Vayakhel-Pekudei – All for All
“Moses gathered the entire congregation of the children of Israel and he said to them , these are the words that the Lord has commanded to do.” (Ex 35:1)
The entire congregation. Every last Israelite was called to attend. Rarely were all the people gathered together except for extraordinary occasions. Moments of great consequence such as the revelation at Mt. Sinai demanded the participation of every single member of the nation. Other times concerned messages that were critically important for everyone to hear. This instance hardly appears to qualify as one relevant for all the nation to hear at once. Moses repeats the instructions of the Lord regarding the building of the Tabernacle, including detailed descriptions of the design of the Tabernacle as well as the various furnishings that were to be fashioned for it. While the entire nation was solicited for contributions toward the project, the bulk of the instructions related only to the artisans who were directly involved in the work. This is hardly of a nature that should demand full national attendance. Why then was it important that everyone hear together?
Numerous ideas are advanced by commentaries, including the notion that at this particular time the importance of unity among the people was paramount. The second Temple was destroyed, according to our tradition, because of disunity among the people. When embarking on the project of building the first House of God, therefore, complete unity of purpose had to be established from the start.
Ramban and other commentaries understand the building of the Tabernacle as a direct response to the Golden Calf which had been fashioned earlier. While Moses was absent the people had demonstrated that they lacked the sophistication to serve God without some tangible symbol. This drove them to push for an alternative to Moses when they feared he would not return from atop the mountain. A Tabernacle, in which worship of God involved symbols that could be seen and actions to experience, was an alternative to the Golden Calf. The difference was that the Tabernacle had been sanctioned by God whereas the Golden Calf was in opposition to God’s will.
The Midrash states that when the Tabernacle was completed the sin of the Golden Calf was atoned for. The 19th century commentary Ketav Sofer probes the source of this Midrashic assertion. From where does the Midrash derive this? Maybe the Tabernacle had nothing to do with the Golden Calf? Perhaps the sole purpose of the Tabernacle was to bring an awareness of God among the people?
After the Tabernacle was erected the verse states that, “Moses saw all the work, and behold they had done it just as the Lord commanded, so they had done, and Moses blessed them.” (Ex 39:43)
Moses was an observer here. He did not participate in the building of the Tabernacle himself. When the building was completed, and he confirmed that it was in accordance with every detail as instructed, Moses blessed them. Why was Moses himself not the builder of the Tabernacle? If its purpose was to bring God’s presence to the people, Moses should have been the choice vehicle for that. As the person with the closest relationship with God Moses was the most appropriate person for such a job. But his role was restricted to instruction. The Ketav Sofer explains that Moses had not engaged in the construction of the Golden Calf and it was therefore not his role to be engaged in the construction of the Tabernacle. The people, who were involved in the Golden Calf, were to build the Tabernacle. This is why, he notes further, the Tabernacle is called the Tabernacle of testimony. To what does it stand as a testament? It testifies that atonement was achieved for the sin of the Golden Calf, specifically due to the absence of Moses in the work of the building.
This account is supported by other parts of the narrative. The people were not required to participate in the building; they were only solicited for contributions. They nevertheless felt compelled to do more, to participate in the actual building. It didn’t suffice for them to merely dump their wool and leave. It wasn’t enough to drop off a bag of silver. They wanted to physically assist, they wanted to build, not just a Temple but a relationship. The relationship that was injured by the infraction of the Golden Calf was restored through the efforts of the people in building a house of God. When Moses saw this, when he perceived the heartfelt remorse of the people and their desire to assist in establishing the presence of God in their midst, he was spurred to bless them.
When the people brought their contributions, moreover, they brought more than was necessary. An enigmatic verse (35:22) states that the contributions of the men exceeded those of the women. Why was this so, and why is it relevant for the verse share this information with us? This too underscores the idea that the construction of the Tabernacle served to counter the effects of the Golden Calf. The women were not implicated in the Golden Calf. When Aaron was approached by the people to create an alternative in Moses’ absence he tried to stall for time. He instructed the people to bring him the gold from the earrings of their wives and children. Aaron intuited that the women would be more resistant to constructing a statue as an alternative to Moses. Aaron hoped that the resistance of the women would delay the people until Moses returned. However, the verse states that the people immediately removed their earrings from their own ears, bringing the gold to Aaron. They either failed to convince their women or did not bother to try. In their zeal they seized the gold that was on hand, off their own bodies, and the Calf of Gold was forged. Now, when atoning for this, the men were driven to show the same zeal for a righteous end. The men felt more compelled than the women to rectify their actions, as the relationship between God and the women of Israel had not been compromised.
When Jacob met Esau after the two decades he had lived with Laban he sent a message to Esau, telling him that he had been living with Laban until now. Rashi adds a Midrashic insight to his message. Jacob relayed to Esau that throughout his sojourn with Laban he had remained loyal to the values of their father, and he had not learned from Laban’s evil ways. Some commentaries read in the latter phrase a self-deprecating comment. ‘I lived all this time with Laban,’ Jacob said, ‘but I failed to learn from the enthusiasm and zeal with which he conducted his evil. I failed to apply that zeal to my righteous deeds.’ In the construction of the Tabernacle the people were able to fully overcome their earlier error by replicating the zeal they had shown in contributing gold for the statue of the calf, directing their full enthusiasm now to a constructive cause. For this reason every member of the nation needed to be present for the instructions.