Heshy Berenholz created the topic: Musings on Parshat Vayakhel
o Moshe assembles the nation on the day after Yom Kippur and instructs them to build the Tabernacle as per God’s command but not to work on the Sabbath
o Moshe informs the people that God has appointed Betzalel and Ohaliav to lead the construction
o Israelites’ contributions generates a surplus
o Construction of Tabernacle begins…
Layers of tapestries, goats hair, ram skins and tachash skins for the roof
Walls of gold-covered acacia wood beams
Ark made of acacia wood, gold-plated inside and out
Gold kapores and keruvim
Table made of gold-plated acacia wood
Menorah made of pure gold
Incense Altar of gold-plated acacia wood
Altar for Burnt offerings (in courtyard) made of copper-plated acacia wood
Copper urn (in courtyard) made from mirrors of women
Curtains for open-air courtyard walls made of twisted fine linen
Forty foot high tapestries at the courtyard entrance over four pillars
“Moshe caused the whole community of the children of Israel to assemble.” The Lubavitcher Rebbe notes that the Hebrew root kuf-hey-lamed emphasizes that all the assembled people merged to form one organic whole. [Note: the Hebrew word for a congregation is kehila.]This joining- together makes the individual a part of a greater cause that could not be achieved alone. Furthermore, explains the Rebbe, no matter how low a person may be (or feel) he is still a part of the community and remains intimately associated with its leaders. This assembly took place on the day after Yom Kippur, a day of unity, of friendship and of forgiving.
In this week’s parsha Moshe directs the attention of the Israelites to the two great centers of community in Judaism one in time (Sabbath) and one in place (Mishkan).Rabbi Jonathan Sacks discusses recent research that confirms the power of communities and social groupings to shape our lives. “Regular attendance at a house of worship is the most accurate predictor of altruism”. Regular attendees tend to be more charitable, more likely to volunteer, and are more concerned about others. And what one believes is not relevant. Studies have shown that even an atheist who attends a house of worship (perhaps accompanying a friend or a child) is more likely to volunteer to help others than is a fervent believer who prays alone.
There has been a breakdown in personal interaction in our highly mobile society that increasingly relies on smartphones and computer social networking. Rabbi Sacks concludes that it is organized religion (kehila) that is keeping community alive in a secular world by providing regular human interaction and activity in time and in place.
The Mishkan (Tabernacle)
Starts with the history of the Hebrews in Egypt—our servitude, our redemption by God as promised to Avraham Avenu
Continues with the Exodus and splitting of Reed Sea, accompanied by miraculous cloud cover and pillar of fire
Peaks with the awesome defining Mt. Sinai experience that unified us and created an everlasting relationship with God
Depicts the Golden Calf incident that nearly destroyed this relationship
Describes Moshe’s efforts on behalf of the nation to seek Divine forgiveness
Reports on the new Covenant with God that emphasizes His Merciful Attributes
Concludes with the building of the Tabernacle/Mishkan, its vessels and the priestly garments that used gold extensively in atonement (according to some) for the sin of the Golden Calf
The construction was a national working-through process that provided the opportunity for each person to …
Give of himself
Be creative and productive
Utilize his God-given skills
The combined effort created a sense of unity, of interdependence and excited confidence in removing the taint of the Golden Calf incident. As such, this was a first step in repairing the broken relationship with God. Gold used for sin is transformed into a positive material for creating goodness and for reaching out to God.
Once built, the Mishkan served as a mobile Mt. Sinai experience, according to Ramban, creating the visual reminder of the awesomeness of that moment. The Tabernacle satisfied Man’s deep-seated need for the concrete in his worship of the invisible, as evidenced by the nation’s demand for a person or a thing to lead when it appeared that Moshe left for good. Having been steeped in Egyptian pagan religious rituals reinforced the nation’s need for something tangible as part of the belief in and worship of an unseen God.
