Now that we are free, the real work begins.
This Torah portion of P'kudei concludes the building of the Tabernacle. The Israelites left Egypt, and in the last several portions, we have watched as they have followed the blueprints for building the holy synagogue, the Mishkan.
The next book, Leviticus, will start not with acts of construction but with acts of devotion - the Israelites will learn many of the laws that are to be followed. First we needed to become free. Then, we needed to construct a place for us to gather in holiness and spirituality, learning and community, friendship and peace. Now it is time to live a life of holiness.
But just as Exodus ends, there are a few verses that hearken back to the to the many years of wandering in the desert following the Exodus. And so we look for a moment to Parashat Bashalach, the portion in which we sing the Mi Chamocha.
God was going in front of them by day in a column of cloud to show them the way, and by night in a column of fire to shed light for them.
In the many years between the Exodus from Egypt until now, God has provided these signs. And they are still there for the Israelites. These are the concluding verses of this week's Torah portion:
When the the cloud was lifted from the Tabernacle, the children of Israel would travel, and if the cloud would not be lifted, they would not travel. Because God's cloud was on the Tabernacle by day and fire would be in it at night, before the eyes of all the house if Israel in all their travels.
It's super fascinating to me that God's presence appears differently, depending on the time of day. It reminds me that we experience God in a multitude of ways. There is no "one" way to feel God's presence. In fact, to fully experience God's presence, the Israelites needed to experience both the cloud and the fire. If they only saw one of them, they were blinding themselves to some of God's glory.
After spending a week in Israel recently, these verses resonate even more deeply. Just as there is not only one way to see God, there is also not only one way to be Jewish.
Unfortunately, in Israel it has been the case that there is only one way to be Jewish. Women are not free to pray at the Western Wall as men can. If Jews do not want to be married by the Orthodox establishment, they can not get married. Reform Judaism continues to be mocked and vilified both by government officials and citizens.
It is sobering that a country that is supposed to be my homeland sometimes feels like a strange land. Unquestionably, it is easier to be a Reform Jew in Athens, GA than anywhere in Israel. But, as I will talk about in the coming weeks and months, there are a few signs of hope. I've spoken about the planned egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, known as Robinson's Arch. During the convention, we heard several members of Knesset speak openly, honestly and forcefully against the status quo, against the strangle-hold that the Haredi Orthodox leadership has imposed upon the Israeli country. Slowly, liberal Judaism is showing its signs to the people of Israel.
I wish that the powers that be in Israel would read this portion the way that I do, and that many of my colleagues do. God appears in multiple forms. We feel God in multiple ways. The richness of the Tabernacle comes from the diversity of talents and passions and perspectives of the Israelites.
The cloud was not better than the fire. Both were needed at different times, and for different people. Orthodox Judaism is needed. It is necessary. And so too, Reform Judaism is necessary. Both are authentic ways of Jewish living, and as we know, there are many others.
The Israelites were successful in building the Tabernacle. How tragic it is then, that it is Jews that have kicked some of us out. We are commanded to be a light onto the nations, but we also must be a light onto ourselves. It is only by working together that the many strands of Judaism can experience God's wonderful and varied presence, leading us out of Egypt, and into holiness.