David Walk

Mission Accomplished

Fare thee well, O Book of Shmot! We will miss your exciting stories as we enter the less exhilarating world of the Book of Vayikra. In Shmot, we have plagues, the splitting of the Sea, war against Amalek, the Epiphany at Sinai. The most exciting incident  in Vayikra is the mysterious deaths of Nadav and Avihu. But our book which reads like a movie script (I’ve seen five movies based on it), ends with barely a whimper: For the cloud of the Eternal was upon the tabernacle by day and fire was on it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys (Shmot 40:38). 

Before we engage the question why Shmot ends with this scene, it’s very important to understand the significance of this cloud. Rav Shteinzaltz gives the clearest explanation for this phenomenon, when he states:

Then the connection was established: The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. Although the cloud is a physical entity, it embodies the glory of God and symbolizes the resting of the Divine Presence.

That point is critical. The cloud means that God is present in the structure. To a certain extent, it means that the Mishkin is working and is available for our offerings to be accepted by God. However, we must add one caveat. Isn’t it true that God is here, God is there, God is truly everywhere? Well, yes, but not in the same concentration. The Divine Presence (SHECHINA) was so available and robust in this location at that time that humans could actually use our physical senses to perceive the Divine Presence. 

  This is a remarkable phenomenon! And for the Jews in the desert this was extremely significant. Why? Because the Jews reached an amazing spiritual level at the foot of Mt Sinai. Our Sages claim that all of the negative repercussions of the primordial sin of Adam and Eve were wiped away by the epiphany at Sinai and this is specifically because of our wholehearted enthusiasm for accepting the Torah and its Mitzvot. NA’ASEH V’NISHMA declared our ancestors.

Alas! It was not to last. With the spiritual failure of the Sin of the Golden Calf, all these benefits were wiped away. According to many authorities the Cloud disappeared as well.

So, with the reappearance of the Cloud at the moment of completion and dedication of the Mishkan a new sense of intimacy with God was established. The moment was magical.

But why do we end the book of Shmot with this particular image? It’s the Ramban who offers the most complete perspective of this issue.

The Ramban wrote an important introduction to the book of Shmot, even though it appears at the end of Breishit in many printed texts. The Ramban initially explains why the book of Breishit ended where it did:

In the Book of Genesis, which is the book of Creation, the Torah completed the account of how the world was brought forth from nothingness and how everything was created, as well as an account of all the events which befell the patriarchs, who are a sort of creation to their seed…The Book of Shmot was set apart for the story of the first exile, which had been clearly decreed, and the redemption therefrom. This is why He reverted and began with the names of those who went down to Egypt, and mentioned their number, although this had already been written. It is because their descent constituted the beginning of the exile, which began from that moment.

Okay, the book of Shmot is about the nation’s initial experience of exile, but why does it end where it does? The Ramban noticed, of course, that the exile isn’t over until the Jews have returned to Eretz Yisrael, the homeland of our Patriarchs. So, why does the book end with the cloud enveloping the Mishkan?

Again, the Ramban to the rescue:

When they came to Mount Sinai and made the Tabernacle, God caused His Divine Presence to dwell amongst them, they returned to the status of their fathers as the Chariot of the Holy One. Then they were considered redeemed. It was for this reason that this book of the Torah concludes with the consummation of the Tabernacle, and the glory of the Eternal filling it always. 

So, the book of Shmot begins with the Egyptian exile, and ends with the Jews returning not to the Land of the Patriarchs but to the spiritual level of the Patriarchs. Exile is not only a physical phenomenon; it also portrays a spiritual reality. That cloud on the Mishkan represented the return to the spiritual status enjoyed by the Patriarchs.

Rav Ezra Bick of Yeshivat Har Etziyon explains that each book of the Torah has a similar distinct role. Breishit is the book of beginnings; first humanity, then the Jewish people. Rav Bick then specifies the nature of books 2 through 4: Shemot is the book of the revelation of God’s presence on earth (Mishkan), Vayikra is the book of divine worship, and Bamidbar is the book of God’s presence within the community (the princes and the camp).

He doesn’t specify the nature of Devarim, but I would like to suggest it is the book of Moshe, and his recap of his career. 

There is however one detail which we have not cleared up. In verses 34 and 37, the future tense is used to describe the appearance of the cloud. Why? Well, we could say that sometimes the future tense is used when a present action continues for a long time (in this case 40 years). But the Aznaim L’Torah (Rav Sorotzkin) has another idea:  

It’s possible to find in this statement a hint for the future, that ‘night’ is the time of GALUT. It is incumbent on us to believe ‘that light will be on it’, that in the time of the final redemption God will bring down for us from heaven a fully built Beit Hamikdash which will descend in fire. As it says, ‘I will be for her a wall of fire round about (Zecharya 2:9). 

All I can add to that statement is an enthusiastic AMEN! We read the Torah not just to know the glorious past of our people, but also as a road map to a glorious future. May it be His will to crown our story with the rebuilding of the Temple, speedily in our days. 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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