The Cloud, the Fire and the Voice - Torah Portion Pekudei
The Cloud, the Fire and the Voice
Thoughts on Torah Portion Pekudei
Rabbi Mordecai Finley, Ph. D.
The fire that appeared in the burning bush on Mt. Sinai at the beginning of the book of Exodus never returned to the bush. The angel that spoke out of the heart of the fire in the bush never returned there, either.
The God who appeared to Moses at Mt. Sinai to charge Moses with the redemption of the people did return to Mt. Sinai, in whatever sense God can concentrate the divine presence to appear in one place or another. After the Mishkan was built, however, God no longer spoke from Sinai. The mountain went the way of the bush. No longer needed.
The end of this week’s Torah portion marks the moment when the fire moves from the bush and the mountain to the Mishkan. The fire hid itself inside the cloud that filled the Ohel Mo’ed, and was only apparent at night. The voice of God moved into the Mishkan, speaking from between the keruvim on top of the ark at the center of the Mishkan, as we see in next week’s Torah portion.
Whatever else the Mishkan was built for, it was built to house the cloud, the fire and the voice.
What was the Miskhan built of? Essentially, generosity, wisdom, discernment, knowledge, and every fine craft. Weaving, carving, cutting, shaping, and assembling according to a blueprint in the mind of God. All for beauty (tiferet), and to evoke the mystical presence of God (kavod).
We don’t know for sure why these details exactly were assembled to create this version of tiferet and kavod, but we do know how architectural details work, in general. Just search images for “beautiful buildings” (especially religious ones) and be ready to be stunned all over again by the physics and physicality of humanly shaped beauty, music rendered into matter, taking shape in time and space.
The tragedies and particularities of Jewish history and culture have pressed our rendering of the flame, the cloud and the voice mostly into music and words – holy playing and singing, holy texts and holy talks. Our liturgy, rightly sung, creates a cathedral. “Cathedral” is from the Latin word for “chair,” itself from the Greek root “to bring down” – in Jewish imagery, the bringing of the Merkava (the divine throne) and all the heavenly hosts, the singing angels, into the earthly realm. The spoken word captures the divine Word (Aramaic “memra”) and it is rendered into human speech, the “Woerte” as the Hasidic rabbis called it.
The precision of the planks, the curtains, the rods, the menorah, the altars, the tables, the ark, the keruvim are like notes of a song, the words of holy speech. The sung and spoken words of the Mishkan that we build together are not finished for others to gaze upon and enter. The notes and words must be sung and said continuously, like a Ner Tamid, the eternal flame. Our hearts create the sanctuary into which the cloud, the fire and the voice are housed, into which holy song and holy words are sounded. Every time we assemble, to sing, to listen, to learn, we are reassembling the Miskhan, from our wisdom, discernment and knowledge, from our generosity of heart, from our weaving of every fine craft that the human spirit can shape.