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 Moshe was not able to enter into the tent of meeting, because the cloud was present, 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 did not journey 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 Moshe not being able to enter the sacred space when the cloud is present?
To understand these questions we need to look at the whole book of Exodus. The protagonist of most of the book of Exodus is a Levite who is raised in the house of the Egyptians. Moshe spent his formative years as a shepherd for a Midianite priest. While Moshe is homeless and caught between many 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. We struggle in the galut, exile, yearning to be at home in the Land of Israel. But, it is in the exile itself that Moshe is at home as a leader.
In our portion, 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. Moshe’s exile from the tent of meeting when it is stationary foreshadows his not joining his people in the Promised Land. Ironically, Moshe, the leader, will not be able to join them when he has accomplished his/their mission. The text challenges our understanding of leadership. Is a good leader in center stage or does s/he know when s/he has to back off and let others take center stage.
The text also challenges the notions previous generations of Jews have had regarding their Jewish identity. For example a previous generation assumed that intermarriage meant leaving Jewish life behind. Today when everyone has multiple identities who you marry add complexity, but it does not necessarily mean the end of Jewish expression. We can all relate to Moshe finding a special role in exile in as much as this state of being in between things leaves room for our multiple identities.