This week, we complete the book of Exodus. The Israelites have been enslaved in Egypt, exulted in their freedom, stood in wonder as the sea parted, wandered in the wilderness and heard the words of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. As the book ends, the Israelites finish the work of building the Mish-kan, the tent-like sanctuary in the wilderness where the Divine presence is to dwell.
If we look back even further to the beginning of the Torah in the book of Genesis, we can trace the progress of humanity up to this point. In the beginning, God created heaven and earth and all that they contain. God fashioned all that was necessary for human life — the land, water, plants and animals on which we depend.
Finally, when all of those preparations were completed, God created human beings to inhabit the world that God had made ready for them. God saw that the work was good, and God blessed it.
God then spent much of the book of Genesis trying to forge a relationship with humanity, trying to get people to look beyond the mundane details of their earthly existence to partner with God in creating goodness and justice on the earth. Even when some of those people turned away from that partnership again and again, God kept trying, hoping that humans would eventually enter into a covenant with God dedicated to those transcendent values.
At the end of the book of Exodus, the positions of God and humanity are reversed. Now the people are finally ready to enter into a relationship with God. They have gathered all of their material resources together in order to make a fitting place for the Divine presence to rest. They have used gold, silver and bronze; cloths of purple and blue; and planks of cedar to create a beautiful dwelling place for the Divine.
But they, like God in Genesis, are unsure. Will God reach out and take hold of their outstretched hands? Is God still willing to enter into a covenant with them, despite all of their shortcomings?
The people bring their beautiful finished work of the Mishkan to Moses to see what he thinks. “And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks … Moses blessed them” [Exodus 39:43]. How does Moses bless them? The midrash supplies the words: “May it be God’s will that the Divine presence rest upon the work of your hands.”
Moses knows that the people have tried their best. He knows how difficult it has been for them to find their way to the place where they are willing, even eager, to enter into partnership with God. So he blesses them that they may feel God’s hand reaching down to them as they reach up with theirs.
Like the ancient Israelites, we too create dwelling places for God. Instead of gold and silver and copper, we offer the words of our prayers and the actions of our lives as fitting places for the Divine presence to dwell. Inspired by the ancient teachings of our tradition, we try to create in our souls a sanctuary for transcendent values.
In our best moments, we reach our hands up, hoping to feel God’s presence reaching down to us in partnership. In those moments, may the blessing of Moses be ours as well: May it be God’s will that the Divine presence rest upon the work of our hands.
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: [email protected] .