After weeks of details and details and more details, we finally arrive at the climactic end of Sefer Shemot:
וַיְכַס הֶעָנָן, אֶת-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד; וּכְבוֹד ה’ , מָלֵא אֶת-הַמִּשְׁכָּן. וְלֹא-יָכֹל מֹשֶׁה, לָבוֹא אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד–כִּי-שָׁכַן עָלָיו, הֶעָנָן; וּכְבוֹד ה’ , מָלֵא אֶת-הַמִּשְׁכָּן. וּבְהֵעָלוֹת הֶעָנָן מֵעַל הַמִּשְׁכָּן, יִסְעוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּכֹל, מַסְעֵיהֶם. וְאִם-לֹא יֵעָלֶה, הֶעָנָן–וְלֹא יִסְעוּ, עַד-יוֹם הֵעָלֹתוֹ. כִּי עֲנַן ה’ עַל-הַמִּשְׁכָּן, יוֹמָם, וְאֵשׁ, תִּהְיֶה לַיְלָה בּוֹ–לְעֵינֵי כָל-בֵּית-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּכָל-מַסְעֵיהֶם.
And the cloud engulfed the Tent of Meeting, and G-d’s glory filled the Mishkan. And Moshe was not able to go to the Tent of Meeting, for the cloud was dwelling there and G-d’s glory filled the Mishkan. And when the cloud would lift from the Mishkan, the Jewish People would travel on all of their travels. And if the cloud didn’t lift up, then they wouldn’t go until it would lift. For the cloud of G-d was on the Mishkan during the days, and the Fire at night, in front of all of the Jews in all of their travels. (שמות מ:לד-לח)
G-d’s Presence fills the newly-constructed Mishkan, thus forgiving the Jewish People for their sins, and we even get a glimpse of their method of travel- packing up whenever the shechina left the Mishkan, and settling down on its command.
While this must have been very gratifying for the Jewish People on many levels, something isn’t entirely clear to the casual reader- Why is Sefer Shemot, which started with the Jews in Exile in Egypt, ending now? The Jews are well clear of Egypt, but have not yet reached their final destination. Why would a book titled Sefer Hage’ulah (the Book of the Redemption) end at such a seemingly arbitrary place?
Ramban, in his introduction to Sefer Shemot, answers:
… ולכן חזר והתחיל בשמות יורדי מצרים ומספרם, אף על פי שכבר נכתב זה, בעבור כי ירידתם שם הוא ראשית הגלות, כי מאז הוחל.
והנה הגלות איננו נשלם עד יום שובם אל מקומם ואל מעלת אבותם ישובו. וכשיצאו ממצרים, אף על פי שיצאו מבית עבדים, עדיין יחשבו גולים, כי היו בארץ לא להם, נבוכים במדבר. וכשבאו אל הר סיני ועשו המשכן ושב הקב”ה והשרה שכינתו ביניהם, אז שבו אל מעלות אבותם, שהיה סוד אלוה עלי אהליהם, והם הם המרכבה, ואז נחשבו גאולים. ולכן נשלם הספר הזה בהשלימו ענין המשכן ובהיות כבוד ה’ מלא אותו תמיד.
… [Shemot] begins with the names of those who descended to Egypt and their counting, even though it was already written (in Parshat Vayechi), since their descent was the beginning of the exile- it all started from that.
The exile was not complete until the day they returned to their place and settled in the ways of their forefathers. When they left Egypt, even though they had left slavery, they were still considered exiles, for they were in a land not theirs, confused in the desert. And when they came to Mt. Sinai, built the Mishkan, and G-d’s glory rested amongst them, then they had returned to the ways of their forefathers, who also dwelled with G-d, so they were thought to be redeemed. Therefore, this book finishes with the completion of the Mishkan and G-d’s glory resting among them. (רמב”ן: הקדמה לספר שמות)
Ramban introduces a revolutionary idea. Contradicting the commonly-held theory that the redemption from Egypt was the Jews’ freedom from slavery, Nachmanides teaches the Jews were not truly redeemed until they returned to the ways of their forefathers in the land of their forefathers. Otherwise, were they truly redeemed when they wandered aimlessly in the wilderness?
So, why does Sefer Shemot end with the completion of the Mishkan? Because that was the start of the redemption, when the Jews who left Egypt began their journey to Israel being personally guided by G-d, very much like their forefathers Avraham and Yaakov. Even though they had not completely settled into Eretz Yisrael, since they were officially en route, this was cause to end Sefer Shemot on the same tone that it started- with the beginning of a process.
It is interesting that Sefer Hachinuch, the anonymous 13th century enumeration of all 613 mitzvot based on their location in the Torah, finds at least one commandment in every parsha following Yetziat Mitzraim… until ours. Parshat Pekudei, which tells the story of the construction of the Mishkan and gathering of materials, is seemingly free of any direct mitzvot for generations. Yet, I think it’s clear that there is one crucial, yet indirect, directive from these last few pesukim of Pekudei and Sefer Shemot; when wandering in the desert, Jews must follow G-d’s calls to move and to rest. This could also explain why the last pesukim add the generalizing words “בכל מסעיהם- in all of their travels“- to show that this rule, this semi-official mitzva, does not only apply to the Jews of the desert, but is also true for all Jewish journeys, past, present, and future.
This mitzva has clearly held true for previous redemptive journeys in Jewish history. When Avraham Avinu heard G-d’s call of Lech Lecha– he left, following G-d blindly to Eretz Yisrael. Two generations later, Yaakov Avinu left his life in Haran to return to Canaan on G-d’s command. The generation that left Egypt began their long journey to Eretz Yisrael with following G-d’s shechina, which Ramban clearly identifies as the beginning of their geulah. So too, in our times, we are commanded with this.
For the past two thousand years, the Jews have been wandering around the “wasteland” of the diaspora, leaving one country for another as soon as G-d’s shechina figuratively left, and the locals began to persecute them. However, with the return to Israel in the late 19th century and the founding of the Jewish state in 1948, there is a clear call to return. The shechina has begun to direct us back to Eretz Yisrael a little bit at a time, and in the words of Ramban, we have reached an “אתחלתא דגאולה.”
Unfortunately, all too many Jews have taken the short-sided approach that Nachmanides disproves in his introduction to Shemot. Just as many Jews mistakenly see Yetziat Mitzrayim as the geulah (the redemption from slavery being the final redemption), in our times, they see the beginning of journey (from persecution) as a geulah, even if it ends in another galut. The structure of Sefer Shemot clearly shows that the geulah did not officially begin until Bnai Yisrael were on their divinely-inspired way to Eretz Yisrael, and it was not complete until all were settled in the time of Yehoshua. In our times too, many Jews are under the mistaken impression that since we are not being persecuted (enslaved) anymore, that we have been redeemed- that the national movement from Eastern Europe to the United States and Western Europe was our redemption. However, this could not be more further from the truth. Until recently, the Jewish people were just on another stop on their all-too-long journey through the wilderness.
However, we have finally reached a breaking point- G-d and His shechina are calling for us to move back home, to begin our geulah. All we need to do is to heed this call, complete the final leg of our mas’im, and make the move to Artzeinu Hakedosha. So, on this Shabbat Chazak, as we will read of the Jewish people faithfully following G-d’s shechina through the wilderness, and then scream “חזק חזק ונתחזק,” let us work hard to strengthen (נתחזק) our commitment to and faith in G-d by following His shecina home. Only through this can we hope to ensure our national safety and security, and, with G-d’s help, bring the geulah very very soon. Shabbat Shalom.
CHAZAK CHAZAK V’NETCHAZEK