Parshat Vayakhel Pekudei Parah
Back in the 1960s Joni Mitchell sang:
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all
Looking at our parsha, in fact at much of the book of Shmot, Rabbi Ari Kahn says the same thing. We really don’t know the importance of clouds in our Torah.
Back in chapter 13 we find that God’s spirit was leading the Israelites in a pillar of cloud in the day and a pillar of fire at night. Before that, when the Israelites left Egypt and were caught between the devilish Egyptian army on one side and the deep Reed Sea on the other – it was a pillar of cloud that separated the two camps and prevented the Egyptians from recapturing their absconding slave laborers.
At Mount Sinai it was a divine cloud that covered the top of the mountain. It was into that cloud that Moshe ascended and disappeared.
If we follow Rabbi Kahn’s view we see that the cloud represented exactly what the Israelites sought. They wanted a visible God, a representation of the spirit that would dwell in them and make them into a nation and lead into their promised land.
When Moshe ascended the mountain, the people were so focused on him as their leader and savior that they did not see that the spirit of the Lord was still within them – in the form of the cloud. That cloud which would descend later into the Tent of Meeting was still with the people but they were too focused on flesh and blood to see it.
Where do we get this from? From the text. When Moshe came down from his yeshiva in the sky bearing the two tablets which he smashed when he saw what was going on, that was the moment at which the cloud lifted and dissipated. It no longer hung over the encampment. It was no longer protecting them. It no longer inhabited their lives.
This becomes abundantly clear in our double parsha, where Moshe and the Israelites complete the construction of the Tabernacle. The book ends with the important statement that the cloud descended onto the tent of meeting. Frasier was in the building! God was back. He was once again a part of the encampment, dwelling in the lives of the Israelites.
We may also ask, rightly, how this turnabout was possible. Just last week we read of the heinous crime the Israelites committed – doing the one thing they had been specifically instructed – by God, in His own voice – not to do. Make an idol. And here they are busy completing the Tabernacle in which His spirit will reside. Are there no crimes for which there is punishment?
Perhaps we can tie this question to another strange event in the parsha, something that you will never ever see in a shul today, or in almost any enterprise. Moshe is told that there is enough of the rich materials needed to complete construction of the tabernacle and the priests’ clothes. The people are bringing TOO MUCH!
Too much? Where in this world do we find that too much has been given? Not in the state budget. Not in an appeal for any shul, school, organization or company trying to raise funds. Yet here Moshe issues the order: stop bringing.
Why were the people bringing so much? Perhaps this was their penance for having sinned. Perhaps they were so thrilled by the thought of having an actual seat in their midst in which their God could sit that they were willing to bring their all. Perhaps they were relieved at having Moshe back in their midst. We don’t know.
And Moshe – Moshe is criticized by some of the rabbis for this command to stop giving. What right did he have, they ask, to prevent people from performing an act of charity, of devotion to God, of sacrifice for the good of the entire people?
They offer many answers, of course. Some of them exonerate Moshe, some continue to criticize, some say he should have redirected the people’s good will and positive intentions into other useful directions. After all, when the building was completed, more would be needed for other things (although they WERE in the desert where there were no malls or shopping strips).
But the news is in our blood so let’s imagine Moshe in today’s reality. Is it possible, that in addition to all the reasons cited by the rabbis, Moshe wanted to distance himself from the appearance of alleged criminal activity? In parshat Pekudei Moshe gives a shekel and agora accounting for how every piece of gold and silver, every meter of expensive cloth that was taken in was used.
Remember also that in parshat Korach, Moshe is shocked when Korach implies that Moshe benefitted from his status as leader. “I have not taken a single donkey from anyone nor have I harmed a single person,” he says. In other words, I have not used my position to enrich myself or pervert due process.
Here, Moshe may be saying – don’t give me extra materials because people will ask what happened to the surplus. I will not create the conditions for suspicion of embezzlement. And I will not allow a situation in which others could be tempted to take what isn’t theirs.