Vayakhel Exodus (And He (Moses) Gathered) 35:1 – 38:20
A simple structure constructed of volunteered items easily found in ordinary households, the Tabernacle represents the very essence of human freedom and equality.
This week’s Torah portion opens with Moses’ instruction to the Children of Israel to donate items for the construction of the Tabernacle and its various vessels. It echoes the very similar commandment that God gave to Moses in Chapter 25. It would seem, therefore, that the repetition would be superfluous. Why didn’t Scripture just tell us that Moses commanded the people to donate and they did?
In reading the verses in chapter 35, however, there is something very special that is conveyed through the details mentioned here. Like the previous instruction, Moses asks for those “of a generous heart” but he details the actual items needed for each vessel or structure:
Oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, and onyx stones and stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breast piece. (Exodus 35:8-9)
Moses is inspiring the people, enabling them to understand that their donation will contribute in a very direct way to a specific purpose. In the same vein, he asks for skilled craftsmen to construct very specific items: “The Tabernacle, its tent and its covering, its hooks and its frames, its bars, its pillars, and its bases; the ark with its poles, the mercy seat, and the veil of the screen” (Exodus 35:11-12).
But the most moving part is the description of the actual donations brought by the people. Again, the phrase “everyone whose heart stirred him” (Exodus 35:21) is repeated. “So they came, both men and women. All who were of a willing heart brought brooches and earrings and signet rings and armlets, all sorts of gold objects, every man dedicating an offering of gold to the Lord. And every one who possessed blue or purple or scarlet yarns or fine linen or goats’ hair or tanned rams’ skins or goatskins brought them. Everyone who could make a contribution of silver or bronze brought it as the Lord’s contribution. And every one who possessed acacia wood of any use in the work brought it. And every skillful woman spun with her hands, and they all brought what they had spun in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen. All the women whose hearts stirred them to use their skill spun the goats’ hair. And the leaders brought onyx stones and stones to be set, for the ephod and for the breast piece, and spices and oil for the light, and for the anointing oil, and for the fragrant incense. All the men and women, the people of Israel, whose heart moved them to bring anything for the work that the Lord had commanded by Moses to be done brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord” (Exodus 35:22-29).
Each man and woman did what he or she could to help. Those who could spin the yarns did so. Those who had precious gems and gold and silver to donate, did so. Those who had skins or fabrics donated them. The detail presented here, of each type of donation and each person who took the time to determine how he or she could help, all as moved by their hearts, teaches a very important lesson indeed.
Often, it is the success of a project that history records. When great kings of antiquity built monuments to celebrate victories or to worship a pagan god, we know nothing of the ordinary people who participated in the construction. In fact, it is likely that these temples and monuments were built by slaves who were forced to labor with great suffering to build a magnificent structure at the whim of their master.
Not so the Tabernacle. It is a simple structure constructed of items easily found in ordinary households – fabrics and skins and jewelry. And Scripture stresses that it is built through donations, simple items brought by ordinary people, as their hearts and spirits moved them, voluntarily, to take part in the building of a structure that would serve as their center of worship, their vehicle to reach God. It is a structure that represents the very essence of human freedom and equality, even as it sets strict limits on the access of ordinary people to its innermost sanctum. But the restricted access does not reflect upon the status of the individual, for each individual is equal before God, as reflected in his ability to participate in this great national project. Restricted access is an expression of great holiness and sanctity, not of inequality and oppression. The high priest who enters the Holy of Holies represents the people and enables atonement for their sins – he serves them who have enabled this vehicle for serving God to come into existence.
Pikudei Exodus (Accounts) 38:21 – 40:38
God understands our need to feel His presence among us. And, like Moses who is reluctant to enter the Tabernacle, when we hesitate, God beckons to us.
The closing chapters of the Book of Exodus complete the section that deals with the construction of the Tabernacle. The last verses are particularly interesting.
Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. (Exodus 40:34-35)
Twice, Scripture tells us that the glory of God has filled the Tabernacle, which, in essence is what the Tabernacle was for. When God first instructed Moses on this issue, He said: “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst” (Exodus 25:8). Clearly, in having His glory fill the Tabernacle, He is dwelling among His people.
But it is this filling of the Tabernacle that prevents Moses from entering. This would seem to contradict another statement that God makes earlier regarding the purpose of the Tabernacle: “There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel.” (Exodus 25:22). If, indeed, the Tabernacle is meant for Moses to meet God and to receive His instructions there for the Children of Israel, how is it that Moses is unable to enter the Tabernacle?
There are commentaries who position Moses at the entrance of the Tabernacle or, at least, at the entrance of the inner sanctum of the Tabernacle, and that this is where God speaks to Moses. Since the word “tabernacle” refers interchangeably to the entire complex and to the inner-most sanctum, this commentary is reasonable.
The Midrash, however, provides a different perspective. Moses is a righteous man and has done exactly what God has asked him to do. God asked him to build a tabernacle and he did so, as quickly as possible. And when the Tabernacle was completed, he stood outside, in awe of God’s presence, hesitant to enter the Tent of Meeting. The Midrash then quotes God as saying to Himself: “it is not right for Moses who constructed the Tabernacle to remain outside while I am inside. I will call to him to enter.” Therefore, the Bible continues: “The Lord called Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying” (Leviticus 1:1).
The Midrash weaves together the end of Exodus with the beginning of Leviticus into one cohesive story. In so doing, it portrays God as a gracious host, who recognizes Moses’ important role in constructing a house for Him. And it portrays Moses as the humble and righteous servant of God who, despite having completed the building of the Tabernacle and knowing its purpose as a meeting place between God and himself, hesitates to enter the sanctuary because of his awe of God’s presence. It is God, therefore, who calls to Moses and beckons to him to enter.
The essence of the Tabernacle, then, is God’s calling out to man, creating an environment in which man can come close to God. The place is created, not out of man’s need, or his initiative, but out of God’s understanding of our need to feel His presence among us. And, like Moses, when we hesitate to enter, He beckons to us.
Shabbat Shalom From Samaria,
Director, Israel Office