By Rabbi Alex Freedman.
Precisely what was the moment when the Exodus from Egypt was complete? I think most people would answer that the Israelites’ crossing the split sea was the finish line. That physical border marked the transition in identity from slaves to free people.
But it goes deeper than that, says our tradition. A number of years ago I was a rabbi in New Jersey when I shared that the Exodus was truly complete only when the Jews received the Torah at Sinai 7 weeks later. We know this anniversary as the holiday of Shavuot, which is connected to Passover in a deep way: from the second night of Passover, Shavuot is exactly 7 weeks later, which demonstrates the deep connection between the two. The Jewish people began their physical liberation at Passover but became spiritually free only at Sinai when they received the Torah. Why? Because a people without a constitution is not a society but a mass prone to anarchy. The Torah is the Jewish people’s constitution, which outlines our holidays, values, memories, and norms. Expressing these marked the next step toward freedom.
When I shared this in New Jersey, we happened to be joined by a scholar in residence from JTS. Professor Ben Sommer was most recently from Chicago, and is a standout Bible professor. And he moved the finish line back even further than I did.
He says that it’s our portions this week – Vayakhel and Pekudei – that truly complete the story of the Exodus. This is obvious from a technical standpoint – these two portions conclude the second book of the Torah, the Book of Exodus. But this is true thematically as well. He says the goal of the Exodus was not only to liberate the Jewish people but to make G-d’s presence manifest in the world. And it is in these Torah readings when the Mishkan/Tabernacle was finally complete. Of course the Tabernacle served as the sanctuary, the physical manifestation of the spiritual relationship between G-d and the Israelites. It was in this space that G-d’s presence was most felt and obvious. In other words, G-d’s presence was felt in the world in a way that it simply could not be when Israel was enslaved.
I compare it to the feeling of returning home from a trip out of town. What is the moment when you ‘return home’? On one level, it’s the moment when you enter the front door again. That feels wonderful. But you are still tired and clutching your bags. The moment you are truly home is when you put your things down, sit on the couch, hug your family, and finally take a breath. In other words, it’s not a moment but a process.
The same was true for the Israelites: freedom was a process, and completing the sanctuary was an important step.