The Mishkan is linked to both the Creation and to Sabbath through a number of common words and phrases and by juxtaposition. Keruvim appear first in the Creation story and then here. Martin Buber notes that the Hebrew phrase “to do” (asay or laasos) appears in both stories but many more times in the Mishkan construction. God rested on the seventh day of Creation. Here Moshe was called up to God on his seventh day on Mt. Sinai. And here Moshe warns the people against violating the Sabbath when building the Mishkan. The phrasing for completion of the Creation is “Va’yechulu hashmayim v’haaretz”- “the heavens and earth were completed”. The same root word is found here, “Va’techel…”
Perhaps the Torah is emphasizing that with the nation of Israel came a New World, a new beginning. Reference to the Creation underscores the need for Man to be a partner with God in building and creating. Ramban points out that Man needs to be industrious and productive in his lifetime, to mirror the Creativity of God in His establishment of the universe.
Building of Mishkan is Repeated Five Times
Moshe first is commanded to invite the people to donate materials for the building of the Mishkan. Moshe retains Betzalel and provides him with an outline of what needs to be done. Then Moshe summarizes the proposal and solicits donations. The execution of the plans is described in detail and then the final, completed Mishkan is presented for inspection.
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag notes variation in the reporting. The Torah first focuses on the Ark and the table and menorah because these are the most important items and their purpose and function needs explanation. But in terms of actual construction scheduling the courtyard and building came first in order to house the items that were to be brought in.
Why the repetition?
Ramban says this is a sign of affection and a way of demonstrating Divine appreciation
Ralbag sees repetition as an ancient writing style, as confirmed by archaeological findings
Rabbi S. R. Hirsch thinks that the each part of the Mishkan has a symbolic significance that could easily be forgotten when dealing with the mundane tasks of building. The repetition is to create an awareness of the items and their deeper, holier meaning, like a Scribe who, when writing a Sefer Torah needs to pronounce the words in order to maintain awareness of the Divine name and the holiness of the work
Moses Mendelssohn reasons that the repetition reminds future generations who put these artistic and building skills to practical use (to earn a living) that these talents were first dedicated to building the holy Mishkan. Even the mundane connects to God. Awareness of this reality gives us perspective on our place in the universe
Manya Berenholz points out that repetition and rote are necessary and effective teaching techniques
Sandra Gottesman asks if one ever tires of hearing “I love you”
Suzanne Diskind stresses that the newness of this relationship-building experience requires its repetition
Jennifer Stein thinks that this is a subtle reproach to the nation by pointing out over and over again how much good could have been done with the gold that was used to sinfully build a Golden Calf
There is a building excitement at the prospect of being loved again, much like a child’s relationship with a parent. The excited child repeatedly talks about, describes, and repeats the details of an upcoming event that will be shared with a parent.
The Many Facets of the Sabbath
After discussing plans for making the Mishkan in last week’s parsha, God warns, “Ach es shabbsosi tishmoru” (“above all/nevertheless/verily you are to observe my Sabbath”)…because it is a sign…that I God am making you holy”. When the nation is busy making (building) they need to cease working on the Sabbath. For six days work may be done but the seventh day of complete rest is holy to God. “V’shamru b’nei yisroel es Hashabbos”—“the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath to make the Sabbath…an everlasting Covenant…it is an eternal sign…that in six days God created the heaven and the earth, and on the seventh day He ceased and rested”.
Rabbi Benno Jacob (cited by Nechama Leibowitz) astutely observes the proximity of the ideas of Sabbath and Mishkan and the wording linking them: the making of the Sabbath overrides the making of the Mishkan. Social justice, Creation and the intimate bond between the nation and God is the fabric of the Sabbath. Rabbi B. S. Jacobson notes that the word melacha (creative activity) is used most frequently in the topics of Creation; prohibited Sabbath activity; and construction of the Tabernacle.
But when Moshe gathers the nation to communicate God’s plans regarding the Mishkan, he starts by introducing the Sabbath, “For six days melacha (work) may be done, but the seventh day should be holy for you, a day of complete rest to God. Whoever does work on it shall surely die. You should not kindle fire in any of your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.” [Note: the phrase “shall surely die” may be understood not as a punishment for violating the Sabbath but as a prediction of the inevitable outcome for someone who is so driven that he works non-stop 24 x 7.]
Abravanel reasons that Moshe needs to set the stage by emphasizing the importance of the Sabbath immediately lest the nation mistakenly think that the work on the Mishkan takes precedence because building activity is a better indicator of faith than inactivity and resting.
