VAYAKEHEL / PIKUDEI
by Judi Steinman
March 25th 2006 – 25 Adar 5766
This Shabbos we have the pleasure to read not only one sidra but two – as we call it – a double portion. First we heard parsha Vayakhel, which describes the building of the tabernacle. Then we heard parsha Pikudei and as so often happens with the torah, we again heard about the building of the tabernacle. At first blush, one might wonder why these two stories are told concurrently and why they re-tell many details of the same event. This is the gift that we get each Shabbos, to explore the mystery of why we should spend our leisure time thinking about ancient stories. I will share with you the gift that I received by volunteering to give the drosh this month.
Vayakhel starts not with a blueprint for a building but with Moses reminding us to observe Shabbos. Here is what G-d tells us to do with Moses as his mouthpiece:
These are the things that the Eternal has commanded you to do: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Eternal.” (Exodus 35:1b-2a)
We are commanded to work for six days and then to rest on the seventh. Both are of equal importance. We are not told to work for two days, take a day off, then work for five days. We are told to work for six then rest on the seventh. Wednesday is not the day of complete rest, Monday is not the day of complete rest, but the seventh day, the Sabbath, is the day that we rest.
The root of the word Shabbat is shin-bet-tav. The word does not translate into rest as in take a coffee break – instead it means a complete cessation from action. The Hebrew word for rest has the root nun-vav-chet (as in the word menuchah), so it really is a different word, a different concept from Shabbat. . The construct shabbat shabbaton emphasizes the complete and utter cessation from work on Shabbat.
The work on the tabernacle certainly is recognized as holy work. The people were instructed to perform this task with minute detail about the materials to be used, who should do the work, the size and shape of the tabernacle and even who should oversee the work. So why, before this chapter begins, are we reminded to work for six days and rest in a holy fashion on the seventh? Are we being reminded that even when we do sacred work – such as building the tabernacle – that performing mitzvot does not supersede observing the Sabbath? Nehama Leibowitz, in her writings on Shemot, explained not only the reason this commandment is included here, but also the message it sends: G-d reminds the people that in their endeavor to create a holy space for G-d, G-d remains the sole One to create holy time.
When we started services this morning, we read the midrash that tells us that Shabbat is a special gift that Hashem gave us as a sample of the world to come. All we have to do is accept the Torah and observe G-d’s commandments. In this life, we sample Shabbat once a week, in the world to come, we will have Shabbat every day. One of my other favorite midrashim describes the fact that Shabbat without people to observe it would not be very special at all. The story goes that “when the world was created, Shabbat said to the Holy One, ‘Ruler of the Universe, every living thing created has its mate, and each day has its companion, except me, the seventh day. I am alone!’ G-d answered, ‘The people of Israel will be your mate.’ …It is with reference to this that My fourth commandment for you reads: ‘Remember the Shabbat and keep it holy.’” (B’reishit Rabbah 11:8
So, is it really surprising that the story of the tabernacle construction project begins with a reminder that we need to remember our agreement to keep Shabbat holy? Our relationship with Shabbat is pivotal to our acceptance of the task to create a place in which we will spend Shabbat.
Here in the midst of all the discussion about holy work lies one of the beautiful ironies of Jewish life. It is Shabbat today, right? We are reading a story about performing the holy work of building the tabernacle and are reminded to not work on Shabbat, to keep it holy. We should turn ourselves away from thinking about work, even holy work. But both parshot go into great detail about making contributions to the building of the tabernacle. We aren’t supposed to think about work or money, but here we are reading torah about work and money! This is the beauty of Judaism, that when it comes to tzedakah – acts of righteousness, with which we include contributions to charity – we are reminded to think about the holiness of tzedakah on the day of the week that we are supposed to be resting. Someone thinks it’s important that we – modern Jews in the 21st century – are reminded that we must give of ourselves to the construction of the Tabernacle.
I will borrow here from other scholars, who have expressed their interpretion of parsha Vayakhel with better words than I could craft: [For the construction of the Tabernacle, God has Moses seek voluntary contributions of precious metals and vital artifacts from the people. No national levy, only free-will offerings. Coercion is to be rigorously avoided. All, men and women alike, are invited to express their approval of the project by sharing of their personal possessions. The inclusion of women in this campaign is so striking that when Maimonides came to codify the laws pertaining to the building of the Temple, he stressed in the spirit of our parashah that “all men and women are obligated to build and assist physically and monetarily, just like in the Tabernacle in the wilderness” (Hilkhot Beit ha-Behirah 1:12). While both men and women, moved by the moment, brought “brooches, earrings, rings and pendants — gold objects of all kinds” as well as “crimson yarns, fine linens, goats’ hair, tanned ram skins and dolphin skins” (Exodus 35:22–23), the Torah does attribute the profusion of woven materials to women: “And all the skilled women spun with their own hands, and brought what they had spun, in blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and in fine linen. And all the women who excelled in that skill spun the goats’ hair” (35:25–26). ] Some scholars have interpreted this section of the torah to indicate that the building of the tabernacle is indeed gender-neutral or egalitarian – that both men and women have an important role in contributing to the building and that no person should be denied the privilege of giving – be it of material goods or their skills and time.
