Parshat Pikudei (Ex. 38:21-40:38) brings us to the end of the construction of the Mishkan, and the conclusion of the Book of Exodus. Many commentators, myself included, seem to have difficulty finding new things to talk about at this point. Look in a traditional printing of the Torah with commentary and you’ll find longer-than-usual sections of the actual Torah text, because the comments are so abbreviated. And for good reason: We’re recapitulating what we’ve been talking about more or less for the last five weeks.

We can point out the beauty of repetition (I usually invoke a quotation from Vladimir Jankelevitch at this point; see this post, for instance). Or we can talk about the serene calm of the end of Exodus, as the cloud of God’s glory descends on the Mishkan.

Reading Parshat Pikudei again this year, I find myself drawn to the linguistic parallels between the erection of the Mishkan and the account of Creation in Genesis 1-2:3. Consider:

“And Moses saw all the work, and behold they had done it just as God had commanded—they did it. And Moses blessed them.” (Ex. 39:43)

Compare Gen. 1:31: “And God saw everything that God had made, and behold, it was very good,” followed, of course, by Gen. 2:3: “And God blessed the seventh day.”

And:

“And Moses erected the courtyard around the Mishkan and the altar, and he placed the curtain over the gate to the courtyard. And Moses completed (veychal Moshe) the work.” (Ex. 40:33)

Compare Gen. 2:1-2: “The heavens and the earth were finished (vayechulu), and all their host. And on the seventh day God completed God’s work (vayechal Elohim).”

As these verses suggest, Moses and the Israelites reciprocate the actions of God. In their creation of the Mishkan, a home for God on earth, they evoke God’s creation of the earth itself, a home for them. As Shabbat frames the work of Creation, it likewise frames the work of building the Mishkan (cf. Ex. 35:1-3). Building the Mishkan, creating a home for God on earth, is the paradigmatic response to our creation in God’s image.

One of the keys to this motion is the idea of pause and recognition. As Clevon Little memorably says in the Mel Brooks movie Blazing Saddles, “We have done it. Now let us see what we have done.” (Perhaps the most dramatic moment in an otherwise farcical movie.) as Rashi suggests in his comment on Genesis 2:2, our work isn’t completed until we rest from it, until we step back and appreciate the things we have created. Until we do so, we are still inside it, still claimed by it, still dependent on it. When we break from our work and behold it, we stand outside, we contextualize it within a larger story, and we appreciate it.

But we also lose something in the process. Anyone who has ever been involved in creating something great knows the sad feeling that comes when the creating is about to end, when a new phase is about to begin. It’s akin to the reluctance we have to finish a good novel: there is a letting go, a break that occurs. So too with building the Mishkan: there is something here that compels us to want the building to continue, to extend the inspiring moment of everyone coming together to do something great. We feel a loss as we end this part of the story.

I would suggest that this dialectic, of accomplishment and loss, the fullness and emptiness that informs our lives, is very much what the Torah aims to evoke in us as it concludes the Book of Exodus. As we observed last week, the Torah’s narrative of freedom and nation-building is far from a one-dimensional story, but is rather full of complexity and nuance. This week we can say that, likewise, its narrative of human work and identity, of fulfillment and longing, is amazingly rich and sophisticated. It is as fresh today as it was three thousand years ago.

Shabbat shalom.

 

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