Sunday, March 11, 2012

Exile and Redemption (Portion Vayakhel-Pekudei)

The English name for the second book of the Torah is, of course, Exodus. This seems like an apt title for the first third of that text, which recounts our liberation from Egyptian slavery. Yet in reality, most of Exodus is not about the exodus. Once we cross the Red Sea, the emphasis shifts, first to our receiving Torah at Mount Sinai, and then—for the last third of the book, which we conclude this week –to the details around the building of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that we will carry throughout our wanderings.

Is there a thematic link between these seemingly disparate sections of Exodus? The medieval commentator, Nachmanides believed so. He writes: “The unifying theme of the book of Exodus is redemption from exile, both physical and spiritual.” For Nachmanides, our release from physical servitude comes with the exodus from Egypt, but our spiritual liberation does not arrive until we receive the Torah and then welcome God’s presence made manifest in the mishkan.

This interpretation has a timely parallel in the Passover haggadah. Two thousand years ago, two great sages disagreed about the nature of the seder’s central narrative. Shmuel said, “Start with ‘we were slaves in Egypt’ and move from physical enslavement to political liberation. Rav countered, “Start with Abraham’s father, Terach, and the state of idolatry (spiritual servitude) to which we had descended, and move to our acceptance of divine service.” Of course, in good Talmudic fashion, the haggadah resolves this dispute by including both stories.

This week—as we finish the multi-faceted book of Exodus in the double portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei—we might well consider both sorts of exile, physical and spiritual. Let us ask ourselves: what holds us back from reaching our goals, individual and communal? What are the external challenges? And which obstacles lie within ourselves?

In the coming weeks, as we focus on our Pesach cleaning and preparation, may we begin to find liberation from all that binds us.

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