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Fox Tales: Parashat Vayak’hel

The final two weeks of readings in the book of Exodus return to a topic that was encountered earlier, before the Golden Calf episode and the renewed laws that accompany it: the building instructions for the “Dwelling” (Tabernacle). There, fully seven chapters (25-31) had been occupied with laying out all the appropriate details, and this week, the first half of the final six chapters introduces how the sacred structure and its appurtenances get assembled.

These two Dwelling sections in Exodus surround the Calf story, bracketing it at either end by several verses commanding observance of the Sabbath. This framing structure is important; it emphasizes the ritual and spiritual need to “cease” (the meaning of the term “Shabbat”) from “making” (Heb. ‘asoh) things once a week, pointedly using “make” here to describe the ritual observance, in contrast to the numerous instances of the same verb that appear in both the earlier and later sections relating to the physical construction of the Dwelling.

Stepping back, some forty per cent of the book of Exodus is taken up by the Dwelling texts. This is not surprising in the context of the ancient Near East, which follows a long-recognized pattern where the erection of a royal holy structure is lovingly dwelt upon by the narrator. As a result, the finishing of the Dwelling, and not the exodus itself or the victory at the Sea of Reeds, serves as the climax of the book as presently constituted. To use the language of Exodus, the “service” (‘avodah) of constructing the Dwelling, and the resulting sacrificial rituals, ultimately take the place of what had started out as “servitude” (using the exact same Hebrew word) to Egyptian masters in the opening sections of the book.

In addition, the chapter with which the reading begins, 35, has a notable focus. Rather than starting with the actual construction work, it concentrates instead on the preparations for it, by describing the totality of the response by the Israelite people. It does this simply by repeating the Hebrew word kol (meaning variously “all,” “every,” or “entire”), some thirty times in the chapter, in such phrases as, “So the entire community of the Children of Israel/went out from Moshe’s presence, /and then they came, every man whose mind uplifted him, /and everyone whose spirit made-him-willing brought YHWH’s contribution/for the skilled-work…Every man or woman/whose mind made-them-willing to bring [anything] for all the workmanship…[they brought] as a freewill-offering for YHWH” (vv.20-21, 29). In other words, the people’s role in the erection of the Dwelling goes far beyond the mustering of construction workers. They themselves, with a “willing” (nadiv) and often skilled “mind” (lev)—more words that repeat throughout the chapter—contribute en masse to the sacred task at hand. In the event, the material response is so overwhelming that Moshe, supervising the process, has to declare in 36:6:

“Man and woman–let them not make ready any further work-material for the contribution of the Holy-Shrine!”/So the people were stopped from bringing,/for the work-material was enough for them, for all the work, to make it, and more.

The word lev is often rendered as “heart” in other biblical contexts. So the uniting of heart, mind, and skill, characteristic of these chapters, betokens an ancient Israel which, at least in the idealized form in which it is presented in Exodus, supports and surrounds the divine Dwelling in common purpose. This is symbolized by the layout of the traveling camp, as described in Numbers 2, in which the tribes pitch their tents in orderly fashion around the structure, completing the inner arrangement of sacred courtyards and other precincts. This ordering of physical space, reminiscent of a military camp, also expresses the Israelites’ singular sense of community as it moves through the wilderness.

In contrast, in our time, the great and most urgent work of building community, of dedication to a joint goal that recognizes the contributions and dignity of all human beings, seems more remote than ever, whether in confronting challenges posed by the environment, gender issues, or national identities. Modern attempts, especially in recent years, have frequently foundered in exclusion and disaster. We have yet to find a lasting formula.

About the Author
I'm the Allen M. Glick Professor of Judaic and Biblical Studies at Clark University, Worcester, MA. I've published translations of The Five Books of Moses and The Early Prophets.
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