What we call Sefer Shemos is referred to by our Sages as the Sefer HaGeulah, the Book of Redemption, or more commonly – Exodus. While this is an appropriate description of the book’s first half, its second half seems to veer off into an entirely different subject, the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Ramban explained that this is not a tangent at all, but an essential part of the redemption:
“Redemption is not complete until they have returned to their place and been restored to the level of their ancestors. When they left Egypt, while they had left the slave house, they were still considered exiles because they were in a foreign land, wandering in the desert. But when they arrived at Sinai and built the Mishkan and G-d returned to have His presence dwell amongst them, then they were truly restored to the level of their ancestors who had G-d’s presence over their tents, resting upon them; then they were indeed considered redeemed. It is for this reason that the book ends with the completion of the Mishkan project and with G-d’s presence filling it always.” (Ramban, Introduction to Shemos)
Ramban’s magnificent explanation focuses us appropriately on the spiritual dimension of redemption, above and beyond the achievement of simple relief from our ‘Tzorres’ (travails). Yet a closer look reveals an outstanding issue. While the Ramban cites the closing of the book describing Hashem’s presence filling the Mishkan, that description is actually followed by three additional verses, presenting an additional theme:
“… The presence of Hashem filled the Mishkan. When the cloud was raised up from the Mishkan, the Children of Israel would embark on all their journeys. If the cloud did not rise up they would not leave until the day that it did rise up. For the cloud of Hashem would be on the Mishkan during the day and the fire would be upon it at night before the eyes of the entire House of Israel throughout their travels.” (Shemos 40:35-38)
Evidently this description of the Jewish People orienting themselves in their travels around the Mishkan is also part and parcel of the redemption process. Our spiritual redemption is not accomplished by the simple arrival at a static presence of G-d in our midst, but rather in our making that presence our point of focus and attention, our home base and our destination. Indeed, if Galus (exile) is leaving G-d’s presence, then Geulah (redemption) is returning to it, always looking to move closer to Him. R.M.C. Luzzatto (Derech Hashem 2:4) went so far as to characterize G-d’s choice of Avraham as based on the reality that he was the only person striving to find his way back to Eden, to G-d’s presence. “As for me, closeness to G-d is what I consider good.” (Tehillim 73:28)
Thus, when Hashem condemned the Jewish people to a period of wandering in the desert before entering Israel, our Sages (TB Shabbos 116a; see Tosfos there) identified one phrase as describing the starting point of that interruption of the redemption process: “They travelled from the mountain of G-d.” The readiness of the people to turn their back on Sinai, to travel away from G-d instead of sticking to Him and looking towards Him, indicated the end of redemption. Indeed Ramban himself (Bamidbar 10:35) speculates that as a consequence of their turning so easily away from G-d, the Jewish people could not immediately travel on to Israel.
This quality of our redemption is specifically manifest in a process that we begin the day after we celebrate leaving Egypt, the Mitzvah of Sefiras HaOmer. As the Midrash records, when we left Egypt, we immediately asked Moshe when we would have the promised opportunity to serve G-d. When Moshe responded that it would be after fifty days, each and every member of the Jewish people started counting on their own towards that day. It is that yearning, that looking and striving towards G-d, which we perpetuate through our own counting of the Omer.
May our lives indeed be characterized by a constant spiritual striving, as characterized in Shir Hashirim (3:4): ”When I sought and ultimately found my beloved, I grasped him and would not let go.”