Early thoughts on Vayakhel

I have so much time until my Bat Mitzvah service — it’s not until February 2011 — that I’ve deliberately avoided starting to analyze my Torah portion. I don’t want to be sick of it by the time I need to write my drash.

But as I walk around chanting to myself under my breath, I’ve started to think about the meaning of my parshah, or portion.

So I figured I’d write down my very early thoughts now, before I read anyone else’s analysis or commentary. It will be interesting down the line to compare my first impressions of it with what scholars have chosen to see and focus on.

My portion is Vayakhel, which begins with Exodus 35:1. This takes place when the people of Israel are out in the desert, after they’ve fled Egypt and come to the foot of Mt. Sinai and built the Golden Calf and repented and received the ten commandments.

Moses calls the people together to build the Ark and the Tabernacle, which will hold the commandments and be the center of worship. Torah portions are named after their first word, and vayakhel means “and he convened” or “he gathered together” — as in, “Moses convened the Israelites and told them xxxxx….”

First Moses tells everyone that God has commanded them to work six days and rest on the seventh. He goes on to give them a kind of holy shopping list of things they should bring as offerings to God, such as:

Gold, silver and copper; blue, purple and crimson wool; linen and goat hair; ram skins and dolphin skins; acacia wood; oil for lighting; spices for the incense and anointing oil; precious stones; etc.

He goes on to tell all the “wise-hearted” people among them to make everything that God has commanded, and he launches into another list of all the various construction elements of the Tabernacle:

Tents, covers, clasps, planks, bars, pillars, sockets, poles, tables, lamps, oil for lamps, oil for anointing, altars, gratings, washstands, screens, pegs… (you get the idea).

He appoints Bezalel, an extraordinary craftsman, to head up the effort. The people come and bring the stuff. In fact, the people bring so much stuff that Bezalel goes to Moses and asks him to make the people stop bringing stuff.

Then the next 79 lines (79! that’s a lot) are spent describing the materials and quantities that are used to build the Tabernacle.  For instance:

Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. And he overlaid it with pure gold from inside and from outside, and he made for it a golden crown all around. And he cast four golden rings for it upon its four corners, two rings on its one side and two rings on its other side…

That’s pretty much it.

So here are some initial thoughts — well, not even thoughts so much as directions for thinking:

Why spend so much time describing in very material detail the physical construction of the Tabernacle?

Are the authors of this section of Torah trying to impress listeners with how imposing and magnificent the Tabernacle was? (Like medieval bishops building ornate cathedrals to inspire awe in God?)

Are they acknowledging that people need material, physical things to express or focus their spiritual beliefs? Would it have been possible for the Israelites to worship God without altars and incense and golden rings? How important is it for people today to have some physical place or object to focus their spirituality — a synagogue, rosary beads, a sacred mountain, a gravestone in a cemetery etc. ? Why is it that people need material props to focus on things that transcend the material?

Is this section a response and parallel to the episode of the Golden Calf? With the Golden Calf, the people demanded a material  idol. Have Moses and God acceded to that demand and bowed to human nature by having them create this gold-laden, stone-studded complex?

Or maybe you can read this as recognition of the value of craftsmanship. Clearly the work of Bezalel and the other artisans is esteemed — even cherished. I would bet that, through history, Jewish silversmiths and carpenters loved hearing this portion read.

The people bring more than is needed.

As someone who has been involved in non-profits and fundraising for years, I love this part. Isn’t it every fundraiser’s dream — you ask people to donate, and so many donations pour in that you have to tell them to stop?

Again, there’s a parallel to the Golden Calf. Maybe the people were so chastened by that experience that they are now bending over backwards to be generous and holy. Think how many times the prophets later berate the Israelites for greed and idolatry and wrongdoing…. This seems like one of the few times in the Bible where the Israelites do more than what God has asked.

Women are explicitly involved in building the Tabernacle. 

The portion explicitly refers to women’s involvement. It mentions women bringing gold along with the men, and mentions women’s spinning all that colored wool and goat hair. This may mean nothing; but there are not a lot of references to women in the Bible so maybe it’s worth thinking about.

The reminder to keep Shabbat. Under penalty of death!

Shabbat is so important that it’s forbidden to work on the seventh day, even to build the holiest structure in the world. This isn’t the first or even main place in the Torah that directives about Shabbat are given, but it is still a pretty strong message.

Moses furthermore says that whoever violates Shabbat will be put to death. Yow! This is just a teeny tiny part of the portion. But it’s one of many places where the Torah is primitively and brutally out of synch with what we view as civilized behavior today (i.e., directives to stone to death people who commit adultery, idolatry etc.).

There was a great piece of satirical writing that made the rounds on the ‘net a few years ago in response to conservative Christian attacks on gays and lesbians. It was a letter or essay that said, in essence, “okay, the Bible says homosexuality is evil. If you take that literally, you should also stone your daughter for disrespecting her parents, and cut off the hands of robbers, and men should be allowed to take multiple wives and etc. etc.”

Can anyone give me a reference or link to that essay?

In addition to being pointed political satire, it called attention to the places where Biblical mandates clash with modern ethics. And that all ties in to the large question of:

How do we determine which parts of the Torah to keep, and which ones to (respectfully) toss?

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One Response to “Early thoughts on Vayakhel”

  1. Kaveh Says:

    Regarding the letter circulating on the net: I read it too and loved it. Here’s some info on it:

    http://www.snopes.com/politics/religion/drlaura.asp

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