Several weeks ago, Rabbi Chester gave me a bulging manila folder with photocopied commentaries on Vayakhel by various Reform rabbis over the past few years. (I presume he has a similar folder for every other weekly Torah portion too…. I dare not imagine what his garage looks like.)
Reading through all of it gave me a sense of what other people have focused on when talking about Vayakhel. Now — powered by the sugar rush of many small bags of Halloween candy — I’ll run down some of the more interesting points:
Shabbat. Before Moses tells the Israelites to bring their personal treasures to build the mishkan (tabernacle), he tells them they must not work on Shabbat. A number of writers highlighted the significance of this – that observing the Sabbath is more important even than building God’s own abode. And:
- The Chatam Sofer’s observation that we may not profane the Sabbath for God, but we may do so to save a human life.
- Abraham Heschel’s comment that “The Sabbath itself is a sanctuary which we build, a sanctuary in time.”
What is work? The Torah forbids work on Shabbat while never explicitly defining work. But the rabbis who compiled the Mishnah identified 39 acts (plowing, sowing, weaving, writing, kindling fire etc.) that were prohibited on Shabbat. Why these 39 acts in particular? One explanation goes back to Vayakhel and says the 39 acts cover all the kinds of “work” involved in building the mishkan.
Golden calf versus building the mishkan. In Vayakhel, the people of Israel generously bring their jewelry, mirrors, beautiful fabric and other treasures to build the mishkan. In the previous week’s Torah portion, they melted their jewelry and gold to make the golden calf.
So it’s not that material goods in themselves are bad; it’s what we do with them. “All the things we have – money, cars, homes, clothes, time and emotions – are the modern equivalent of the Israelites’ gold and silver, which we can use to build either idols or sanctuaries,” wrote Rabbi Elliott Kleinman. “How are we to decide which we will build?”
Another commentator made a similar point about art, such as the craftsmanship that went into creating both the golden calf and the mishkan: “Each human being must first make an existential choice: By what values do we live?” wrote Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson. “Art will express the choice we have made, but it cannot substitute for the choice itself.”
Mishkan as creation, humans as creators. Building the mishkan is a mirror of God’s creation of the world – both God and the Israelites rested on the seventh day. We each share God’s responsibility for making a better world.
“The implication of Creation – that we have the power to be God’s partner in this world – is now made manifest in the Mishkan’s construction,” wrote Rabbi Irwin Zeplowitz. “The lengthy description of each item implies that even the most insignificant part matters. The Mishkan is complete only when all those separate parts are united.”
Transitional structure for a transitional people. The mishkan is halfway between a tent and a house – it has hanging fabric and pegs, but also heavy gold beams.
“The mishkan as a transitional structure mirrors the Israelites as a people in transition… nomads turning into a settled agrarian people,” said Rachel Adler, a professor at Hebrew Union College. “For post-exilic Jews, the transportable mishkan represents a transportable Judaism. It reminds us that wherever we go, we carry with us the power to create sacred space…. Judaisms are not static. As with the mishkan, we are continually taking them apart and putting them back together.”
Giving. The Israelites bring so many treasures for the mishkan that Moses has to tell them to stop. Several rabbis made the natural comparison to temple building campaigns, and wished they had been so lucky.
Moses initially instructed the Israelites to donate “kol n’div libo” – “each one according to his or her heart.” Some writers suggested that it was their hearts that were the actual gift, more than any specific piece of gold or jewelry.
So there you have it. That’s enough material for about a half dozen d’vrei Torah in one blog post. And those are just some recent writers who happened to be in Rabbi Chester’s manila folder! I’d like to track down what the historic commentators have said over the centuries, just to be thorough. No stone unturned. No drash unread. No child left behind. No metaphor unmolested….
Enough already! Would someone throw out the Halloween candy, please?