This week’s reading, Pikudei, closes out the second book of the Torah. As Rashi says, it provides an accounting of the donations or the Tabernacle, of silver and gold and copper, and accounts for all of the holy vessels used in the Divine Service.

Then the Torah tells us that the Tabernacle was actually built and set up, just under a year after leaving Egypt. Once that process was complete, the Divine Presence came down and rested upon the Tabernacle. And then the Torah tells us, at the very end of the reading, “And when the cloud rose up from on the Tabernacle, the Children of Israel traveled, in all their journeys. And if the cloud did not lift, they did not travel, until the day it rose” [40:36-37].

The name of the closing reading of the Book of Numbers is Masei, using the same word for travels, and refers to the actual journeys of the Children of Israel during the 40 years in the desert.

And although we like to speak of the “wanderings” of Israel in the desert, we see that there actually were not so many wanderings: less than three dozen over a 40 year period. A dozen of those were accomplished in the first 50 days, traveling from Egypt to Mount Sinai; if a family traveled by car from New York to California, we would not account for each day’s drive from hotel to hotel as a separate trip, we would call it one long journey.

So the journeys of Israel in the desert seem like more than they actually were: Israel dwelled in the same location for years at a time. So how were they wanderings, and what do we learn from these travels?

In addition, it seems odd that the explanation of what triggered a new journey is found here, in our reading, at the time when the Tabernacle was built. The Torah explains to us that from this point forward, the signal that it was time to travel was when the Divine Presence rose from the Tabernacle, but none of those travels are discussed before or after. So why is it important, when discussing all of the materials of the Tabernacle and how it was set up, even before the Torah’s extensive discussion of how the Divine Service was done within it, that the Torah tell us that oh, by the way, the Divine Presence rising from the Tabernacle was the sign to get underway?

A story is told of a wealthy traveler who came to visit the holy Rabbi Yisrael Meyer Kagan, the Chofetz Chaim. When the traveler entered the rabbi’s home, he was surprised to find the house was barely furnished. There were benches alongside a simple wooden table, rather than comfortable chairs. And he asked the rabbi why he didn’t have more substantial furniture.

Answering a question with a question, the Chofetz Chaim asked the traveler, “where is your furniture?” To which his wealthy guest responded in confusion, “I don’t live here, I am just passing through. My furniture is at home!”

“Well,” the rabbi said, “I am also just passing through. I know this life is only temporary, and what is important is eternity. So I don’t want to invest in furniture I will soon leave behind. I am also just passing through!”

Although it is true that there were relatively few travels over the 40 year period, the Children of Israel spent that time “just passing through.” They knew that at any moment, the cloud of the Divine Presence would rise from Tabernacle, and they would have to hurriedly take down their tents, pack their bags, and be ready to move.

The lesson to us is the same that the holy Chofetz Chaim told his wealthy visitor: all the comforts of this world will be left behind, and what truly counts is the eternity that lies ahead. We are better off when we realize that, in the end, we are just passing through.

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