Rabbi Aron Tendler of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA points out that the 3rd, 4th, & 5th Aliyot of Vayakhel focused on contributions from everyone in the community. Talents and materials were donated and Betzallel and Oholiav were appointed as chief architects and artists. The response to Moshe’s appeal was so great that Moshe had to command the people to stop their donations! Rabbi Tendler exclaimed, “see, miracles do happen!”
The details that are provided in this parsha are numerous, specific and elaborate. We are told what colors to use to dye the wool and which animal’s hair shall be used to spin the wool. We are told that women should use their skill to perform the weaving while the men should dedicate themselves to other tasks. One may wonder why the details are so important here – why not just leave it to the creative talents of Betzalel and the craftspeople to come up with something to their liking? Ramban, the great Spanish commentator, opined that the particulars are provided in excrutiating detail because the community was being asked to contribute and it was important that they understood what their contribution would involve. Ramban tells us that the love is in the details: “They reflect the love and esteem with which the Tabernacle was viewed by the Almighty, the numerous recapitulations being designed to increase the reward of those engaged in it.”
Rabbi Yitzchak Schwartz tells us “Betzalel is the spiritual architect of the Sanctuary. He makes it all come together with divinely inspired creative intelligence. He is able to enlist the unique and essential soul contribution of every individual…He thereby creates the ultimate masterpiece–G-d’s Dwelling Place here on earth…” Just like Betzalel enlisted everyone’s unique-soul-contribution in creating the sanctuary, we at Kona Beth Shalom are being enlisted to contribute to our own special holy project. We have been recruited by Hashem to restore our beautiful torah scroll from Polna. Just as Betzalel enlisted our ancestors to build the Tabernacle, Kona Beth Shalom will enlist the unique-soul-contribution of everyone in our congregation to help restore our torah scroll.
So, what can we give? Donations of money are important because they enable our sofer – the scribe – to make a living for the sacred work that he does. Donation of time is important because we need to get invitations out, make or receive phone calls from participants, help set up and clean up for the commemoration event. I could go into excrutiating detail here to emphasize the importance of each task, but I will spare you for now. The important thing is that everyone feels a part of the Torah, the Sabbath, the holiness that G-d inspires in us everyday. Everyone of us that puts themselves into this project will feel chicken skin when our Torah returns from Florida because each one of us will be a part of the torah. You will be a part of the spiritual Tabernacle that was built to house the Torah in Vayakhel. Don’t forget, that without the Torah the Tabernacle is just a structure, an edifice. Just as Moses aroused our ancestors to contribute to the building of the Tabernacle, this parsha can arouse you to weave or build or contribute to our Torah. Building our own Tabernacle here in Hawaii – we’ll that’s another day’s drosh. But the take-home message is that there is something for everyone to do so that the Torah belongs to everyone.
I want to be clear about something that may be confusing. I am not saying that anyone should be donating money or time on Shabbat. We are strictly instructed that one mitzvah cannot be done at the expense of another mitzvah. In the most stringent sense, this means we are commanded not to light a fire or a match on Shabbat. In some religious circles we would not carry money or even car keys on Shabbat. Instead, we can inspire one another to remember the holiness of performing tzedakah so that we are ready to act as soon as Shabbat is over and there are three stars in the sky!
So, here’s my conclusion.
I began this drosh by telling you that I got a gift by volunteering to give the drosh today. I volunteered because this Shabbat is very special to me. It is the birthday of my dear friend, Aviva Plaut, who is off having a well-earned holiday in Maui. A few days ago it was my sister’s birthday and also my best friend in NJ, Karen Kaplan. My mother’s birthday was yesterday. I am so blessed to have simchas to celebrate. But as we all know, we must make sure to plan the simchas because we don’t get to plan the bad things that happen to us, they just happen. Two years ago we lost our dear friend Jules Swickle. It also happens that two days ago it was my father’s 35th yartzeit. My dad, Charlie Steinman, died at the age of 49. My father was a noted vascular surgeon, a hard-working, driven man who was devoted to Judaism and shared his love of our religion with me. He was snatched away from me when I was 15 years old. He was the kind of man that everybody loved, everyone wanted to be around. He had a way that made everyone he touched feel important and special. Shortly before he died, he performed an 8 hour long surgery to save the life of a man in his 80s. My father would be in his 80s today if he had lived a long life. He gave of himself to everyone. He inspired me to live my life Jewishly. If it wasn’t for my dad, I may not have volunteered to give the drosh today. It wasn’t until a week or so ago that I even knew what the parsha was. Well, I am grateful to my dad for being with me today as I tackle this particular parsha, a parsha that I found has great meaning to me. By the way, my dad Charlie’s Hebrew name is Betzalel.