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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

Parashat Pekudei - Facing the Uncertainty

Updated: Jul 12

In Parashat Pekudei, B’nei Yisrael completed the construction of the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle that will serve as God’s home on Earth and the place where the Israelites will worship the Eternal. Finishing this task at this point in the journey in the wilderness is a bit odd: in the wake up the upheaval surrounding the golden calf, this great breakdown in trust between the people, Moses, and God - how can the Israelites build a structure whose essence is meant to provide a feeling of stability and certainty during a time which all they can feel is just how uncertain, just how fragile their existence is? 

But if we look closer at the Mishkan, we will see that it is not only a symbol of stability and certainty. Every part and tool meant for use in the Mishkan could be folded up and packed away. All except the badim, the long poles used to carry the ark from place to place could not be broken down. We read in Pekudei that one of the last tasks undertaken as part of the construction of the mishkan is the fastening of these poles to the ark. If the mishkan is meant to be mobile, why can we not take apart these long, heavy, cumbersome poles that will only make traveling harder? In Parashat Terumah only a few weeks back we learned another commandment concerning the badim: “The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark: they shall not be removed from it.” (Exodus 25:15) 

Why is this? Why can we not remove these poles when everything else in the mishkan can be broken down easily? 

In Sefer HaChinuch, an anonymous work of Torah commentary written in 13th century Spain, the verse is explained thusly: "therefore, we were commanded not to remove the poles of the ark from it, lest we need to go out with the ark to any place quickly…”

The Mishkan, the structure that is meant to provide a feeling of certainty for the Israelites in the midst of a stormy period actually teaches us a different lesson: that even in the most important things that we create, our tradition is trying to tell us that there is some level of uncertainty built it - and that we will be, at some point, be forced to reckon with it. 

The building of the mishkan is not the only place in the Torah in which our tradition touches on this feeling of uncertainty. Often, when God asks direct questions of human beings in the Bible, there is another layer to them: 

When God asks Adam in Eden “Ayeka - where are you” - God is asking: why are you here? 

When God asks Jonah when the after he takes the vine from him “Are you so deeply grieved about the plant?” - God is asking: do you have your priorities in order?

When God asks Moses, filled with doubt before he goes before Pharaoh, “what is that in your hand” only to look down and discover that the staff has been turned into a snake - God is asking: what is really there in front of your eyes? 

These questions awaken in us our deepest fears and doubts. We do not like to deal with them because they force us to deal with some difficult truths: how fragile this life is, that we have much less control over what happens than it seems, that we do not have the answers to many questions. It is unsettling, really it is deeply unnerving to deal with these ideas - yet it is so necessary and so important that our tradition forces us to ask. 

Why, you ask? Precisely for periods just like the one we find ourselves in now. All of us in the Jewish community have gotten to know uncertainty very well over these past months. For me, the uncertainty can be paralyzing. Not being able to count on what will be tomorrow is deeply unsettling. I do not particularly want to ask the questions and consider their difficult answers. 

Someone once told me that the weekly Torah portion always comes on time. For me this is a prescient piece of wisdom as Pekudei arrives to remind us that uncertainty is not a bug in the system, rather a critical part of our experience in this life. It is not new in the human experience and we are, in some respects, in an ongoing struggle with it, to minimize its impact on and influence over our lives. 

For me, perhaps paradoxically, this idea is empowering. How? First, it connects me to the rest of humanity. Somehow knowing that I am far from the only one feeling this way at any given moment reminds me that I, that we, are never alone when we experience uncertainty. Second, it releases me from falling victim to and getting lost in the feeling of uncertainty. It reminds me that each day is an opportunity to find and connect to the things that help me create a sense of meaning, of hope, of goodness. 

I am not suggesting that we turn away and ignore all that is happening around us. Together with the awareness of this moment, I simultaneously collect signs of all the life and beauty that surrounds me in a world that can be brutally unforgiving. The smile of a child, a shared glance between lovers, a beautiful song, a colorful sunset - I collect all of these and more which helps me create my answer to all of the sadness and uncertainty that has characterized our lives as of late. 

It's true - we may not have all the answers - we don’t know precisely why we are here, why all this has befallen us, or if there is a plan behind it all. But it is not a coincidence that it is written in the Torah “choose life so that you may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) Every day we have the choice to anchor ourselves to all the good and the beauty that surrounds us. And we should do so for no other reason that this life is a gift, the best one we have. 

I heard a quote recently from the author Henry James that I think best sums up this idea: “I don't know why we live—the gift of life comes to us from I don't know what source or for what purpose; but I believe we can go on living for the reason that life is the most valuable thing we know anything about…”

What I am trying to say, friends, is not that this uncertainty is good for us. I hope and pray that it will pass and that routine, mundane days will return quickly. Yet alongside this prayer there is no denying that this feeling of uncertainty is here, it is present, and it will never completely disappear. What Pekudei teaches us is that we can build mechanisms in our own lives that will help us deal with uncertainty. For the Israelites in the desert it was the badim that helped them move quickly from place to place. For me it is reminding myself of all the pleasant, beautiful, good things happening around me at any given moment - those things that keep me grounded in this moment and that give me a reason to get up each morning, to do my small part to help build a world a bit better than how it was when I found it. 

May we all be blessed with the courage to look our uncertainty in the face, ask the hard questions, and emerge strengthened as we recognize all the good that surrounds us. 

As we say when we conclude a book in the Torah: chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek - be strong, be strong, and may you be strengthened!

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