Vayakhel-Pekudei: Blueprints for Holy Work

What does it look like to commit to a project and see it through to completion? How can we create, lead, and complete in an ethical manner?

Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei lays out a blueprint for the ways we must do our work. These parshiyot depict the construction of the mishkan, recording the collection process for materials, the detailed artisanal creations, and the budgetary and spending notations. They also include the commandment to work for six days, and rest on the seventh: “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to God…” (Shemot 35:2). This is the mitzvah of Shabbat. 

I want to focus on the outlines for work in this week’s parsha rather than on the obligations of rest. The mishkan is a project assigned to B’nai Yisrael — a project large enough, and described in enough detail within these parshiyot, that its construction allows us to extrapolate important insights. The framework provided within this parsha for how to carry out a project is valuable for anyone operating personally and professionally; for anyone determined to create impact or make change. There are six requirements of this work.

  1. The first requirement: we are instructed to work with intention.

    Moshe tells the people that the foundation of their donation of both materials and effort must be passion and love. “And everyone whose heart was lifted and everyone whose spirit was moved came, bringing to God an offering for the work of the Tent of Meeting and for all its service and for the sacral vestments,” (Shemot 35:21) says the pasuk.

    The people who build the mishkan must come with uplifted hearts and moved spirits. When we begin a project, when we start a job, our hearts and souls should be listened to.

    Both the mishkan and the projects in our lives must begin with idealism.
  2. Next, we must give of ourselves, and enable others to give of themselves.

    We give according to what we have and what we are able. The pesukim note that “everyone who possessed blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair, tanned ram skins, and dolphin skins, brought them…. everyone who would make gifts of silver or copper brought them as gifts for God; and everyone who possessed acacia wood for any work of the service brought that…” (Shemot 35:23-24), underscoring that each contributor brought something different to the table.

    We are all blessed with different financial, emotional, social, and intellectual abilities. We must understand what it is we can bring, and what would be better for someone else to contribute. It would be a mistake to commit something we cannot give to our work.

    Rather than trying to be every person, there is so much value in allowing every person to give according to what they have.
  3. Third, we must allow leaders to emerge.

    Support, encourage, and develop those leaders. That may be you — and it may be someone else.

    In Vayakhel we see that as Betzalel is appointed that leader for his craftsmanship and ability: “And Moshe said to the Israelites: See, Hashem has singled out by name Betzalel, son of Uri son of Chur, of the tribe of Yehuda, endowing him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft…” (Shemot 35:30-31).

    Moshe calls Betzalel and the other artisans “chachamim” — wise ones — those with the knowledge to be leading the charge of the mishkan.

    In every field there are chachamim. Identifying and supporting them is a very important aspect of working effectively.
  4. Fourth, we must know when to pause.

    We must learn to recognize when it is time to stop receiving contributions and instead to begin construction. We must be able to identify when people are giving too much of themselves.

    The chachamim — the leaders of this project — tell Moshe, we are receiving too many donations, the people need to stop. And they frame it beautifully: “The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that God has commanded to be done” (Shemot 36:4-5).

    Rabbeinu Bachya comments that the artisans possessed “moral and ethical integrity,” which was clear from the way they had approached Moshe to share that they had received too many donations. “The phrase ‘va’yomru el Moshe leimor’ indicates that they told Moses about this overage time and again,” Rabbeinu Bachya writes.

    “God wanted no additions, nor omissions” in the building of the mishkan, explains Sforno.

    Sometimes it can be incredibly difficult to work on a project and bring the initial passion, the uplifted heart to the table, and then turn around and say: This isn’t in my mission statement. This is not something that supports our goals. This partnership shifts the focus of my organization. This balance, this restraint, is something we are required to develop within our work. We come into projects with a lot of passion for building and growing, but there are limits to our projects that, when breached, threaten the integrity of our vision and missions. We must have a system in place, a means of quelling that passion.

    This is also why we bring in and build up leaders. Sometimes we don’t have the clarity to make the choice to exercise restraint — and we need others to help us with that. Passion and clarity are a difficult thing to hold at the same time.
  5. Let’s not forget actualization.

    The building of the mishkan is described in a painstakingly detailed way, as if to say, this is what we have done all of this preparation for. Every single step is described, because this is the work. You may get very far with vision, passion, and leadership, but if you don’t actually do the work, you won’t complete the project.

    When I went to read the parsha, my eyes skimmed over the pesukim detailing the actual work and I moved on because it was a bit boring to me. Reading them feels tedious: “Then all the skilled among those engaged in the work made the tabernacle of ten strips of cloth, which they made of fine twisted linen, blue, purple, and crimson yarns; into these they worked a design of cherubim. The length of each cloth was twenty-eight cubits, and the width of each cloth was four cubits, all cloths having the same measurements. They joined five of the cloths to one another, and they joined the other five cloths to one another. They made loops of blue wool on the edge of the outermost cloth of the one set, and did the same on the edge of the outermost cloth of the other set…” (Shemot 36:8-12).

    And I realized that in real life, the actual work — coordinating with vendors, making a plan for the program, writing a speech — can also be a commitment I have a hard time with. I do it, but I procrastinate or dread it, sometimes.

    We can’t avoid that work. It may be as tedious as reading the way the mishkan’s cloth was looped (and it was probably even more tedious to loop it in real life!), but it is part of the work. And it’s the longest section of the Torah reading by far, but, again — the actualization of the project always takes the longest.
  6. Lastly, the step we forget about: the debriefing.

    It’s an easy step to forget before getting swept up in the next project.

    Eleh Pekudei Hamishkan. These are the records of the mishkan. “These are the records of the Tabernacle….” expresses the pasuk (Shemot 38:21), “all the gold that was used for the work, in all the work of the sanctuary—the elevation offering of gold—came to 29 talents and 730 shekels by the sanctuary weight…” (Shemot 38:24)

    The reader of this section does not hear the details of the mishkan’s inception and construction and then walk away. We are given the costs, a full cheshbon. This, too, is an important aspect of engaging with a project: at the end, when we have finished the work, we must give ourselves honest feedback, record our successes and failures, account for what we spent. Have we lost money somewhere? Did we follow the plan? Did we mismanage any of our materials? Did our leaders lead properly? Organizational transparency is an ethical responsibility.

    Kli Yakar writes that, “there are those who say that initially [the people] did not request an accounting from Moshe, but rather Moshe himself wanted to…”. For the leader of B’nai Yisrael to take on additional work despite his many responsibilities, this underscores the importance of the cheshbon.

And now we finish. We complete all the work just as God commanded. But it’s just not about the work God commanded us; it’s also about how God commanded us to do that work. And we must do both: complete the work, and complete it in the right ways. 

The text expresses that “when Moshe saw that they had performed all the tasks—as God had commanded, so they had done—Moshe blessed them” (Shemot 39:43). 

What was this blessing? Rashi comments that it was a verse from Tehillim: “May it be the will of God that His Shechinah rest upon the work of your hands. May the favor of the Lord, our God, be upon us; let the work of our hands prosper, O prosper the work of our hands” (Tehillim 90:17).

In his commentary on Sefer Shemot Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains that the “the construction of the Sanctuary is a sanctification of human labor.” It is not only Shabbat, the day we refrain from work, that can be holy. Work itself, melacha, can be holy. 

When we do God’s work — and when we do it properly, according to these blueprints — we have the opportunity to elevate our work into something holy.

May we rise to the challenge.

May we do holy work.

About the Author
Ruthie creates innovative Jewish programming and supports the development of young Jewish leaders. She believes that storytelling and storysharing is the most powerful uniting force on this planet, and strives to operate spaces that embrace the diversity of the human experience. Currently, Ruthie lives on the Upper East Side with her husband Max (a semicha student at RIETS), a fluffy high-strung dog, and their very adventurous toddler.
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