Parashat Vayakhel seems to begin in a similar way to Parashat Terumah. After a brief repetition of the commandment of Shabbat, there are instructions to take gifts for the construction of the mishkan (Shemot 35) and then the construction of the mishkan itself is described, starting in Shemot 36.
However, there are significant differences between the sections containing the commandments regarding building the mishkan, and the description of the construction itself. While many focus on what order the various items in the mishkan are presented, I would like to suggest that there is a significant difference already in the first verse of Vayakhel.
To understand this difference, we need to look back at the final verses of Parashat Ki Tisa. We read there that Moshe came down again from Mt. Sinai, with the second set of tablets. After his encounter with God, his face was shining, and the people were afraid from seeing him like this:
“Aaron and all the Israelites saw that the skin of Moses’ face was radiant; and they shrank from coming near him.” (Shemot 34:30)
However, Moshe reassured them: “But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the chieftains in the assembly returned to him, and Moses spoke to them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he instructed them concerning all that the LORD had imparted to him on Mount Sinai.” (Shemot 34:31-32)
It seems that Moshe has taken a different approach to dealing with the people’s reaction to extreme religious events. The first time Moshe was on the mountain, the people were also scared:
“All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance.” (Shemot 20:15)
The response of Moshe was to retreat into the mountain:
“Moses answered the people, ‘Be not afraid; for God has come only in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may be ever with you, so that you do not go astray.’ So the people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was.” (Shemot 20:17-18)
With their leader Moshe gone, the people felt lost, and soon collapsed into the sin of the Golden Calf:
“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.’” (Shemot 32:1)
After the trauma of the Golden Calf episode, Moshe realized he needed to be more involved with the people, to personally guide them to avoid the chaos caused by the vacuum of his absence.
So when he saw their fear at his shining face, he called to them, and spoke to all the people directly.
Similarly, the next parasha begins with gathering – vayakhel – “Moses then gathered the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that the LORD has commanded you to do.” (Shemot 35:1)
This is in contrast with the private instructions found in the beginning of Parashat Terumah, where God spoke to Moshe directly, but no mention is made of Moshe talking to the people and including them in these developments.
Being a leader is difficult, and at times even the best leaders think that they know what the people really need, and don’t feel the need to involve them in the decisions and implementations. While that might seem justified, it can lead to problems. As a midrash quoted by Rabbeinu Bachye on Shemot 35:1 notes:
“The commandment for Moses to assemble [vayakhel] all the people at this point was to compensate for the time Aaron had assembled all the people at the time of the golden calf: ‘the people gathered [vayikahel] against Aaron’ (Shemot 32:1)”
The people wanted a leader, and were going to assemble one way or another. If Moshe couldn’t lead them, then they would insist Aharon would. Moshe learned that lesson, and made sure going forward to be as available as possible for their needs.