Leading in Absence

With the close of VaYakel Pikkudei, this week’s Torah Portion, we read about the completion and consecration of the Tabernacle and conclude reading the book of Exodus. We read,

So Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of God filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of meeting, because the cloud abode thereon, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward, throughout all their journeys. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they journeyed not till the day that it was taken up. 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 40:33-38)

Why does the book end with this image? What is the meaning behind Moses not being able to enter the sacred space when the cloud is present?

The protagonist of most of the book of Exodus is a Levite who was raised in the house of the Egyptians and then spends his formative years as a shepherd for a Midianite priest. While Moses is homeless and caught between cultures, his charge is to bring the Israelites back home to the land of Canaan. Here we see the paradigm of Jewish history oscillating between survival and sovereignty, struggling in the galut, exile. But, it is in the exile itself that Moses is at home as a leader.

Here, at the end of Exodus, God periodically settles in their midst giving the Israelites a sense of what it will be like when they have a homeland and permanent residence for God in the Temple. Moses’s exile from the Tabernacle when it is stationary foreshadows his not joining his people in the Promised Land. The leader will not be able to join them when he has accomplished his mission. This points to a valuable lesson on the nature of leadership. It is the temptation of leaders to create systems around themselves that are completely dependent on them. Here it seems that Moses needs to be taught that  just the opposite is true. A good leader knows when to back off and let others take the lead.

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