, and if that’s not bad enough, everything is repeated again in Vayakhel and Pikudei, almost word for word.

Other books of the Torah seem to have consciously crafted endings. Leviticus ends with blessings and curses, typical of treaty documents in ancient times. Before the short section on vows and donations, Bechukotai, the last Torah portion in Leviticus, provides some of the most graphic descriptions imaginable of the consequences of disobeying God’s commandments. Genesis and Numbers each lead into the next step in our people’s story, while Deuteronomy closes with a coda about Moses’ unique role.

So what’s the story with Exodus?

One possible answer is that it wasn’t supposed to be the end. The last verse of the book, about the cloud that led the Israelites during the day and fire at night, prepares us for the stories of their journeys, “maseihem.”

Some scholars conjecture that there was a time when Exodus rolled into Numbers without the intrusion of Leviticus. If that were the case then these detailed chapters would be in the middle, and not the conclusion of the book.

A second answer might be for us to enter into the world of the Torah and look again at the very last paragraph of Exodus. The tabernacle is constructed, the priests anointed and “the presence of the Eternal filled the tabernacle.” That’s not chopped liver. Slaves who labored are now able to build, with the gifts of their overflowing hearts, a place of connection between the God and humanity. It’s a memorable climax to all that came before it and a fulfillment.

Finally, there may be another message in the many parallels between the story of creation in the first chapter of Genesis and the creation of the mishkan. What does it mean for Adam, earthlings, to have been created in the image of God? Perhaps it is our own ability to create, parallel to God’s bringing the world into being out of the tohu vavohu, the chaos, which preceded, “Let there be light.”

For many of us, these last two years of COVID have seemed endless, like the interminable chapters at the end of Exodus. But perhaps we can accept them more comfortably if we think of them as the middle of a much longer story.

Rabbi Melanie Aron is the rabbi emerita of Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, Calif.

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