Triennial Cycle - Shemot 37:17 - 39:21
Dvar Torah for Adath Shalom Congregation Ottawa, Canada (21 March 2009)
Plaut 379; Eitz Hayim 560
David B. Brooks
Parashat Vayakhel is almost totally devoted to building and furnishing the Mishkan. And it is almost totally repetitious of the instructions that were given in the two previous parashiot (T'tzavveh and Ki Tissa). The difference is that today we are reviewing what did happen (past tense); in previous weeks, we were looking ahead to what should happen. In both cases, Bezalel, whose name means "in the shade or in the shelter of God," is designated as chief architect with special responsibility for carving, sculpting and jewelry. Oholiab, whose name means "tent of my father," is designated as 2nd in command, with special responsibility for weaving and dyeing of cloth. Both were selected by God for this work, perhaps because Bezalel came from Judah, the most powerful tribe, and Oholiab from Dan, "the least of the tribes" -- symbolically bringing everyone into the great task.
But what is this structure that they are going to create? Why does it have to be described in such detail. Indeed, why is it needed at all? I can=t answer all those questions, but let me try to clarify some points. What in English we call the Tabernacle goes by several names in the Torah, each of which, according to Encyclopedia Judaica,[i] "either describes the structure of the shrine or depicts its function:"
$ Mishkan (Dwelling Place implicitly or explicitly B as with Mishkan %&%* B of God among the People Israel)
$ Mishkan ha-Edut ("The Dwelling Place of the Testimony" -- ie, of the two Tablets)
$ >Ohel Mo=ed ("Tent of Meeting" B ie, where God is in some way accessible to, Israel)
$ Mishkan 'Ohel Mo=ed ("Dwelling Place of the Tent")
$ Miqdash ("Sanctuary")
$ ha-Qodesh ("The Holy Place")
Depending on the context, or the point the author is trying to make, one or the other of these terms may be used, but all of them refer to a portable structure that is symbolically the residence of God when leading the Israelites in the wilderness. In some cases, 'ohel and mishkan also refer to sanctuaries that are no longer tents.
The Tabernacle in the desert was made partly of wood, and partly of draped cloth. It had the shape of an oblong, flat booth, and was divided into two portions, about two thirds as a holy area, and the remaining third as the Holy of Holies. Only priests could enter the holy area; only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and he only on Yom Kippur. Outside the booth was a large courtyard, and all Israelites (perhaps only all adult male Israelites; I am not clear on this point) could enter there. When Solomon hired architects to build the Great Temple in Jerusalem, he wanted it larger and grander, but he ordered that it be built with exactly the same proportions inside and out as the Tabernacle.
The strange thing is not that instructions were given to build and furnish the Tabernacle but that those instructions are so detailed. Granted that everything connected with the worship of God had to be performed in one precise fashion, no other case receives anything like this degree of detail. For example, apart from the differences between clean and unclean animals, the whole subject of kashrut, is not set out at all in the Tanach but left to theOral Torah and rabbinic interpretation.
Part of the reason for all the detail is that the Tabernacle was intended to symbolize the concept that Israel was, or, more accurately, was supposed to be, a kingdom of priests B but that answer could apply to lots of other things where less detail is provided.
Another part of the answer comes from Maimonides= concept of what was needed at an early stage of Jewish worship.[ii] Just as he stated that the sacrifices were instituted for a people just beginning to struggle with the absolute oneness of an invisible God, he also stated that Athe main purpose of the sanctuary was to wean the people from idolatry and turn their attention towards to one and only God.@[iii] This makes sense to me, so I have to disagree with the author of the entry on the Tabernacle in Encyclopedia Judaica when he writes, AThe problem of reconciling divine transcendentalism with immanence is a challenge to the conceptual reasoning of the philosopher; to the Israelite it was an intuitively accepted truth inherent in the mystery of faith.@ There is nothing intuitive about it! Many of us still struggle with this concept, both personally and in the structures we build today for our services.
In contrast to the near absence of commentary on why all the detail in the instructions for the Tabernacle, there are literally hundreds of pages of commentary about the instructions themselves. Encyclopedia Judaica says, AThe Biblical account of the Tabernacle and its history bristles with difficulties.@ Among other things, there are differences between the instructions and what seems to have occurred, as well as questions about where all that gold and silver came from, and how the clan of Merari, which had only four wagons, could transport it all. I will add my own question about the references to Apure gold@ (9&%) "%'). Gold is a very soft metal, and, for anything bigger than filagree, it has to be alloyed with other metals; it certainly could not be used as indicated in the text. Again quoting from Encyclopedia Judaica: ANumerous solutions of the problems have been proposed, some highly fanciful and all necessarily conjectural.@
Let=s go on to function. The Tabernacle had three overlapping roles:
$ It was the symbolic dwelling place of God among the Israelites, a visible indication that, even though they were not in the promised land, God was with them.
$ Second, it was the focal point for all major aspects of religion. The priests officiated there and conducted the sacrificial services. All the implements of the cult, as with the lamp and the cherubim, were placed in the Tabernacle.
$ Third, the Tabernacle was the place where God spoke to Moses, and where a Divine Presence could be made evident to the Israelites, as with the cloud that covered the Tabernacle whenever the Israelites camped.
Modern synagogues serve somewhat the same roles. We do not think of the synagogue as the dwelling place of God, nor does God speak to us here, at least not as God spoke to Moses. However, we followed the model of Bezalel when we held a competition for design of our Ner Tamid, and, Oholiab when members of the shul made our wall hanging/huppah and our bima covers. The synagogue is certainly the focal point for our religious activities, and, if God does not speak directly to us, perhaps we are speaking to God.
All of this is a bit heavy, so, as I like to do, let me conclude with a few lighter thoughts. The Torah emphasizes that all the Israelites were eager to help with the work of building the Tabernacle. Tz=enah Ur=enah, the Yiddish commentary for women, adds that domestic animals were as eager as the Israelites to participate in the work of preparing the Tabernacle. For example, the goats came to the women to be shorn on their own without being led. However, they did not come on Shabbat or on Rosh Hodesh. The Talmud (Shab. 74b, 99a) puts the two together and says that the women were so eager that they spun the fabric while it was still on the goats. The author of Tz=enah Ur=enahseems to be a bit skeptical; the text says dryly that this is Aa great talent.@ My good wife Toby told me that, before it can be woven, wool has to be washed, and, having had a bit of experience with goats, I suggest that it would have been an even greater talent to wash the goats.
The men were also eager, very possibly because they had a guilty conscience, for having all too willingly contributed their gold for the golden calf only a few weeks earlier. Now they wanted to atone by contributing gold for the Tabernacle, but where could more gold come from? If you remember, the women would not contribute to the golden calf, so they still had their gold. According to an 11th century Midrash (Midrash Lekah Tov, cited in Encyclopedia Judaica), the men forcibly took the gold from their wives and children. The very next Parashah, Pikudei, which is read together with Vayakhel this year, starts with a careful accounting of the gold and silver contributed by the Israelites for the Tabernacle. No distinction seems to be made in the account books between the gold that really did belong to the men and the gold that was taken forcibly from the women and children.
[i]. All of the references to Encyclopedia Judaica refer to the entry for Tabernacle.
[ii]. This perspective is described at length in David Hartman, A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1977), pp. 175-79.
[iii]. Philip Birnbaum, A Book of Jewish Concepts, revised edition (New York: Hebrew Publishing, 1975), p._396.