Not Quite Open for Business

Rabbi Dr. Darrel Ginsberg

The buildup to the grand finale – that’s the best way to sum up much of the content of Parshas Pikudei. The Torah reviews in detail the final phase of construction and assemblage, ending with the mishkan being open for business, so to speak. At the end of it all, though, the Torah goes out of its way to make a point that seems completely out of place, and certainly disheartening to those searching for that celebratory conclusion. The mishkan was, at long last, completed but its doors would remain shut.

 The Torah concludes its construction with the following (Shemos 40:33):

 “He set up the enclosure around the mishkan and the altar, and put up the screen at the enclosure's entrance, and thus Moshe completed the work.”

After this culmination, the Torah immediately tells us (ibid 34-35):

“The cloud (anan) covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory (kavod) of Hashem filled the mishkan. Moshe was unable to enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud rested on it, and the glory of Hashem filled the mishkan.”

The Torah then explains the second role of this cloud. When the cloud would rise up above the mishkan, Bnai Yisrael would begin to travel. As long as it remained hovering above the mishkan, Bnai Yisrael would be consigned to their present place (the purpose of the cloud in the travels of the nation is for a different article).

It seems there were two distinct “manifestations” of the presence of God in two locations, meaning the ohel moed and the mishkan. Many commentaries maintain that the ohel moed and the mishkan were overlapping places, which is the simpler way to understand the verses (there are others who maintain the ohel moed was a completely separate place from the mishkan). Regardless of whether these two places coincided physically or not, the juxtaposition of the two in the above verses implies some type of thematic tie-in. This reading of the verses would imply that the cloud covered over the mishkan entirely, while the kavod Hashem, contained within the cloud, filled the entire mishkan. What was this kavod Hashem? 

The Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 1:64) explains that the term “kavod Hashem”, or any use of kavod in reference to God, has numerous meanings. For example, when Moshe asks from God (Shemos 33:18) “hareini nah es kevodecha”, he was asking to understand the essence of God. Therefore, in that instance, the kavod refers to the essence of God. In the case of the mishkan, he explains that the kavod Hashem was a light created by God to delineate the importance of that specific place. Therefore, the kavod Hashem referred to in the above verses meant some type of light that was emanating from the mishkan, seen through the surrounding cloud. 

We see a clear example of this at the revelation at Sinai. The Torah (Shemos 24:16) relates how the kavod Hashem rested on Har Sinai, with the anan enveloping it for six days. On the seventh day, God called out to Moshe to enter into the anan, where he then received the Torah. Taking the Rambam’s interpretation, this would mean the cloud covered the mountain and the light emanated from within it. 

The Talmud (Yoma 4b) actually ties together the two events, meaning the cloud/kavod with the mishkan and with Har Sinai. There is an apparent contradiction regarding access into this cloud. On the one hand, it says that Moshe was unable to enter the mishkan due to the presence of the anan. Yet at Har Sinai, Moshe is able to walk right in - “And Moshe entered into the cloud…” (Shemos 24:18).  The answer offered is that God took Moshe and brought him into the cloud; the implication here is that without God’s intervention, Moshe was not able to enter any place where the cloud was present.  Why couldn’t Moshe enter into the cloud based on his own volition?

Let’s first address what the cloud and light both represent. Obviously, God could choose any means of manifestation. The choice of a cloud and light cannot be random, but must reflect some type of idea. A cloud and light are actually ideal representations as they share a common feature. They both exist within the physical world, able to be seen, yet lack any physicality – nobody can “touch” light or “feel” a cloud. God is not physical, so there is no means of physically representing Him. Yet there are times when God chooses to reveal Himself to the nation, and the people need a means of identifying God’s presence. The choice of these two entities reflects the need for the manifestation to be observable, yet still intangible (there are other instances throughout the Torah where these two are used). Looking deeper than this, one can see an interesting and subtle dichotomy that exists when studying a cloud versus light. One can see a cloud – yet one cannot see through it. It is impenetrable to our eyes, giving it the ability to obscure that which might be contained within it. On the other hand, light serves to illuminate, increasing our vision. (As the Rambam points out, the purpose of the light in the context of kavod Hashem was to delineate the place of the mishkan.) So, we have one manifestation that obscures, while the other serves to illuminate – two conflicting purposes. How do we understand their union together, as manifest both in the mishkan and at Har Sinai.

One possible explanation is that the characteristics of these two serve to teach us a crucial formula that applies to our approach in learning the wisdom of God. A college student, taking his first class in, for example, French literature, would naturally approach the subject matter without any intellectual restrictions. His goal would be mastering the area, and he would not have any inherent sense of limitation in his pursuit of this knowledge. The sky’s the limit, so to speak. This approach cannot be taken when it comes to studying chachmas Hashem. When a person enters into this arena, he must have one fact clear in his mind – this is an area that contains no potential for mastery. It is inherent in our very existence, as a created being, that we cannot in anyway have any positive knowledge about the Creator, nor somehow master His infinite wisdom. This does not mean we cannot appreciate and gain insight into chachmas Hashem. When we study the universe around us, from vast galaxies to the subatomic world, the very analysis is a study of that which God created. There is no finality to this pursuit, though. Ultimately, there is no knowledge of God Himself that is possible for any of us to attain. On the other hand, there is the definitive knowledge we have of His existence, the reality that is the cornerstone of our faith. While we may not be able to perceive Him, we know Him to be true. 

This could very well be the tie in between the cloud and the light. When these manifestations take place, they serve as vehicles to engage in the study of God. The examples above prove this point. At Har Sinai, we were receiving the derech Hashem, the way of life set up to bring us to the highest state of perfection. The same can be said of the mishkan. As Rabeinu Channanel (Shemos 25:23) points out, each measurement of each vessel used in the mishkan was a source of chachmas Hashem, and each contained limitless concepts to draw from. This is the approach we must have when studying the mishkan, and it can help understand how the cloud and light work together. The cloud obscured the mishkan from clear view – indicating to the nation that there were inherent limitations preventing their complete understanding of the infinite chachma of it. On the other hand, there was the light inside, indicating the reality of God’s existence. Yet we can never see the light directly – just like we can never have any positive knowledge of God.  

This would also help clarify the answer offered in the Talmud. Moshe Rabbeinu was the greatest human to walk the earth, the epitome of knowledge and perfection. Yet as a created being, he was bound by the same limitations as we are. To allow Moshe to “walk in” to the cloud would imply that man has the capability to penetrate the depths of God’s wisdom. God brings Moshe into the cloud – and in doing so relays the message that it was only with God’s assistance that man was capable of entering into this realm of knowledge. 

The message then was quite clear. The physical structure of mishkan indeed was completed. Yet without the proper approach, demonstrated through the idea of the cloud and the light, it was conceptually inaccessible.