The book of Exodus comes to a close this week with laws relating to gift-giving for the Tabernacle and the details of its construction. In what appears to be a fund-raiser’s fantasy, Moses relates God’s command that the Israelites “give their heart’s desire” (Exodus 35:5), and they give so much he has to ask them to stop! This Sabbath we also announce the coming month of Nisan in our synagogues, and with that proclamation Passover preparation begins in earnest.
Passover looms so large in the Jewish mindset that we often overlook the quiet announcement in the Torah reading that the first of Nisan not only marks the beginning of the season of redemption, but also marks the inaugural anniversary of the Tabernacle itself. God commands Moses, “On the first day of the first month [that is, Nisan], you shall set up the Tabernacle.” (Exodus 40:2) A few verses later, we are informed, “In the first month of the second year (following the Exodus), on the first of the month, the Tabernacle was set up (Exodus 40:17). In short order, God commanded, the Jews donated, the architects planned, the builders built and the Tabernacle — God’s sanctuary on earth — was up and running.
It is often observed that Passover is the most widely celebrated of the Jewish festivals. I suspect this is precisely because it is a holiday observed in the privacy of one’s own home. Passover also is widely celebrated in the sense that observance patterns vary a great deal from one family to the next. There are those who carefully consume the appointed measure of matzo, in the appropriate interval of time, washed down with the requisite number of ounces of kosher-for-Passover wine. Then, there are those who gather around the table, slice the ham, pass the matzo, and give thanks for their redemption; perhaps even for their redemption from the arcane laws of Passover. Freedom is a funny concept — for some it means freedom from the bonds of community and family history, for others it means freedom given through the laws the rabbis interpret.
This Sabbath we read of God commanding Moses to gather the entire Israelite community. When we all join together to contribute our various shares for the building of God’s sanctuary on earth, there is a great deal of opportunity for dissention. No group will do its part as does another. No group today will build the same sanctuary as another; for each of us has a very different idea of God’s Tabernacle. We will gather together this coming month to celebrate our freedom from bondage, yet have radically different notions of the meaning of that freedom. We might concur on answering the question: freedom from what? But each will answer differently the question: freedom for what?
One short year after the Exodus, we are told, the Tabernacle was set up. In that year, Jews somehow managed to share a common vision of what it meant to build God’s sanctuary on earth. This seems an almost impossible task for our Jewish community today. We each pursue a different vision of being Jewish, serving God and building institutions appropriate for the community. We each, instead, go our own way, avoiding contact with the rest of Jewry, as though we were princes, unaccustomed to contact with commoners — those other Jews.
There is a hint of this exclusivity in the special Haftarah from the prophet Ezekiel we read this Sabbath. He imagines that when the prince who serves God enters the Tabernacle, he comes and goes by his own private gate. But, Ezekiel tempers his vision precisely for those occasions when the rest of the Jews enter God’s sanctuary. On festivals such as Passover, Ezekiel tells us that the prince “shall enter with them when they enter and leave when they leave.”(Ezekiel 46:10) As medieval commentator David Kimchi explains, “It is his honor and glory to be among the pilgrims serving God.”
And what of the masses of Jews? What gate do they use when they come to pay their respects to the God who redeemed them from bondage? Ezekiel says it clearly in this week’s Haftarah, “whoever enters by the north gate to bow low shall leave by the south gate; and whoever enters by the south gate shall leave by the north gate. They shall not go back through the gate by which they came in, but shall go out by the opposite one.” (Ezekiel 46:9) It is just like when the Jews left Egypt itself. You cannot go back the way you came.
To enter God’s sanctuary, we all must go in and come out together. We all must learn that in that moment, there are no princes with special privilege or access; just Jews, all massed together. And in that moment, we must enter one way, yet come out another way entirely — transformed. Only then can we experience redemption and find direction for our wanderings in the decades ahead.
Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary.