D’Var Torah

Pekudei, 5784 (3/16/2024)

Rabbi Micah Friedman


     We have finished our reading of sefer Shemot – the great epic of our liberation from bondage – our collective redemption. 

  • This is the book that is called by Nachmanides: Sefer HaGeulah 

     Yet, the ending seems anticlimactic

  • Especially in this year of the triennial cycle

     This apparently anticlimactic conclusion of the book of our redemption can open up fundamental questions of Jewish belief.

     Faith in Geulah has long been a central aspect of Jewish belief and an anchor in our prayers. But, what might this really mean for us?

  • What do we hope for and envision as we pray for geulah?
  • What faith is borne from our ancestral experience of geulah?
  • How do we act in ways that help us to move towards geulah?

Movement #1 

     We often describe the time of redemption as a perfect era – quoting prophetic promises that report G-d’s commitment not to abandon humanity or the Jewish people – to remember us and usher in an era of perfect peace

  • Nation shall not lift up sword against nation nor shall they learn war anymore
  • Lion shall lie down with lamb and no one will be scared

     We add to our shabbat bentching a prayer for the era of messianic redemption that is called “a day that is entirely shabbat and rest for eternity”

     These prophetic articulations of a world perfected have and continue to offer us a guiding light – a North star – an ideal to aspire towards and which can cultivate hope in our hearts.

     Yet, many of us struggle to actually believe that such a world could even be possible. It seems like it would require a total transformation of the world as we know it – the world which has been analyzed and dissected through science and history – economics and political science. 

     Though this experience is particularly pronounced in our generations, we are far from the first Jews to struggle to envision an entirely transformed social-political-economic order – even in an era of messianic redemption. The great Maimonides describes the world to come in the era of Moshiach as essentially just like the world we know – except that there will be a prophetically anointed Jewish King in the Land of Israel who unites the people in a shared society. Yet, there would still be an economy – and therefore scarcity and inequality. There would still be government and courts and therefore shortcomings of justice. There would even still be war. 

     I find this Maimonidean understanding of the Messianic era of redemption especially striking considering that he also codified in his 13 Principles of Faith belief in the Resurrection of the dead. This means that the Rambam found it more believable that the dead would miraculously be brought back to life than that there would be a Kingdom without warfare – ongoing life without ongoing death. 

     In the millennia of history since Maimonides, many scholars and rabbis have applied themselves to organizing various Jewish views on the era of Messianic redemption in more and less systematic ways. 

     I would humbly posit that, though we can learn a lot from those impressive intellectual and spiritual endeavors, we still fundamentally do not know what the messianic era might look like – what a complete redemption would be like. 

     We still sit with the tension between the miraculous perspective in which the world as we know it will be transformed – and a more naturalistic perspective in which events in the course of the world will usher in a fundamentally better era. 

     Many of us – myself included – still struggle on a daily basis to maintain hope and faith that the world can and will truly be much, much better than it is today – more peaceful, just, fair, and free. 

     So, regardless of what precisely we might think about the “end of days”, a more urgent question for us is “how can we find inspiration in our ancient book of redemption”?

Movement #2

     One simple answer is that the story of our ancestors’ liberation from bondage testifies to the possibility of the liberation – the freedom – the redemption of future groups of people suffering under oppression. 

     We have seen how the story of the Exodus story of Redemption inspired the enslaved people of African descent to pursue their freedom in this country and in almost every corner of the world I imagine we could find people who are inspired to hope for the possibility of a better future because of our ancient story of Redemption – our Sefer Geulah. 

     The Ramban – who describes this book of the Torah as the book of redemption – points out that the book does not end after our freedom from enslavement in Egypt. I have found that we often think of the “end of the story” of our liberation from mitzrayim as occurring on the other side of the sea of reeds, when we sing and dance in celebration of our successful escape from the Pharaoh’s troops.

     Now, maybe, this is connected to the fact that I grew up in the era of Dreamwork’s Prince of Egypt – an animated epic musical retelling of the Exodus. We were shown the movie in Sunday school and in Day school almost every year as a kid! It ends after the crossing of the sea. Before all that comes later, the attack of Amalek, the commandment of Shabbat and Manna, receiving revelation at Mount Sinai, the recounting of laws for the new Hebrew society, and the construction of the Mishkan. All of that is left out. I realize that most of you are probably more in the generation of Charlton Heston’s The 10 Commandments. But there too, if I remember correctly, the film hardly portrays the main focus of the several Torah portions in the later part of Exodus that all focus on one shared theme: The communal effort to construct a dwelling place for G-d’s Presence – the Mishkan. 

     The Ramban – in his introductory comment to the book of Exodus – highlights this conclusion:

  • The Redemption of Israel is not complete until we have erected the Mishkan and the Glorious Presence of G-d in our midst can be witnessed and experienced by the people. 

     As it says in one of the final verses, towards the end of our parsha which we will leyn next year

וּכְב֣וֹד ה’ מָלֵ֖א אֶת־הַמִּשְׁכָּֽן׃

…and the Presence of ‘ה filled the Tabernacle.

