Friday, March 07, 2008

Parashat Pikudei

By Shira D. Epstein
Verse Per Verse

Parshat Pikudei offers an elaborate telling of the building of the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites carried with them throughout their desert journeys. This mobile temple, which housed the Ark, served as a spiritual centerpiece for the Israelites throughout their wanderings. The narrative within Pikudei picks up where Va-Yakhel left off, describing every detail of the Israelites’ individual and collective contributions to the Tabernacle’s design and furnishings, including such minutiae as the sockets for the curtains, the covering made of dolphin skins, and the gold alter of incense. The six- chapter chronicle culminates with the descent of a cloud upon the Tabernacle.

JPS offers the following translation of verses 34-37:

Vs 34: “When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.

Vs. 35: “Moses couldn’t enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it and the presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.

Vs. 36: “When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys.

Vs. 37: “But if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift.

As I read through these four verses, I noticed that the JPS translation positions all actions of the cloud within active voice. This grammatical choice suggests that the cloud has agency; the cloud is God, and therefore, can come and leave at will. Cloud-as-God is all-powerful, deciding the daily actions of the Israelites, dictating whether they would set out on their journeys, or sit tight and play a waiting game. The commentary in the Etz Hayim translation supports this interpretation of the verses, offering that the cloud is a “tangible symbol of God’s abiding presence in their midst” that is “guiding and controlling its destiny.”

Many other translations of Verse 37 echo the JPS and Etz Hayim vision of the cloud as a manifestation of God:

• God’s Word Translation: “if the column didn’t move”

• Douay- Rheims: “If it hung over”

• Young’s Literal Translation: “If the cloud go not up”

These three translations represent a widely accepted the vision of the cloud as embodiment of God, which decides at-will whether or not to “move,” “hang,” or “ascend.” However, I found a few translations that diverge from this dominant perspective: World English Bible, New American Standard, and Webster’s Bible Translation offer, instead, “if the cloud was not taken up.” This nuanced grammatical choice to utilize passive voice suggests that the cloud is not one-in-the same as God. How could it be, if it was “taken up?” Who else could “take it up,” except for God? The translation implies that God operates the pulley that either draws the cloud up to the heavens, or down to the People.

I imagine that the outlook of the cloud-as-God must have offered a less complicated theological view for the People. After all, if the cloud-as-God has the power to decide to stay or leave on whimsy, all the people need to do is check the local weather report to know what has been predetermined for the day’s travels, the cloud has control over their activities. In contrast, if there was any possibility that the cloud was not God, might it be that even if God does operate as cosmic stage manager, if the Israelites woke up in the morning with the “travel bug” or a yen for adventure rather than nesting at home, they might have to actually do something, such as request that God move the cloud so they might continue with their journeys?

I find myself wondering why it is so hard for humans to accept that we can simultaneously believe that God is present in our lives and at the same time we can chart the direction for our present-day “wanderings” and “journeys.” Despite the popularity and buy-in to belief system proposed in books such as “The Secret,” “The Laws of Attraction,” and “Creative Visualization” we are still quite skeptical of the idea that we can shape the course of our day by waking up in the morning and saying aloud or intentions for what we want and what we need, while at the very same time, maintaining perfect faith that what we need is already manifesting.

I am more drawn to the second set of translations. They offer to us the hope that even when we wake up in the morning and see the clouds hanging, we can do more than sit and wait for them to lift. I offer a modification to the Etz Hayim commentary: I suggest that indeed, the cloud can serve as a symbol of God’s presence that, rather than controlling our own destiny, encourages us to visualize and articulate what we imagine as the ideal journey for our day. We need not passively accept these clouds as “fate” - as “beshert” and “predetermined.” We need not stop and wait for the cloud to decide to ascend. We can be active partners in enabling its ascent.

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