Shifting Expectations

Rabbi Aviva Richman

Parashat Pekudei

The Book of Shemot ends in a striking tension: God’s presence fills the mishkan but also precludes Moshe from entering. Having shepherded the people into relationship with God, and having fought so hard to maintain that, Moshe now faces the possibility that the terms of his own relationship with God have drastically changed, as he is shut out of the mishkan. What can we learn from the model of Moshe about how to adapt to unexpected twists and turns in our own roles and relationships? 

As God’s presence descends on the mishkan to dwell in the midst of the people, there is a sense of abundant success in the people’s efforts to build the mishkan. In Parashat VaYakhel, we explored a reading that the people of Israel were not confident God would dwell in their midst after their sin with the golden calf, but, on Moshe’s initiative, went ahead and built the mishkan anyway.1 God’s manifest presence is a visible demonstration of God’s love for the people, reflecting forgiveness and repair in their relationship.2

And yet, this visible display of God’s presence filling the entire mishkan means that Moshe cannot enter.

שמות מ:לה

וְלֹא־יָכֹ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה לָבוֹא֙ אֶל־אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֔ד כִּֽי־שָׁכַ֥ן עָלָ֖יו הֶעָנָ֑ן וּכְב֣וֹד ה' מָלֵ֖א אֶת־הַמִּשְׁכָּֽן׃


Exodus 40:35

Moshe could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of God filled the mishkan.


The very first thing God instructed Moshe about building the mishkan was to build the ark so that God could speak with him there.3 How could it be that Moshe can’t enter? Did their efforts somehow fail? Moshe’s inability to enter the mishkan might lead to the conclusion that God wants to keep Moshe at a distance.4 

There is a tension between the manifestation of God’s intimacy with the people and the actualization of God’s intimacy with Moshe. When God is in a state that most clearly expresses love for the people, Moshe is shut out. For Moshe to be able to speak with God in the mishkan, the Divine Cloud has to remove itself in some way where it cannot be witnessed by the people.5 The people’s sense of closeness with God, and Moshe’s sense of closeness with God, seemingly do not converge.

One might think that Moshe is disappointed and anxious at being shut out of the mishkan. In fact, a midrashic tradition suggests that Moshe had no expectation to enter the mishkan. Moshe is compared to a servant who meticulously builds a palace for a king and writes the king’s name on each part of the structure. When the king moves into the palace, he is struck by the servant’s dedication:

ויקרא רבה א:ז

על כל דבר ודבר שהיה מביט היה מוצא את שמו כתוב עליו.

אמ' כל הכבוד הזה עשה לי עבדי ואני מבפנים והוא מבחוץ?!

קראו לו שיכנס לפנים.


Vayikra Rabbah 1:7

 Every single place he would look he would find his name written there.

He said, “All of this honor has my servant done for me, and I am inside and he is outside?!”

He called him so that he would enter inside.


The parable describes a labor of pure devotion, where the servant every step of the way is focused only on the king. Moshe at every step of the way was solely focused on what God had instructed—hence the refrain in Parashat Pekudei that items were built “just as God commanded Moshe” (כאשר צוה ה׳ את משה)—and this intention was “inscribed” on each part of the mishkan. Upon beholding this labor of devotion, God calls Moshe at the beginning of the book of Vayikra, to invite him inside where he never expected to be.

The analogy to Moshe and the mishkan is both beautiful and perplexing. Despite God saying the primary purpose of building the mishkan was to meet with Moshe from atop the ark, this midrash insists that Moshe built the mishkan just for God, and never expected to enter. We have to assume that Moshe shifted his expectations. Originally, Moshe did expect to go into the mishkan because this was its stated purpose, but then, with the rupture between God and the people, he began to doubt that this was ever going to happen. Instead of being paralyzed by this doubt, he abandoned all the ego he had at stake in his own role in the mishkan. He built the mishkan solely for God and to heal the relationship between God and Israel. To enable that outcome, he was willing to write himself out of the story, to remain outside.

The trajectory of Moshe’s unexpected entry into the mishkan, as told in this midrash, is all the more striking when compared to the way Moshe’s narrative arc ends: with his entry to the Promised Land barred. The Torah tells of Moshe’s expectation to enter the Promised Land and the crushing disappointment when God bans him from entry. Multiple times, Moshe begs to be able to enter, but to no avail. This midrash on building the mishkan offers a subversive counterplot, where Moshe gave up on any expectation of entering the mishkan and then unexpectedly gets invited in. Instead of hopes disappointed like at the end of Sefer Devarim, it is a story of abandoned hopes fulfilled.

Like Moshe, our expectations in relationship sometimes need to shift abruptly, and our intentions may need to lie far beyond ourselves. In so many contexts in our lives, we can learn from Moshe’s agility, his focus on his purpose rather than himself. The bridge between Shemot and Vayikra teaches that, ironically, these moments that require us to focus least on ourselves—and bring out our strongest hopes for others—may ultimately lead to reaffirmation of our sense of self and place. Moshe is called into relationship with God anew after risking everything for the sake of Israel. May we too know the power of building relationships as we dare to work through our world’s messiest problems. And may our deep love for others find its way bounding back to us, just as Moshe’s love for the people—and his hopes that they will know divine love—ultimately results in his own experience of deeper intimacy when he unexpectedly hears God call his name.

1 “Moshe’s Gamble,” available here:

2 Rashbam describes it as such (40:35): להראות חיבתו של הקב״ה על ישראל.

3 Exodus 25:22: “וְנוֹעַדְתִּ֣י לְךָ֮ שָׁם֒ וְדִבַּרְתִּ֨י אִתְּךָ֜ מֵעַ֣ל הַכַּפֹּ֗רֶת מִבֵּין֙ שְׁנֵ֣י הַכְּרֻבִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־אֲרֹ֣ן הָעֵדֻ֑ת אֵ֣ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֧ר אֲצַוֶּ֛ה אוֹתְךָ֖ אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ / There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two keruvim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact—all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.”

4 The image of the cloud that precludes Moshe’s entry to the mishkan resonates with the scene at Mount Sinai, where God’s cloud descended on the mountain and Moshe had to wait six days before God called him in (Exodus 24:15-16, brought by Ramban as an analogy to our verse). Ibn Ezra’s comment on Exodus 24:16 suggests that, if the description of Moshe waiting six days before being called into the cloud came after the giving of the Torah, it would appear that God was “rejecting” Moshe (מתאנף במשה), and concludes that this waiting period must have before God gives the Torah. If so, the Cloud Moshe cannot enter at Sinai and the Cloud on the mishkan that Moshe cannot enter are crucially different. God chose the mountain as the site for a one-time revelation, and the climax is heightened by the drama of Moshe waiting to be called in. But the people built the mishkan as a place where Moshe could speak with God in an ongoing way. When Moshe can’t enter, that may feel like a failure.

5 According to Rashi, the Cloud actually departs. According to Rashbam, it contracts and confines itself to the space between the keruvim atop the ark.