Moshe is teaching the people about different types of holiness [defined as separation, but not withdrawal] in the world. During the Creation, God declared the seventh day of the week to be holy. Professor A.J. Heschel (quoted by Nechama Leibowitz) defines this as holiness in time. Judaism generally is concerned with time more than with space; at the Creation there is no reference to any object in space being holy. But the theophany at Mt. Sinai brought change; now the people were to be holy to God. The sin of the Golden Calf brought in its wake the need for a holy place, the Mishkan. Now, as the people prepare to build a place that is holy, Moshe cautions them not to violate the primeval, Shabbat (holiness of time) which is…
Not limited to a single specific location
Blessed by God
From the juxtaposition of the subjects of the Mishkan and of the Sabbath, the sages deduced that the creative activity (melacha) prohibited on the Sabbath corresponds to the 39 operations involved in the construction of the Mishkan (which, though not listed in the text, are itemized in the Talmud).
Rabbi Akiva and his students insisted that there are 39 categories of melacha. Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun, Ph.D. a contemporary Torah scholar who was also one of the founders of Yeshivat Har Etzion, offers a new insight regarding the basis for the number 39.Twice the Torah provides a detailed list of the Mishkan and its furnishings (at the beginning and end of the account of building the Mishkan). “Both lists end with ‘the service vestments for officiating in the sanctuary’ as number 39.
The list of 39 items of service in the Mishkan is introduced by the phrase “this is the thing God commanded” and concludes with the phrase “and every person wise of heart shall come and do that which God commanded.” Similar language is used in reference to the Sabbath at the beginning of the chapter, “these are the things that God commanded to do…anyone who does melacha on [Sabbath] shall be executed”. Rabbi Bin Nunn concludes that the lists of 39 Mishkan service items are the original inspiration for the 39 melachot on the Sabbath. Just as Moshe listed 39 specific items of Mishkan service for the Israelites, he listed 39 parallel forms of melacha that are forbidden on the Sabbath. The number 39 is set in stone.
Melacha does not mean physical effort, according to Rav S. R. Hirsch (cited by Rav B.S. Jacobson). Rather “it is the realization of an idea upon an object through human skill and intelligence, or any form of production, manufacture or transformation of any material or object for human use and purpose.” Unproductive physical labor is not melacha. But transformation of an object for human use is, even if it involves little effort.
An analysis by Dr. Michael Gutmann (cited by Rav Jacobson) concludes that the thirty nine categories fall into three broad groups…
• Agricultural work
• Food preparation
The latter can be further subdivided into…
o Textile operations
o Needle work
o Leather work
Fire--light and heat -- so critical for survival also is needed for creative art and crafts. It is viewed by the Torah as a Divine gift, not something that was stolen from God, as Prometheus did in the Greek myth. The Talmud views the divinely-inspired employment of fire after the conclusion of the Sabbath as Adam’s first invention. He took two flints and rubbed them against each other to create sparks. He then blessed God Who “Boray menay ha’aysh” (creates the lights of fire)—the very benediction recited today as part of the Havdalah service.
Our custom is to hold our hands up to the Havdalah candle and to open and shut our fingers. Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg sees in this an act of transforming ourselves from rest mode to work mode as Sabbath departs. We first close fists, symbolizing that our hands have been tied (asurot in Hebrew) because we have been forbidden (asurot) to work. We then open our fists to demonstrate that we are free and ready to resume our weekday productive lives.
The singling out of the prohibition of fire on the Sabbath may reflect its association with the manifestation of God’s Presence in fire inside the Temple that needs to be separate and distinct from its secular use outside the Temple (i.e., “in any of your dwelling places”).The ban may also hint at the danger of regressing to fire-worship prevalent in Egypt.
Rabbi Gunther Plaut sees in this prohibition an early attempt to centralize worship in one holy place. The use of fire for religious purposes was limited to the Temple, but banned everywhere else (“in any of your dwelling places”).
In Chassidic thought, fire also symbolizes gossip. The Torah may be warning us that if we want to capture and experience the true Sabbath spirit we must not allow ourselves to be farbrent [“on fire/burning up”] —enraged, angry, jealous, negative, and gossipy.