The Torah portion for Sunday 6th March is called Pekudei meaning “Counting” is from Exodus 38-40: it calls us to be accountable and totally transparent for the funding of the Tabernacle and completes our study of Exodus. The New Testament Reading includes Romans 8:28.
However I am going to explore this week, firstly the cause of the great sin of the golden calf and secondly the Cloud of His Presence.
Exodus 32:4 states, regarding the golden calf, that the people said, “This, Israel, is your god who brought you out of Egypt.” But it also says that they sought after a golden calf because they did not know what had happened to Moses. It’s all a bit of a mystery. Did they build the golden calf to replace Moses or God? What was the cause of their sin?
The previous chapter implied that the people panicked because of the absence of Moses, their leader. God himself implied as much when he said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. ”Exodus 32:7 Aaron was left in charge but he was not a leader – he was anointed High Priest in Exodus 7:1. This is a good lesson for us, when we step out from under our anointing or covet someone else’s anointed gifting, “watch out” all hell can break loose.
The suggestion is that Moses’ absence or distance was the cause of the sin. He should have stayed closer to the people. Moses took the point. He did go down. He did punish the guilty. He did pray for God to forgive the people. That was the theme of chapter 32. But in chapter 33, having restored order to the people, Moses now began on an entirely new line of approach. He was, in effect, saying to God: what the people need is not for me to be close to them. I am just a man, here today, gone tomorrow. But You are eternal. You are their God. They need You to be close to them.
Until now, the people had experienced God as a terrifying, elemental force, delivering plague after plague to the Egyptians, bringing the world’s greatest empire to its knees, dividing the sea and overturning the very order of nature itself. At Mount Sinai, hearing God’s voice was so overwhelming that they said, if we continue to hear the voice, ‘we will die.’” Exodus 20:16
God said if they touched Mount Sinai they would die. They had experienced the very great terror of God but not His intimate closeness. They were afraid of the God they heard in the thunder and lightning at the top of the mountain. They were crying out for a perpetual presence in the valley below, so they built the golden calf because they didn’t have Moses or God in their midst.
We are looking at a moment of national crisis where God was angry because of the golden calf, the people were traumatized and the whole nation was in disarray and Moses asked God to see His glory!
God had just announced that “I will not go with you because you are a stiff necked people” Ex 33:3 – He says He will send an angel instead.” Exodus 33:2 At this, the people were deeply distressed. They “went into mourning.” Exodus 33:4
Moses, then leaves the people and pitches the tent of meeting outside the camp which must have been doubly demoralizing. You would have thought that at a time of deep collective distress, as the leader he should have been close to the people, not distant.
But when Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance while the Lord spoke to Moses face to face.
In verse 14 God says to Moses, “My presence will go with you.” Moses responds “If Your presence does not go with us, do not make us leave this place.”
To this, God replied in a highly structured way. First, He said, you cannot understand My ways. “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy. There is always going to be something that we just do not understand about God. His ways are higher than our ways.
We do not know what other people are thinking let alone God. He also says, “You cannot see My face, for no one can see Me and live. However, God says you can see My “glory”. That is what Moses asked for once he realized that he could never know God’s “ways” or see His “face”. That is what God caused to pass by as Moses stood “in a cleft of the rock” (v. 22). Perhaps God is saying to us that we can only see God’s glory and presence in a situation in our lives in retrospect. Only by looking back over our lives do we realize how God had intervened.
Moses removed his tent and pitched it outside the camp as if to say to God: it is not my presence the people need in their midst, but Yours. That is what Moses asked for once he realized that he could never know God’s “ways” or see His “face”. That is what God caused to pass by as Moses stood “in a cleft of the rock” (v. 22). We do not know at this stage exactly what is meant by God’s glory, but we discover this at the very end of the book of Exodus. Chapters 35-40 describe how the Israelites built the Tabernacle. When it is finished and assembled, we read this:
”Then the cloud of His Presence covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle”. Exodus 40: 34-35
We now understand the entire drama set in motion by the making of the golden calf that led God to draw Himself closer to His people. You see how “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose”. Rom 8:28
Moses pleaded with God to come closer to the people, so that they would encounter Him not only through the miracles in Egypt, manna from heaven and water from the rock but regularly, on a daily basis. Not only as a force that threatens to obliterate them and all it touches, but as a Presence that can be sensed in the heart of the camp.
That is why God commanded Moses to instruct the people to build the Tabernacle. It is what He meant when He said: “Let them make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.” The Tabernacle was the Divine response to the sin of the golden calf, and an acceptance by God of Moses’ plea that He come close to the people. We cannot see God’s face; we cannot understand God’s ways; but we can encounter God’s glory whenever we build a home, on earth, for the cloud of His Presence.
That is what the building of the sanctuary was about: how to bring God, as it were, from heaven to earth, or at least from the top of the mountain down into the valley, from the remote God of awe-inspiring power to the Shechinah, the indwelling Presence, God as a Father, intimate, close, within the camp, in the midst of His children.
The whole story mirrors the beginning of creation by God for man….. with the Creation of the Tabernacle by man for God. Let me show you…
And God saw all that He had made and behold it was very good. Genesis (1:31)
Moses saw all the skilled work of the Tabernacle Exodus (39:43)
And God completed all the work that He had done. (2:2)
And Moses completed the work. (40:33)
And God blessed creation… (2:3)
And Moses blessed the Tabernacle… (39:43)
And God sanctified creation. (2:3)
And you shall sanctify it and all its vessels. (40:9)
Clearly the Torah wants us to connect the birth of the universe with the building of the Tabernacle, but why?
What it means is that a narrative reaches a certain kind of closure when the end takes us back to the beginning – which is precisely what happens at the end of Exodus. It reminds us, quite precisely, of the beginning of all beginnings, when God created, out of space, a space for man on earth. Now we see the Israelites have done the creating with their gifts, their labour and their skills.
To put it simply: Genesis begins with God creating the universe as a home for man and Exodus ends with man creating the Sanctuary as a home for God on earth.
So, for six days a week – the days that are secular– God makes space for us to be creative and to work. On the seventh day, the day that is holy, we make space for God by acknowledging that we are His creations. And what applies in time - applies also in space. There are secular places where we pursue our own purposes and there are holy places where we open ourselves fully and without reserve, to God’s purposes.
For example, the happiest marriages are those in which each spouse makes space for the other to be his or her-self. Great parents make space for their children. Great leaders make space for their followers. Great teachers make space for their pupils.
They are there when needed, but they don’t crush or inhibit or try to dominate. They practice self-limitation, so that others have the space to grow. That is how God created the universe, and it is how we allow others to fill our lives with their glory.
The highest achievement is not self-promotion but self-limitation: making space for something that is different from us – to promote another and not ourselves.
Notes from Rabbi Sacks on The Shekinah Glory – Adar II