Saturday, March 8, 2008


“Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the LORD filled the Tabernacle.” Moses does go into the Tent of Meeting in Numbers 7:89. This is easily explained away by saying that the cloud would lift when God summoned Moses so that he could enter the Tent of Meeting, then it would return when Moses left. Rashi translates “because” as “when,” and other commentators follow his lead, making the second clause a modifier for what would seem like a disagreement with different verses of Torah, which of course cannot happen, ever.

I am still left with a question, though, about God’s presence in the tent. That God can be held to one location is a dubious assertion at best in my opinion. God is everywhere and fills everything. There is godliness within us and saturated into the fiber of our universe. So to declare that God’s presence fills the Tent of Meeting is redundant, because God’s presence fills everywhere. Therefore, there would be no lack of space for Moses in the Tent of Meeting because we already occupy the space of God’s presence just by being in the world.

It seems to me that the cloud serves as a symbol of God’s presence at rest. If the community was up and moving when the cloud was up and moving and at rest when the cloud was at rest, it would stand to reason that when the cloud was at rest God was not ready for business, so to speak. Or even better, God wanted Moses to take leadership in his own hands and not consult God for every aspect of Israelite life. Keep in mind this comes just after Moses’ face-to-face encounter with God. God gives Moses a once in a lifetime glimpse into the very real presence of God, and he is not to rely on it regularly. When the cloud is there, Moses remembers that he can do this on his own. He can lead the people into the Promised Land and complete their journey from Egyptian degradation into liberation in Israel.

Friday, March 7, 2008


The commandment to keep Shabbat appears 10 times in the Torah. Often we do not understand exactly what that means. “Remember Shabbat and keep it holy” (Exod 20:8 et al). Do no work because, “in six days Adonai created Heaven and earth and on the seventh day God rested” (Exod 20:11). We are vaguely aware of all kinds of things we don’t do on Shabbat, some of which seem a little ridiculous to our modernist point of view.

“On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death” (Exod 35:2). The appearance of Shabbat in this week’s Parashah seems to be a non sequitur. Before we get to this point Moses is re-receiving the Torah from God. He comes down the mountain with his Hi-Pro glow, gathers the Israelites, and reiterates the commandment for keeping Shabbat just before going into the description of collection of goods for building the Tabernacle, hiring inspired contractors for building the tabernacle, then actually building the Tabernacle. The Shabbat restriction seems out of place.

The Rabbis of the Talmud take this out-of-place (which they cannot believe is out of place) pericope to serve as a reminder that the work that is prohibited on Shabbat includes all of the work necessary for building the Tabernacle, from paying for it to laying the finishing touches. They come up with 39 activities that are forbidden on Shabbat, and many of the restrictions that do not get specific mention in Torah are derivatives of the idea that the Israelites are reminded of Shabbat just before they begin the Tabernacle’s construction.

When we step back and think about exactly what the Israelites are engaged in right now, it becomes clear that the Shabbat reminder fits perfectly here, as do the 39 restrictions. The Israelites are about to build the Tabernacle, the place where God’s earthly presence will dwell. It was the single most important thing they would build in their life time. They spent years building for the Egyptian Pharaohs, building places of worship for idolaters. Now they finally have an opportunity to build something for their God, for their worship. God knows that the Israelites will put everything they have into the building of their own Tabernacle, and Moses reminds them of the command to keep Shabbat so that they do not get carried away and forget why they are building the Tabernacle in the first place.

Even for the modernist, Shabbat is critical in the scope of living a Jewish life. Shabbat is the day that God took to rest because God knows that we have the tendency to get lost in our work. We do not take all of our vacation days, we don’t take breaks or stop for meals, we go to work sick, we push ourselves to the limit. Written into the system is a day to focus on ourselves and our families. We do not do what we do on the other six days. We spend time with each other or alone, relaxing, learning, reading for pleasure, and shifting from the mundane into the holy. Even if what we are engaged in is the most important thing to us, Shabbat supercedes.