Exodus 40:34

     We are not fully redeemed until we are able to experience G-d in our midst – or to put it differently, we are not redeemed until we are able to dedicate ourselves to what matters most – to pursue what is good and true and purposeful with our lives. 

     Redemption does not only consist of being free from bondage – from active oppression. It also does not only consist of freedom from oppression and a just judicial system because if it did then sefer Shemot would have concluded after parshat Mishpatim. 

     Rather, redemption, at least according to the model of Ramban’s reading of Exodus, involves liberation from forces of oppression, establishing an ethical and just system for communal arbitration of the difficult conflicts which inevitably arise among a group of people, and a container for people to come together in pursuit of spiritual connection; to contribute spiritually and materially to creating a sacred sanctuary for the Shekhinah where everyone can feel like G-d cares for you, takes note of you, remembers you, counts you. (These are the meanings of the title of our parsha Pekudei – those who are noticed, cared for, counted, and remembered. )

     If we were to end the book of Exodus after the splitting of the sea, or even after standing at Mt. Sinai, we would be missing a crucial component of the picture which models for us a dream of what it could look like to be, again, redeemed. 

     Yet, we should also not forget that the Torah does not end here. We have 3 more books to go – and then 19 more books of the Hebrew Bible. 

     This conclusion is not our Geulah Shleimah – our complete redemption. This should be apparent as we open our eyes to the world around us – we live in an era with immense ongoing suffering of all sorts. We are yet very far from the envisioned era of redemption. 

Movement #3

     This is where the third and final question I posed in my introduction becomes of great importance:

  • How do we act in ways that help us to move towards geulah?
  • How can we take responsibility for contributing to the forces of geulah – of redemption?

     Like any important question in Jewish tradition, this has been much debated and continues to be argued vehemently in our day. Rather than wading into the waters of those debates, I want to draw our attention to an ancient Midrash which is recounted in one form in the collection called Midrash Tanchuma on our parsha. 

     According to Midrash, when the Pharaoh decreed that all baby boys born to the Hebrews would be thrown into the Nile river to drown to death, the Hebrew men became mired in despair. They labored all day in a state of depression and collapsed exhausted afterwards, even sleeping in the fields where they worked. There was no room in their hearts for love or pleasure, or even a shred of dignity. 

     So, the Hebrew women hatched a plan to restore their spirits. They met their men in the fields and they brought with them mirrors. Yes, little mirrors – which they held up in front of their faces and said teasingly “I am better looking than you. I am more beautiful than you.” – encouraging their partners to reply flirtatiously “No, I am better looking – I am more beautiful.” 

     Through this simple mirror-trick, the Hebrew men recovered a sense of dignity. They were reminded of their inherent human beauty and their ability to find joy and love even under horrific circumstances. They realized that they still had their agency – the freedom to make choices in their lives that impact others. 

     According to the Midrash, the children born to these couples did not only include Moses but also the rest of the 600,000 Israelites counted in Parshat Pekudei – the strong, diverse, yet unified assembly of Israel who erects the Mishkan. And – the mirrors which the women used in their redemptive effort to restore dignity and agency to their partners – came to serve a sacred role in the mishkan. These mirrors covered the Kiyor – or wash-basin of the tabernacle which was used by anyone who approached the Mishkan to wash their hands and feet. So, these same mirrors reflected back to the children of Israel their beautiful, dignified, and redeemed bodies as they drew close to the Dwelling Place of G-d’s Presence in the wilderness.   

     When we consider the question of how we can act to contribute to redemption in light of the action of these heroic Hebrew women, we see that their redemptive power was found in their ability to help others also realize their own power. The women of the Midrash enabled multitudes of people to access their own agency through simply holding up a mirror to their face and inviting them to see themselves as worthy of love, as worthy of dignity, and as capable of acting in powerful ways. 

     Sometimes, the best way for a person to work towards our tradition’s vision of a redeemed world is simply to remind another person of their agency and ability. 

     We see this too in the great story which we will read together in 8 days time – the book of Esther. 

     The critical moment of redemptive agency in the Megillah occurs in chapter 4 – when Mordechai says to Esther:

וּמִ֣י יוֹדֵ֔עַ אִם־לְעֵ֣ת כָּזֹ֔את הִגַּ֖עַתְּ לַמַּלְכֽוּת׃

… And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.”

Esther 4:14

     Who knows, maybe it was for this moment that you were brought here – to act powerfully with agency. After she hears this message, Esther jumps into action and we are redeemed from the evil decree of destruction.

     Perhaps, we read this verse every year in the Megillah not only as a wise piece of advice to Esther, but as a wise piece of advice for each of us.

     Each of us, in our different experiences of despair and hope, need to be reminded time and time again:

     “Who knows? Maybe, this is the moment when the world needs you to act.”

     As we conclude, again, our annual journey through the book of Exodus, Sefer HaGeulah, and we look ahead to a journey through the book of Esther, I pray that we may all find some hope in our ancient stories of redemption – hope that there may yet be a world which is redeemed – however we choose to understand what that means. 

     And, I pray that we may each walk through the world with a sense of “who knows?” Perhaps, this is the moment I’ve been waiting for – this is the moment to act or to remind someone else that they too can act in ways that contribute to redemption.