Exile and the Mishkan
Vayakhel-Pekudei (Exodus 35-40 )
This week we end the book of Shmot (Exodus). In light of this, I would like to analyze the Ramban's introduction to the book of Shmot and see his startling insights.
The Ramban introduces each of the Five Books with a synopsis statement about the major themes in each Book. The following is from Ramban's introduction to Shmot:
"...After He finished the story of Creation (in the Book of Genesis) He began a Book about the first Exile, which was previously decreed (with the Covenant to Abraham), and the Redemption from it. The Exile is not completed until the day that they (i.e. Israel) return to their place and to the elevated level of their Forefathers. So when they left Egypt, even though they had left the house of slavery, they were still considered to be in exile. For they were in a land not their own, wandering in the wilderness. And when they arrived at Mt. Sinai, and made the Mishkan, and God returned (after the Golden Calf sin) and rested His Spirit on them, then they returned to the elevated level of their Forefathers. When the Shechina of God was resting in their tents, and they (Israel) are the Merkava ("Chariot" – mystical term for being God's base in the world), then they were considered Redeemed. That is why the Book (of Exodus) ends with the construction of the Tabernacle - when God's Glory filled it continuously."
WHAT IS RAMBAN SAYING?
The Ramban is explaining the message of the whole Book of Exodus. It begins with the Exile in Egypt and ends with the details of the Mishkan.
So far, so good. Now let us question and analyze the Ramban's words.
Ramban says the true redemption is for the Jews to be in their own place and reach the spiritual level of their Forefathers.
Read closely his words and ask a question (or two).
QUESTIONING THE RAMBAN
A Question: Ramban makes a point that leaving Egypt and its slavery was not yet a total redemption, because the Jews were not yet in their own place. I would assume he means, not yet in the Land of Israel. But then, how could the redemption be complete (at the end of the Book), as it is according to Ramban, if they had a Mishkan but they were not yet in the Land of Israel?
It also seems that the Ramban says the highest level of redemption is when the Jews are on a high spiritual level ("the level of the Forefathers").
With this in mind, ask another question:
A SECOND QUESTION
A Question: Why wasn't the culmination of spiritual achievement the Revelation at Sinai? This would certainly seem to the pinnacle of human spiritual achievement. The Book could have ended at that climax. Why then the need to continue with the Mishkan - wouldn't it seem to be anti-climactic?
Can you think of some answers?
An Answer: It would seems that when the Ramban says "The Exile is not completed until the day that they (i.e. Israel) return to their place", he does not mean to the Land of Israel; he means a "spiritual place." Notice the Ramban says "to their place," and not "to their Land." This is really striking. The Ramban was an ardent lover of Zion - he came to live in Eretz Israel the last years of his life. Yet living in Israel is not, in and of itself, the pinnacle of spiritual achievement. That was achieved in the wilderness since the Place of God's in-dwelling was there.
As to our second question: Why isn't Sinai Revelation considered the peak spiritual achievement, even more than the Mishkan?
An Answer: The reason seems to be: granted that the Revelation was a peak experience, but it was not the normal daily experience. The true spiritual goal, according to the Ramban, is having God live with us day in and day out. To have His Shechina with us "continuously" (the Ramban's last word). To have God with us in our normal, day by day, living. This is the peak even more than Sinai. And it can be achieved even without living in Eretz Yisrael. (A personal note: I live in Jerusalem over 30 years, so I'm not looking for an "out.") And it can be achieved mainly in our own homes, "tents." The Ramban says "Shechina of God was resting in their tents."
The message is both startling and enlightening. Neither Mt. Sinai nor the Land of Israel are the elements necessary for the highest spiritual achievement, according to Ramban. Of course, both are helpful and in a certain sense, necessary, but we reach the Torah's heights in our daily life when God is dwelling within us. This Israel achieved in the wilderness living with the Mishkan in their midst.