Five Rashis, Vayakhel: Building the Mishkan in the Right Time, with the Right Contributors

A project in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya.

Fire on Shabbat

Early in this week’s parsha, Moshe reminds the people of the obligation to keep Shabbat, including abstaining from מלאכה, creative labor, and then adds, as a verse of its own, that we may not burn fires. Rashi notes two opinions on why the Torah singled out אש, fire. (Interestingly, we seem to rule according to both, but that’s not a Rashi discussion).

The first has it that הבערה ללאו יצאת, fire was written separately to tell us that it is a lesser violation than the other prohibited labors. Those others would incur the death penalty or karet, but fire is a לאו, a “plain” prohibition, like eating pig or wearing shatnez.

That seems counterintuitive, because fire is so quintessential a form of human creativity; yet halachah treats it as less serious a violation of those days (here and in Yom Tov, where it’s one of the two types of labor that are allowed even when not needed, by virtue of having been allowed when needed). I don’t have an explanation, I’m up to noticing the fact of it.

The second reading teaches us a general rule about Shabbat, seeing the Torah as having singled out fire to reveal that each of the prohibited creative labors counts as a separate violation. Someone who plants and cooks on Shabbat has desecrated the day in two importantly different ways. Doing both of those without realizing (i.e., not remembering that planting was prohibited or that cooking was prohibited and doing them) obligates the sinner in to sacrifices.

That is not as true in Yom Tov terms, where there are no obvious differences in the impact of each type of violation. R. Lichtenstein once explained that Yom Tov is about separating from our regular activities to celebrate the holiday. In that context, any violation is just about the same as any other, in that they mean we did not separate fully.

For Shabbat, we are going a step further, we are refraining from any kind of creativity. In that framework, engaging in one kind of creativity differs from another, because each of them are separately prohibited (R. Rosensweig liked to emphasize the difference of opinions about whether Shabbat is one large violations with multiple components, or really almost like thirty-nine separate prohibitions).

And all that comes from the Torah’s singling out fire for special mention.

Guarantors Aren’t the Same as Contributors

35;27 notes that the heads of the tribes brought the precious stones used in the Kohen Gadol’s garments (on the breastplate and the shoulders). Rashi on the words והנשאם הביאו quotes R. Natan, who wondered at their different conduct here from the dedication of the Mishkan (in Parashat Naso), when they were the first to offer gifts.  He says that originally they planned to round out whatever the other Jews failed to bring, only to be surprised by their, leaving them little to give. Learning their lesson, they went first at the dedication of the Mishkan.

The comment built off the Torah’s spelling והנשיאים, and the heads of the tribes, without its yod.  R. Natan says that since they נתעצלו, which in modern Hebrew would translate as “were lazy” at first, the letter was taken away. R. Natan detects a criticism of the nesi’im, despite their having guaranteed the finances of the Mishkan. If today a donor guaranteed a charitable organization that s/he would supplement whatever was needed to reach a capital campaign’s goal, I think that organization’s leaders would be thrilled. R. Natan is suggesting that when it came to the Mishkan, those donors should have made a donation first, and then guaranteed to fill in whatever wasn’t supplied by other donors.

Cliques and Meritocracy in Building the Mishkan

35;34  mentions that Oholiav b. Achisamach of the tribe of Dan was going to be second in command to Betsalel in the building of the Mishkan. Rashi comments that Dan was among the lowest of the tribes, son of Bilhah, one of the maidservants. Rashi is mentioning that in the name of making the point that that didn’t matter in terms of who built the Mishkan—Betsalel was from Yehudah, a well-respected tribe, and Oholiav was from Dan, a less-respected tribe, but they were partners in the construction of the Mishkan.

The premise is a little depressing. In Rashi’s view, the family dynamics of the original tribes was passed down through the generations. Even as we can understand (although not necessarily celebrate) that it would be challenging for Leah’s children to look at Bilhah and Zilpah’s children as equals, I would have hoped that would be lost over time, since all those descendants were being included in the Jewish people, with no obvious distinctions among them.

But that’s not how we are, most of us; we hold on to our distinctions, to our ways of looking down on others. As Hashem gave people the talents to build the Mishkan (or, if we think Hashem leaves that to more natural processes, as Hashem chose to single out people whose talents would be at the forefront of building the Mishkan), Rashi is saying Hashem also struck a blow for equality, reminding us that it’s not where we come from that makes us valuable or not, it’s what we do with what we’re given. Especially in building Hashem’s house (as it were).

And Yet, Betsalel

In the first verse of chapter 37 (and throughout the chapter), the Torah says that Betsalel made the Aron, the Ark of the Covenant, or other items used in the Mishkan. Rashi comments that he was the one who gave his soul to this, which is why the Torah ascribes it to him more than the other craftsmen.

Two points jump out. First, the Hebrew word I translated as craftsmen is actually חכמים, wise men (and the Torah had earlier referred to those who were going to manufacture the Mishkan as being חכמי לב, wise of heart). It’s a casual, by-the-way reminder that wisdom comes in many forms. Not all forms are equal or equally vital, but those building the Mishkan were wise in the way needed at that moment.

Rashi’s intended point, of course, is that effort matters more than all the rest, in terms of giving credit. He does not say (although other comments imply it) that Betsalel understood better how to construct the Mishkan, and that’s why the Torah credits it to him. Nor does he say that Betsalel did most of the work, or had the best ideas about how to do the work. He says Betsalel was the most dedicated, poured his soul into the work more than the others.

The group of workers—all dedicated enough to be included in the process, so it’s not to imply they were slackers—was taken from all the tribes, regardless of how society labeled them. But in putting a name on the project, talent, insight, or even time wasn’t the crucial qualification; it was emotional investment in ensuring the Mishkan came out as close to perfect as possible.

Proper Sexuality

35;22 refers to the men coming על the women to bring materials for the Mishkan. Rashi explains that it means עם, with, near them, but doesn’t elaborate as to why the Torah would stress that. I think the answer might be buried in another Rashi, 38;8, on the words במראת הצובאת, which refers to the mirrors from which the כיור, the water-basin, was made.

Rashi sees these as a doubly valuable contribution. First, the women donated them, when they could easily have insisted they needed them for themselves and their personal hygiene and/or beauty routine, but did not.

More, Moshe disliked the mirrors because he saw them as a tool for the יצר הרע, for arousing our baser instincts (women want to look beautiful, in this reading, to attract attention, much of it sexual). Hashem’s response is that he’s right, except that these women had used those exact instincts for positive purposes. One necessary element of the years in slavery was growing a Jewish people; but men who are exhausted (like slaves doing hard labor) aren’t in the mood to procreate. The women used these mirrors as tools in their arsenal of getting their husbands to join them in building the Jewish people.

The Torah certainly has a negative attitude towards many forms of sexuality. Rashi is reminding us that there are also highly positive forms of sexuality, and when those come into play, they’re not an embarrassing or degrading aspect of human experience. So much so that the tools of that form of sexuality can be used to build the Mishkan, the place where we get to experience the direct Presence of Hashem.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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