Last night, I visited the Kotel one last time before returning to America (hopefully Mashiach will come and I won’t have to go anywhere…). I was learning Rav Ovadia Yosef’s commentary on the Haggadah, and stumbled upon one of the more familiar passages we recite, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Mitzarayim”. One of the phrases we say is, “if Hashem had not taken us out of Mitzrayim, we would have been slaves to Pharaoh forever”. In other words, we would have remained in exile to this day. The difficulty is that we are still in exile today. Wherever we live, even in Israel, we are ruled by a secular government without the Beit Hamikdash. Therefore, Rav Ovadia asks, ‘What’s the difference between the exile in Mitzrayim and the exile today? What was worse about the slavery in Mitzrayim?’ On a simple level, we were doing back-breaking labor in Mitzrayim and today, thank God, we don’t. Pharaoh was an evil ruler while Binyamin Netanyahu is protecting our country. But there is a deeper reason that is also manifested in Parashat Pikudei.
Vayakhel and Pekudei deal with the building and accountings of the Mishkan and its vessels. Preceding these events was the infamous Sin of the Golden Calf where Hashem threatened to destroy Bnei Yisrael, but fortunately they were saved by Moshe’s prayer. Then all of a sudden, we get a Mishkan. Did we really deserved a Mishkan after committing such a grievous sin? The first pasuk of Pekudei states, “These are the accountings of the Mishkan, the Mishkan of the Testimony…” (Shemot 38:21). Rashi comments on “the Mishkan of testimony” explaining that this was a testimony for Israel, as Hashem overlooked the Sin of the Golden Calf and rested his Shechinah, Divine Presence, among them. Even though Bnei Yisrael committed a grave sin, though they didn’t really deserve it, Hashem forgave them and gave them another chance. He came closer to them by resting his Shechinah upon them. As it says at the end of the Parasha, “the glory of Hashem filled the Mishkan” (ibid. 40:34). Hashem, instead of distancing himself from us after the sin, drew closer to us and dwelt among us. He gave us a chance to return.
This is precisely the difference between the exile in Mitzrayim and the current exile. If Bnei Yisrael had remained in Mitzrayim a moment longer, if Hashem had not taken us out, we would have dropped to the 50th level of Tumah, impurity. There would have been no turning back then. Repenting wouldn’t have accomplished anything and Hashem would not have forgiven them. But the fact that He took us out gave us opportunity. Even though we are back in exile, we will always have the opportunity to return to Hashem. No matter how low we go, He will be willing to bring us back. The difference is that the slavery in Mitzrayim was so harsh that it had potential to eternally remove us from Hashem. In today’s world, there are many Jews who are not affiliated to Judaism, and Jews who are actively against Judaisim and God. But we are not slaves to Pharaoh anymore so we still have opportunity to repent. If the Jews of the Golden Calf were able to repent and build the Mishkan, thereby having Hashem dwell among them, all the more so today, when we are not worshipping golden calves, can we return to Hashem and hopefully merit the building of the Beit Hamikdash.