Benjamin West's "Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant" (Image/Wikimedia Commons)
Benjamin West's "Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant" (Image/Wikimedia Commons)

All systems go! How the Jews began their takeoff in Exodus

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Exodus 38:21–40:38

In many ways, the Book of Exodus is the magnum opus of the Jews. While the Book of Genesis describes the very first Jews — the patriarchs, the matriarchs, their children and the complicated web of their relationships — only in Exodus do the Jewish people and Judaism truly emerge.

The book opens with a narrative of misery and oppression. After many generations of favored status and growth in Egypt, the Israelites are enslaved by a new pharaoh “who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8) and who ruthlessly degrades and demeans them through harsh labor.

Most of us know what happens next through the Passover Haggadah that we read every spring. God sends Moses and his brother Aaron to confront Pharaoh and demand their people’s release. When Pharoah refuses, God punishes the Egyptians with a series of Ten Plagues.

Pharaoh finally relents, the Jewish people are freed and, after some final drama, the Israelites cross the Sea of Reeds and begin their 40-year journey through the wilderness of Sinai.

Everything then occurs in stages. Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, a Midianite priest, helps to establish a judiciary. This represents, in essence, the birth of a civil society for the people of Israel. Having been former slaves, now they have an organized legal system by which to resolve conflicts and live in peace with each other.

When God reveals the Ten Commandments two chapters later, this represents the birth of the Jewish religion. In Genesis, the covenant between God and the Jewish people is largely inchoate; now, there are clear, concrete rules, rituals, holy days and practices that define Judaism.

The Torah next turns to the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, and all of the sacred furnishings within it. And then, finally, God formalizes and ordains the Jewish priesthood, made up of Aaron, the high priest, and his four sons.

Toward the very end of the Book of Exodus, the Jewish people now have a social system, a legal system and a spiritual system in place. They are no longer just a ragtag band of ex-slaves, but a new nation, a religious civilization that will introduce ethical monotheism to the world.

The final Torah portion in this foundational biblical book is Pekudei (Ex. 38:21-40:38). Unlike the grandeur and scope of the epic story above, it focuses instead at the start on something much more mundane: Moses taking an inventory of the metals associated with the Tabernacle.

Later in the parashah, the priestly vestments are assembled, the Tabernacle is completed and inspected, and then the Mishkan is dedicated in an elaborate public ceremony.

The text tells us that when all of this work was at last finished, and after all of the rituals had been properly performed, something transcendent occurs: “the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.” (Ex. 40:34)

This image is reminiscent of the revelation at Sinai, where God’s presence appears on the mountain, along with a thick cloud and smoke. The parallelism is striking. The Tabernacle will become a “portable Sinai” for the Israelites, a vessel for the divine and a reminder that God will always be with them, wherever they travel.

At the end of the parashah, God leads the Israelites forward on their long and arduous journey. When the cloud lifts, the people follow it; when it does not lift, they remain in their camp. At night, the cloud is illuminated by fire for all to see.

God reassures them. God will guide and protect them.

The Book of Exodus, the Biblical text that opens with so much darkness and misery, now closes on a note of confidence and newfound hope. After this remarkable transformation, the next three books of the Torah will take the Jewish people to the very threshold of the Promised Land.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa Valley and the founding rabbi of the New Shul in New York City. He is also the author or editor of several books including "Gonzo Judaism" and "God at the Edge."