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Israel-Gaza War 5784: Pekudei – Building and Encountering Goodness

Pekudei is the final portion in the book of Exodus. This book started with a people sorely oppressed and enslaved, its male babies targeted for death. It climaxed with the forming of a covenantal relationship between G-d and the children of Israel at Sinai, given in clouds of fire and smoke. The experience was so intense that the people could not bear it and begged Moses to be their intermediary. Yet when he ascended the mountain to commune with G-d, the people panicked and built an idol.

Pekudei ends with the people building the mishkan, a structure where Hashem will dwell among them. He will no longer be distant, nor will He be overwhelming. He will constrain Himself to the mishkan and be intimate with His people. The mishkan is also called an ohel mo’ed, a tent of meeting. Here the people will encounter G-d.

With the Golden Calf, the people broke the commandment given on Sinai not to worship anything other than Hashem. After that incident, they were punished by both Moses and G-d. But now, as if to make up for the sin of the Golden Calf, they follow G-d’s instructions for building the mishkan and its contents to the letter, thus showing true repentance.. The text repeatedly says ca’asher tzivah Hashem et Mosheh, “as Hashem commanded Moses.” (Moses had passed these commands on to the people in the previous portion, Vayakhel.) By obeying His directions, and through their labors, they both show desire and make an effort to encounter G-d. Because of this, Moses blesses them. (Exodus 39.43)

We have no Golden Calves today. But we have many idols. Popular celebrities, social media “influencers,” and politicians are frequently worshiped by their followers. Their every pronouncement is hung on as if it were revealed truth.

Ideologies, too, can be idols. How do we know when an ideology is an idol and not a strong belief? After all, aren’t human and animal rights, or the environment, worthy causes that are in line with Torah instruction?

When you are willing to murder for your ideology, it is a safe assumption that you have lost your connection to G-d. Similarly, stealing, kidnapping, and polyamory (committing adultery) are evidence that one’s belief system has nothing to do with G-d or His commandments. Communism and Nazism are idolatries that desecrate the name of G-d by denying His existence and persecuting his followers. Radical Islamism such as practiced by Hamas and Al Qaeda claim that He commands atrocities, and also desecrate G-d’s name. It is impossible for most of us to imagine what people encounter when they do such things, but it is not Hashem. How do we know? As Rabbi Dennis Prager writes in The Rational Bible: Exodus, G-d’s essence is goodness. When Moses begs to behold G-d’s presence, He replies, “I shall cause to pass all my goodness before your face.” (Exodus 33.19)

Encountering G-d in a sacred space is a remedy for idolatry. But the space must be sacred, and it must be G-d who is encountered. It is made sacred by putting aside the anger and fear that drives people to construct Golden Calves, and instead humbly and willingly doing the honest work involved in meeting G-d. And if G-d’s essence is goodness, it follows that one can only encounter Him while doing good.

Since the return of Jews to their land, they have sweated and labored to build it up. They did not take the land by force, but purchased it, bit by bit, clearing land and draining swamps, planting fruits and vegetables, building homes and kibbutzim, moshavim and cities, and creating loving families. Through multiple wars they did not initiate, they persisted in goodness. Israel has seen a flowering of Jewish culture, music, writing, Torah learning, and good deeds. Reading the stories of those murdered on and after October 7th, one is overcome by the radiant goodness of not only the victims—countless tales of volunteering and helping those in need while they lived, sacrificing themselves to save others on the day of their deaths—but also their families.

The girlfriend of a soldier who was killed battling terrorists says: “[He] would want us to act so things will be better here.”

The grandson of a woman murdered at Kibbutz Be’eri imagines, “Savta would say that the only medicine is to smile, to keep creating, loving, and to rebuild.”

From the grandson of a couple murdered in Kibbutz Kfar Aza: “We’ll build our home and families here nonetheless, and continue to build a strong, prosperous and developed country.”

As the early settlers built, so they will continue, building together, creating a home not only for each other, but for the ultimate exemplar of Good.

About the Author
I was born in Washington, DC, and raised in the suburbs, but now reside in the temperate rain forest of the Pacific Northwest. I am a retired editor and proud Zionist. I can be found at https://kosherkitty.wordpress.com/about/ and @KosherKitty1.
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