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Saturday 13th March 2021 29th Adar 5781


Exodus 35:1 -40:38; Ezekiel 45:16 – 46:18; Luke 22:1 - 13


“I don’t believe in organized religion.” That’s a common response when we try to talk about faith with someone who’s unaffiliated. If I’m talking with someone about Messianic Judaism in particular, I might respond, “Don’t worry, we’re not that organized.”

This rejection of organized religion usually rests on the assumption that faith and spirituality are, and should be, intensely personal, that it’s up to each person to discover his or her own way to worship, and that all these matters are best kept private. But what we see in Exodus, the Torah’s preeminent book of worship, would seem to be the exact opposite.

Worship in Hebrew is avodah, which is also the word for service or labor. Israel has served Pharaoh, and now they will serve God. We might even say that Israel has worshiped Pharaoh—the verb is the same in Hebrew—and now they will worship God. They have devoted their time, abilities, and energies to the glory of Pharaoh, and now they must devote their time, abilitie

s, and energies to the glory of God. Pharaoh, however, believes the people must serve him, so Hashem instructs Moses to tell him, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Let my people go, that they may serve me’” (8:20 [16]).

Here in three Hebrew words we have the theme of the entire book of Exodus: Shalach ami v’ya’avduni—“Let my people go, that they may serve [worship] me.” The first half of this phrase, Shalach ami, “let my people go,” describes the first half of Exodus, in which the God of Israel forces Pharaoh to release his people. This ha

lf concludes with the arrival at Mount Sinai. The second half, v’ya’avduni, “that they may worship me,” begins with the encounter at Sinai and details the building of the tabernacle, where Israel will worship the Lord, who dwells in their midst.

At first, this part of Exodus looks like religion at its most organized. The instructions for worship, for building the tabernacle and all its equipment, and for inaugurating the priesthood are extensive. Nothing is left to human inventio

n, as Hashem tells Moses: “Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it” (Exod 25:9).

The structure of the narrative itself underscores the gravity and precision of making the tabernacle: Seven chapters, Exodus 25–31, are given to instructions for building, culminating with a reminder to keep Shabbat; five chapters, Exodus 35–39, begin with another reminder about Shabbat and detail the assembly of the components of the tabernacle and the clothing of the priests; o

ne final chapter, Exodus 40, portrays the actual construction.

All this may seem like organized religion to the max . . . until we hear the end of the story.

So Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up fro

m over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys. (Exod 40:33b–38)

Note the poetry of these final verses. In each verse, the word “cloud” appears, with the defining phrase, “the cloud of the Lord,” in the final verse. In addition, the phrase “glory of the Lord” appears twice, for a total of seven mentions of the divine presence. Seven, of course, is the number of perfection, and the tabernacle is perfected only now as the glory-cloud fills it. To underline this truth the identical phrase, “and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle,” is stated twice.

To understand true worship, we need to pay attention to one additional phrase here: “Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled

on it.” No matter how organized the religion of Exodus may be, it is in the end mysterious. God reveals his ways and his instructions, but remains always beyond our understanding, always other and more than all we know and all we might experience. At the heart of true worship is always mystery, today as in the days of Moses.

When I outlined the final section of Exodus above, I left out three chapters, Exodus 32–34, which recount the worship of the golden calf and the restoration of the covenant afterward. Like its whole context, this section is also about worship, and also in a way about organized religion, but it’s organized by human design, not by divine revelation.

We might

call it religion that is managed, in contrast with the religion that is mysterious.

Worship of the golden calf is managed worship, a human initiative to resolve a pervasive human problem, uncertainty and the resultant fear. “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, ‘Up, make us gods who shall go before us . . .’” (Exod 32:1a). The calf reflects a human concept of deity, and human creativity gone amok, as “the people had broken loose” (Exod 32:25). Its worship ends in chaos, but at its core it is managed, limited to human definitions and serving human desires. It lacks the mystery that defines true worship.

Today, we live in an increasingly man-made world, a world intent on elevating the human a

bove the divine, on putting the divine at the service of the human. We live with values no longer based on “We” but on “I,” as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, zt”l, describes in his recent book Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times. The I-centered worldview rejects what it calls organized religion in favor of a person-centered, self-exalting private religion that can be customized according to individual needs and preferences. Religion as accessory—it’s a lot more comfortable than the mysterious religion revealed in Scripture, but in the end it leaves us as solitary and isolated selves.

The great project of worship in Exodus began with a command: “And let them ma

ke me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst” (Exod 25:8). The final scene of Exodus reminds us that even as God dwells in our midst, he remains always beyond us. Even as God dwells amid his people through the presence of Messiah Yeshua, our worship remains ultimately mysterious, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12). In the meantime, we embrace the mysterious, even as we worship the God who is present among us.

[thank you, Rabbi Russ, for these words. I have often stated that liturgy does not quench the move of the Spirit. Scripture is clear; it is sin that quenches the Spirit and grieves the heart of God]


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