Rabbi Yair Robinson
This shabbat we conclude the reading of the book of Exodus, and as we know, when we conclude, we say ‘chazak chazak v’nitchazeik’: be strong, be strong and let us strengthen one another. I do not know that any of us feel especially strong, 12 months into what was supposed to be a couple of weeks in our homes. And it is almost exactly 12 months since the last time we had services in person, though even then, we were socially distancing, trying to avoid not having anyone in the sanctuary, as we have now done for so long.
It is worth noting, then, how the book ends. Moses finishes setting up the Mishkan, the tabernacle, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness. Everything complete, everything put into place…and then does not go in. He cannot, because a cloud descends upon the Mishkan, keeping him out. As you might imagine, this sends the traditional commentators into a lather. How could Moses, the archetypal prophet, who can speak to God face to face, who stood on Sinai amidst the cloud, and yet who was also raised in Pharaoh’s palace, not be allowed into the Mishkan? Their writings are instructive. The Medieval commentator Rashi imagines that Moses, ever the humble, polite servant, does not want to overreach, and is simply waiting to be invited in. The Talmud imagines God grabbing Moses, as if by the lapels, and pulling him in. The Midrash gives us a beautiful reflection, connecting this end of the book with the first words of the next book, Leviticus. It says: The Holy One, blessed be, said, “It is not right for Moses, since he made the tabernacle, to stand outside while I stand inside; so look, I am calling upon him to enter.” Therefore, it is written in Lev. 1:1, “Then the Eternal called Moses.”
As I was reflecting on these texts, I was thinking of how differently this text reads today than it would have 12 months ago. The whole question of inviting someone in or being invited, takes on an entirely different meaning today, with significantly different implications. On some level, we are Moses, waiting to be invited in. Sometimes patiently, sometimes with profound frustration, but always with a longing, and perhaps a despair. How many moments of intimacy and closeness have been lost this year? We want to be invited, we want to invite, but the cloud of illness and fear settles over one another’s homes, stopping us from entering. You would think that now, as vaccinations increase, as the numbers decrease or at least flatten, as the weather warms up, we might feel more hopeful. But I suspect many of us feel as if we have been and continue to be running on a circular track, where the finish line continues to move just out of reach. It is hard to know when the cloud will ever lift, and when we, like Israel, will be able to move forward.
In this sense, the Midrash, the same Midrash I shared earlier, says something interesting in the very next line. After sharing that verse from Leviticus, “God Called to Moses”, the Midrash reads, “Ergo, greater is the strength of the tzadikim, the righteous, in that they are able to hear The Divine voice!” Moses is not the first to feel trapped outside, exiled, apart from holiness and love, and neither are we. And the Midrash, like the words we say at the end of reading a book of Torah, suggests that this is a moment of strength, a strength that is found through listening. Listening? Listening to what? Listening as Moses does at the entrance to the Mishkan for God’s call to be sure, and we are all doing that, but another kind of listening as well; the listening as God for Moses’ desire to enter. Moses never says, “let me in!”, at least not in this text, but he does not have to. God knows he is out there and anticipates the need. We need to do that too, listening for what is not said. That means reaching out even more to one another. Look, I know we are all zoomed out; I am too. But the phone call, the text message, the social media post, the drive-by wave and hello, the reminder that we are loved and are sacred, is even more important now as we wait desperately for the “all clear”, than perhaps it was a year ago.
Pesach is coming, and we are disappointed. Last year we thought, ‘this year in person’, and we are not there yet. We are impatient as we wait for our turn to be vaccinated, our chance to enter one another’s presence again. But our text teaches that the cloud will lift. It will lift. And until it does, let us listen for the call, the unspoken call from those we love, to reach out and support them, and bring them strength. In this way, may we strengthen one another, until we can be invited in again. Kein Yehi Ratzon.