Shemos: The Jew Returns Home

Sooner or later, we all grow up. For some, that transitional moment may slip by while others find their epiphany may accompany a smile, a tear, or a knowing nod. When does it happen? One might say it is the moment that one realizes there is no turning back. Consider the chap who looks at his old pictures and realizes that he doesn’t look like the guy sitting next to his wife. Or the fellow who realizes he is older than the baseball players he still follows (nebach). For me, and I suspect for others, it was the dry mouth – parched lips moment of my first-born son’s bris.

Shemos – the parsha , transitions us from parents to children and from children to nationhood; the up close and personal wave we rode with Yaakov and his children starkly shifts to a third person distance of a faceless nation seen through cold and calculating Paroh eyes: [Shemos, 1:9-10]

He said to his people, “Behold, the nation of the children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we are. Get ready, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase, and a war befall us, and they join our enemies and depart from the land.”

Ironically it is the first time we are called a nation[1] (am). For the moment, it is a miserable national existence

Shemos the book goes further. Its forty chapters express the ups and downs (but mostly ups) of a nation in formation. As they leave Mitzrayim for the desert experience, Bnei Yisrael receive the Torah, stray with the Golden Calf and build a Mishkan. In the process, they encounter challenges [marah, manna, and Amalek] and are introduced to basic civil [Mishpatim] and essential ritual law [Mishpatim/Ki Tisa].

One wonders however how it all ties together, in a word – what is the sefer’s essence? Our Rabbis give each book a name. Vayikra seems to fit [mostly] neatly into the priestly box [Toras Kohanim], Bamidbar underscores the desert experience, while Devarim is Moshe’s final recap drasha. But what is Shemos? One might be tempted to say that it’s all about liberation; Indeed, herein Ramban’s introductory words that grapple with our issue:

The book … was set apart for the story of the first exile … and the redemption from it

Chazal [The Rabbis] do call Shemos the sefer hageulah [as in Exodus]. The problem is that it does not seem to capture the whole Shemos story – for the book consists of 40 chapters, while Bnei Yisrael make their grand (sea-split) exit in chapter 15.

To Ramban once again we turn:
When they left Egypt, even though they came forth from the house of bondage, they were still considered exiles … entangled in the desert
Redemption is not simply freedom from, but must also be tachlitic (purposeful). In a world that craves to be free but knows not what to be or do with that very freedom, Moshe Rabbeinu’s tag line to Paroh waxes profound [Shemos, 7:16]

Shalach et ami v’ya’avduni – Send my nation, so that they shall serve Me

And so we understand Hashem’s words to Moshe at the burning bush:

And He said, “For I will be with you, …When you take the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.

Were Shemos to conclude prior to Bnei Yisrael receiving Torah, it might have been a book of freedom, but it certainly would not be the book of redemption. We may thus surmise that Shemos concludes with the receiving of the Torah, right?
Wrong! – That happens in chapter 24! Sixteen chapters yet remain between it and the finale. Shemos concludes with the mishkan [40:38]

For the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was on it by night, in the sight of all of Bnei Yisrael throughout all their journeys.

Once again we return to Ramban’s words for a fundamental definition of redemption

Now their exile was not completed … until the day they returned to their place and were restored to the status of their fathers… When they came to Har Sinai and made the mishkan and Hashem caused his Shechina to dwell amongst them.

In this rich and carefully worded Ramban, several nuggets emerge.

a. Getting the Torah was not enough - Har Sinai, where heaven met earth, is no longer holy. The Sinai experience fades; A simple human observation notes that it is possible to receive the Torah and yet go on to live a compartmentalized life. I”ll keep the Torah in the morning (daven and learn) and then move on to MY business in the afternoon. A stark truth compels us to realize that it is not Torah alone that we seek. We also need the mishkan experience …. For
b. … the mishkan represents an ongoing Sinai experience - In a classic Ramban analysis [cf. Shemos, 25:1] , he connects the two events. Both Mishkan and Sinai
i. … need to be guarded
ii. … have special lines of demarcation for different individuals
iii. … have a fiery exterior [fire and golden keruvim]
iv. … are centered around the Torah
v. … are described as the place of kavod Hashem
vi. … are described as the place of emanation of Hashem’s voice
These similarities bespeak a deep connection: Sinai was a one-time rendezvous with the Shechina while the mishkan is an ongoing dynamic place of relationship and intimacy. The mishkan then is a portable Har Sinai. You can take it with you.
c. The mishkan is a return to home. A classic Talmudic piece drives home the point [Ta’anis 26b]

On the day of his marriage’ this refers to the day of the giving of the Torah. ‘and in the day of the gladness of his heart:’ this refers to the building of the Temple.

When the Jew anchors a place for Torah in his normal private life, then he moves from the nostalgic wedding memory to consistent marital bliss.

Within this last mishkan=home notion, a subtle concluding comment of Ramban opens a more profound redemption insight:

they returned to [the status of] their fathers. Ha’avos hein hein hamerkavah. The Patriarchs [and Matriarchs] – they are the chariot.

First, consider that the three constant miracles adorning Sarah and Rivkah’s tent [the continuous cloud, candle and the ever-present blessing in the dough – cf. Bereishis Rabah 60] all find direct parallels in the Mishkan in the form of the ner tamid, the lechem hapanim and the ananaei hakavod (that hovered above the mishkan)[2]. While Ramban does not spell out the equation, it probably runs as follows: Because the Avos/Imahos saw and felt Hashem in every aspect of their life – they become the conduit of Godliness in the ultimate Jewish home – the mishkan/Beis HaMikdash.

Now, remember that Ramban had spoken about the Jew not being home even after they leave Mitzrayim, implying that full redemption would necessitate going back to Eretz Yisrael. Shemos the book however does not end with the Jew in Israel – yet the Ramban [and Chazal] still call it redemption? Ergo, returning home is not about geography but rather a return to one’s roots.

The circle is complete: After the Jews have grown up, emerged from Egypt as a nation with Torah and Mishkan – only then are they ready to return home. Redemption then is a return to one’s roots fully cognizant and newly appreciative of one’s inner value.[3]

In their days and in ours, many Jews make the most circuitous of journeys only to discover that there is no place like a Jewish home. May they and may we come home soon!

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1. Cf. Bereishi, 50:20 – but there it probably refers to Mitzrayim.

2. Remarkably the word tamid, the classic Torah term to describe constancy and consistency is employed for all three of these Mishkan miracles – resonating Sarah and Rivkah’s spiritual energy.

שמות פרק כה (ל) ונתת על השלחן לחם פנים לפני תמיד שמות פרק כז (כ) ואתה תצוה את בני ישראל ויקחו אליך שמן זית זך כתית למאור להעלת נר תמיד: במדבר פרק ט (טו) וביום הקים את המשכן כסה הענן את המשכן לאהל העדת ובערב … (טז) כן יהיה תמיד הענן יכסנו ומראה אש לילה

3. In the same sense, we speak of the redemption of a field – when it returns back to its ancestral owners [geulah tihiyeh la’aretz]