Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations may derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Overview of Vayakhail
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 generate 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 placed 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 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.
Bible scholar Professor Jonathan Ben-Dov focuses on the importance of the voluntary nature of the donation of materials for this construction. “The good will of the donor renders the donated goods suitable for the elevated task of hosting the divine. While the Israelites were not able to import newly-mined gold or hewn wood from distant mountain ranges, they did have access to an equally precious resource: good will.” Interestingly, the mandatory contribution of the half-shekel was only used for the outer court but not for building any of the holy, inner premises of the Mishkan.
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 several common words and phrases and by juxtaposition. As Biblical scholar Nachum Sarna puts it “the account of the construction of the Tabernacle is…laced with phrases and expressions that unmistakably echo the Genesis creation story”:
Keruvim appear first in the creation story and then here.
The Hebrew phrase “to do” (asay or laasos.) appears in both stories but many more times in the Mishkan construction. ( Martin Buber)
The parallel in creation to “God saw all He had made and behold it was very good…and God blessed them” is found here: “Moshe saw all the work and behold just as God had commanded it, they had done it and he blessed them”
God rested on the seventh day of creation. Here Moshe was called up to God on his seventh day on Mt. Sinai and here he warned 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…”
Bible scholar Rabbi Dr. Naftali S. Cohn proposes that the connection between Mishkan and creation is the centrality of the concept of order in both. In creation, God first creates then separates and then orders distinct parts of the universe into their respective places:
• Light and darkness
• Land and sky
• Water, air and dry land
• Types of vegetation
• Male and female
“God sets each element in its proper place and into a well-structured system of spaces, objects, and beings; God organizes the universe into an ordered place.”
The sacrificial ritual that takes place in the Mishkan is also structured and orderly. Anthropologist Mary Douglas argues that rituals of purity and impurity “are positive efforts to organize the environment or a re-ordering of our environment”. Perhaps, suggests Rabbi Cohn, this concept can be extended to all rituals and the Mishkan “can be seen as a place of ritualized order which mirrors the orderliness of the created universe”.
The real world is a chaotic, complex place. The ritualistic ordered worlds of the initial moments of time and subsequently the Mishkan may be, in the words of Professor Jonathan Z. Smith (cited by Rabbi Cohn “a way of performing the way things ought to be”. The holy, marked-off space of the Tabernacle is a focal point for the ideal, a place that “captures the primal organization of the world when first created by God in seven days”. It is an awe-inspiring place that draws the Israelites’ attention to the all-powerful and majestic God the creator.
The completion of the Mishkan on the first day of the first month of the New Year highlights the idea of its being a place for re-creation. Perhaps the Torah is emphasizing that with this building came a new beginning. Furthermore, 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 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 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 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
Rabbi Herzl Hefter sees in this repeating the essential message that God is not distant, but close to us. “God is not only in history but in us.” There exists a profound, intimate connection between God, creation and humanity.
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 repeatedly 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 enthusiastic 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; of prohibited Sabbath activity; and of 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 physical and/or emotional consequence 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 the Sabbath as holiness in time. Judaism generally is concerned with time more than with space; at the creation, there is no reference to any 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.” 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”] – inflamed, jealous, negative, and gossipy.
Overview of Pekuday
Audit of the materials collected
Making the Ayphod (breastplate)
Setting the two sardonyx stones with the names of the tribes engraved on them on the shoulders of the Ayphod
Making the Choshen with four rows of precious stones (three on each row) with the name of one of the Tribes of Israel engraved on each stone
Making the Robe
Making the other vestments
Making the gold head-plate with the words Kodesh Lashem (Holy to God) engraved on it
The Tabernacle is completed (on the twenty fifth day of the month of Kislev, which later in history would be the first day of Chanukah) and brought to Moshe. “The Israelites did so; exactly as God had commanded Moshe, so they did.”
Moshe approves and blesses all the workers after he saw that “all the work had been done exactly as God had ordered”.
