29 Adar 5781
March 12, 2021
This week’s length double-parasha, Vayakhel/Pekude, completes both the book of Exodus as well as the construction of God’s sanctuary, the Mishkan. After having described each part of the Mishkan in the previous parshiot, Moshe facilitates the donations of materials from the people, oversees the construction of each part, and then directs the construction of the sanctuary itself for the first time. The opening word, “vaYakhel,” is critical. It means, the people gathered together to form a community as one by giving freely and plentifully. Many commentators wrote on the significance of the ingathering of the nation at this moment, signified by the opening word, vayakhel. Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra emphasized that the people needed to rally around the shared enterprise of constructing the Mishkan and hear the call for donations directly from Moshe. Rabbi Ovadiah ben Yaakov Sforno, 15th century Italy, clarified that Moshe wanted everyone to understand that building the Mishkan was a directive Moshe heard directly from God on Mt. Sinai. Ramban, Rabbi Nachman ben Moshe, 14th century Spain, noted that Moshe descended from the mountain that very day, and needed to assure the people that God’s anger abated since the building of the golden calf, and the building of the Mishkan would indicate that God still loved Israel. Rabbi Yosef ben Yitzchak Bekhor Shor, France, 12th century, understood this moment to be about the importance of transparency for the purpose of inclusivity. Exclusivity weakens the fabric of collective identity. He wrote that Moshe gathered everyone publicly
“…so that nobody afterwards could raise the objection that only an elite few who were informed about God’s desire had the opportunity to participate in building the Mishkan, whereas we others did not know. They would claim that it was only when we saw the others bringing their donations did we discover what God wanted, but by then it would be too late and we would have lost the opportunity also to donate to this cause. Therefore, Moshe gathered everyone together and informed everyone as one.” (Bechor Shor, Shemot 35:1)
Rabbi Bechor Shor emphasized the critical importance of sharing information to nourish the collective well-being of the entire nation.
The Tiferet Shlomo, Rabbi Shlomo Hakohen Rabinowicz, the first Rebbe of the Radomsk Hasidic dynasty in 19th century Poland, also understood that this moment was significant for the relationship between God and the people, and for the nation’s shared sense of purpose. However, rather than Moshe clarifying God’s affect, or describing the technical need for transparency, he explored the psycho-dynamic quality of the nation’s character. According to the Tiferet Shlomo, the people needed to recalibrate their thinking and feeling, and how they saw themselves in the world. In other words, Rabbi Shlomo understood the interiority of the moment, and how it captured the existential condition of the nation. He wrote:
“As a result of the episode of the golden calf, the Jewish people suffered from a personality disorder. (נפגם הדעת של בנ”י), as it said in parashat ki Tissa, “Benei Yisrael was commanded to remove their ornaments….” (Shemot 33:5) [The word, “ornaments,” sounds like the word, “your testimonies,” meaning, “you idolaters can no longer bear witness to Me, God, in the world.”] In that moment, the people lost something of their collective identity, or sense of purpose. As a result, after the Holy One, forgave them, their sense of self was still not fully healed. However, Moshe contained the consciousness of the entire nation. He was like a tree, and the people, its branches. Moshe was able to cause their consciousness, [their sense of purpose], to flow into his consciousness, healing and nourishing each and every member of the nation as each person then received [the energy of] Moshe’s consciousness. That is why, after describing the donations for the Mishkan project, the Torah says, “And the ‘adat’ of Bene Yisrael left from before Moshe.” The people left Moshe’s presence once his consciousness had flowed into them.” (Shemot 35:1)
The word, ‘adat’ is the same as the word for ‘ornaments’ from the golden calf narrative. In addition, there is a literary assonance between the word, “‘adat,” and the word, “daat,” meaning, “character,” or, “personality.” The building of the Mishkan was synonymous, according to this reading, with the reconstruction of the character, identity, and sense of purpose of the Jewish people. The Tiferet Shlomo’s reading is profoundly contemporary, mystical and optimistic. A people can lose their sense of direction and purpose. They can become estranged from their own destiny and alienated from themselves. Yet, they can heal. There can emerge a leader capable of reenergizing them, reinvigorating a vision they had had of themselves, healing their broken spirit. A nation that loses touch with their intuitive understanding of their role in the world and of what they have to give to humanity, can regain that knowledge; their consciousness may have become occluded, but it can flow once more.
From this perspective, the Mishkan cannot merely be understood as a physical structure. It is essentially a phenomenological event. “Phenomenology is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, its being directed toward something, as it is an experience of or about some object.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) In this case, the Jewish people is the “person,” and their “first-person point of view” is the perspective they must have about themselves in the world, their sense of purpose in response to their lived experience. Building the Mishkan, therefore, is a narrative about the purpose of the Jewish people and of what the Jewish people can donate to humanity in order to create a world infused with an awareness of the sanctity of life and the magnificent mystery and diversity of world cultures.