God instructs Moshe to erect the completed Tabernacle on the first day of the first month (first of Nissan) of the second year
o Erects (or supervises the assembly of) the walls of the Tabernacle and places the roof over it
o Places the Tablets in the Ark
o Inserts the carrying poles in the four rings
o Puts the kapores(cover) with its keruvim on top of the Ark
o Places the vessels in their prescribed location: table; menorah; incense altar; drape over the entrance; sacrificial altar in the courtyard; washstand (in the courtyard between the Tabernacle and the sacrificial altar); and sets up the enclosure surrounding the courtyard
A cloud covers the Tabernacle, evidencing God’s presence
“Ayle P’kuday Mishkan Ha’aydus Asher Pukad…”
This opening verse of this Parsha that describes the concluding stages of the building of the Mishkan has varying translations:
• These are the accounts of the tabernacle…which were counted at Moshe’s command
• These are the accounts of the tabernacle…which were calculated by Moshe’s order
• These are the records of the tabernacle…which were drawn up at Moshe’s bidding
• These are the accountings of the Dwelling…that were accounted by Moshe
The root of the Hebrew words pukad and p’kuday also means to…
Visit (be intimate with)
Remember (to be helpful)
Command or order
The use of this word with its multiplicity of meanings points to the unique, intense, and very close relationship that had been re-established between God (who “resides” among His people) and the nation of Israel.
Keyor and Kano (Washbasin and its Stand)
According to the Midrash this vessel, used by the priests to wash their hands and feet before entering the Tabernacle, was unique in that it was made from mirrors. Women had assembled at the Tabernacle entryway to give their mirrors as a freewill (unsolicited) donation. Nechama Leibowitz cites several reasons these mirrors were chosen:
Rav S. R. Hirsch reasons that the vessel required “for consecration of hands and feet” was designed to elevate and refine the priests as they enter the Tabernacle. Mirrors draw attention to human sensual desire. Water, the purifying agent that came from a vessel that reflected the secular and the worldly, reminded the priests of their need for self-purification as they begin the service of God.
Ibn Ezra thinks that the willingness of women to surrender their mirrors showed their rejection of vanity. Overcoming worldly temptations by not needing to beautify themselves made their gift an especially appropriate one for the priests to utilize as they move from the secular to the sacred.
Midrash Tanchuma views the mirrors as representative of the women’s unselfishness and spiritual dedication. During the Egyptian persecution, when having children seemed pointless, it was the women who, after feeding their husbands who were working out in the fields, took out their mirrors and “flirted” with their spouses and aroused them. The result was that “the children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and multiplied and became exceedingly mighty.”
“The Israelites did so; exactly as God had commanded Moshe, so they did.”
They did not deviate from their instructions.
The Netziv (cited by Nechama Leibowitz) disapproved of uncontrolled, ecstatic undisciplined worship. He viewed the combination of sincerity and individual expression adhering to the norms of Judaism as the highest form of religious behavior. In their excited religious state the Israelites might have gone above and beyond what was required of them. Therefore, the Torah repeats many times that they did not. They did exactly as God had commanded Moshe—nothing more and nothing less.
But a comparison of the instructions for building the Tabernacle with the actual execution of these instructions yields several discrepancies, which seems to contradict the statement that the Israelites did exactly as they were told! Rabbi Benno Jacob resolves this dilemma by noting that the phrase “as…so…” means rough correspondence, not exact or identical. The craftsmen used their discretion and intelligence to assure that the result would conform to the Divine plan, even if some details needed to be changed during the plan’s execution. For example, Moshe instructed Betzalel to first build a Holy Ark, then furniture and then a Tabernacle. But Betzalel reasoned that since furnishings are made and installed only after a structure has been built to house them, the Divine intent must have been to make the Tabernacle structure first and only then make the Holy Ark and other furniture.
Partners with God
The experience of building the Tabernacle demonstrated the Israelites’ ability to be productive and innovative and to be “God’s partners in the work of creation.” Moshe’s blessing them and celebrating their achievement served as a timeless lesson that we all have dormant skills and capabilities that become activated when someone awakens them. Concludes Rabbi Sacks, “We can achieve heights of which we never thought ourselves capable. All it takes is for us to meet someone who believes in us, challenges us, and then, when we have responded to the challenge, blesses and celebrates our achievements.”