In this regard, it is noteworthy that the sections describing the fabrication of each part of the Mishkan are preceded by a reiteration of the mitzvah to keep Shabbat. Rabbenu Bahya ben Asher ibn Halawa, 13th century Spain, quoted the midrash Tanchuma, making explicit the juxtaposition of the laws of Shabbat and the actual construction of the Mishkan as intentional. The word, melacha describes the intentional, mindful application of creative skill and imaginative intelligence to both the creation of the universe by God and the construction of God’s sanctuary by people:
“A Midrashic approach (Tanchuma Pekudey 11): The words “Moses saw all the work,” refers to the מעשה בראשית, the creation of the universe; the Torah deliberately omitted adding the words מלאכת המשכן, “the work of the Tabernacle,” in order to teach us that this construction of the Tabernacle was equivalent in a sense to the construction of the universe itself.”(Shemot 39:43)
Rabbi Nathan Nata Spira, 16th-17th century, Krakow, Poland, wrote a work called, Megaleh Amukot. He quoted this same midrashic connection between Shabbat and Mishkan in section 227. Later, however, in section 247, he applied a series of mystical hermeneutic devices to construct associations between God, the tablets of stone, the letters of the Torah, the developmental stages of the gestation of a human fetus, the land of Israel, and the cleansing waters of a mikveh. I quote the passage below:
“A well known teaching of the sages of the mystical tradition regarding the mystical meaning of the tablets of stone (the luchot habrit) is that their volume was 40 “seah” (approximately 8.5 litres). This is based on the teaching in Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer. This is the same as the volume of a mikveh, the equivalent of 240 “kavs,” which equals 960 “logs.” Moshe received Torah in 40 days. In each “seah” are 6 “logs, and in each “kav” there are 4 “logs.” Days are divided into quarters of 6 hours. Just as a mikveh has 960 “logs” of water, there are 960 hours in 40 days. This means that Moshe learned the Oral Torah in 960 hours which is the equivalent of a mikveh. These numerical connections reflect the meaning of the verse in Proverbs 13:14, that says, “The Torah of the wise is the source of life,” since a mikveh is connected to the potential for new life. Similarly, the formation of a fetus takes 960 hours, and the gematria value of the word, “matnitin,” the term for “Mishnah,” is 960. Furthermore, according to Bereshit Rabba 16:4, there is no Torah like the Torah of the land of Israel, and it takes 40 days to walk the length of the land of Israel, which equals 960 hours at an average pace. Furthermore, the verse in Jeremiah 14:8, “God is the mikveh of the Jewish people,” hints that these quantities of the seah, the log and the kav inhere inside the shapes of the letters of God’s name….”
Rabbi Natan’s comments authenticate a deeply universalistic, figurative way of understanding the meaning of Mishkan. Remember that Moshe called the entire nation to stand before him and engage the construction of this sanctuary. Their first act was an act of giving from their heart. Mishkan is about building the universe. When an entire people dedicates themselves to the building of a Mishkan, they concern themselves with the largest expanses of the universe (creation) and the smallest, most fragile microscopic particle at the same time (gestation of the fetus in the womb). The determination to build a Mishkan transforms a people. They become people whose every action cleanses the universe like a mikveh, nourishes every moment of life like a woman carrying a fetus in her womb. Life is fragile; humanity is temperamentally vulnerable. They become people who revere the earth, who walk its surface, protect its ecologies, and respect the deep need of every nation to feel centered in a geographic locaion they call home. When Rabbi Natan references 40 days to walk the land of Israel, reflecting the 40 days Moshe was on Har Sinai, he is recognizing that the physical realities of settling a land, building a society, and establishing a nation must be nourished by the same vision God had when creating the world. Rabbi Natan has linked all of these values symbolically: creation, mikveh, embryonic development, earth, God, words, and humanity.
Mishkan provides us with a lens for evaluating ourselves. How well are the Jewish people walking the earth? How cleansing are our actions as a people? How sensitive and responsive are we to people with whom we interact, and to people with whom we share society but have no interactions? “A human being is a microcosmic world.” (Tanchuma Pekude 3; Tzror haMor, Rabbi Avraham Saba, “Vayakhel”). We are supposed to be constantly engaged in the processes of building a Mishkan out of ourselves, collectively. That means living a vision-driven life. It means building relationships with people, the earth, and each other that nourish and cleanse, that support life in ways that are healthy and kind and affirming. It means living by embracing all of the diversities that the Mishkan itself contained, in its materials and colors and design. It means, like the Mishkan, to make certain that the acquisition of material value, the gold and silver and fine linens and tapestries and dyes and skins, all serve the higher purpose of bringing light and sweet fragrance into the world. It means that when the humanity of different cultures and environments and ways of life see us, they say to themselves, “That people has transformed the world into a sanctuary. May we learn their ways.”