Where to start? At first, this seemed a very unpromising Parsha –the preparation of the Mishkan (Sanctuary) has already been dealt with at length in Parshiot Teruma and Tetzaveh. After all the drama of Ki Tissa – the golden calf, the broken tablets, the killing of the three thousand and HaShem proclaiming his 13 attributes1 at first glance there seems to be little to talk about.
But, the beauty of the Torah is that the more you look, the more you find. In the end, after reading and rereading the Parsha, exploring my limited library and using the internet, there was too much, rather than too little to talk about. Where do I start – the restatement of the laws of Shabbat, the wonderful colours (hold up chart), gold (which the Rambam says represents divine Justice, which needs to be tempered by mercy), silver, copper, sky-blue, purple, scarlet and red; the fantastic craftsmanship, the wisdom with which Bnei Yisrael was endowed; where indeed?
I apologise in advance for taking you on a ramble – I can only hope to show you some of what I’ve learned.
The parsha begins with Moshe restating the importance of keeping Shabbat. Why? It is perhaps to show that holiness does not reside in a building or utensils and fittings, however fine. Holiness resides in us, and at Sinai G-d proclaimed “Thou shalt be unto me a holy people”. It was only after the people had worshipped an idol, the golden calf, that the erection of a Sanctuary, of holiness in space, was commanded. Even then, we should remember that the sacred character of the Mishkan and the objects therein was dependent not on the materials of which they were made, but of the mindset of the artisans who made them.3
In Rabbi Grunewald’s Talmud class (where we are currently studying Tractate Shabbat), we spent an enjoyable session discussing what the animal known as “Tachash” is – it seems that the animal no longer exists, but that it was a wondrous beast, with skin of many colours. The Talmud talks of “Sas Gavna” (28a) – the word “Sas” means “joy” and “gavna” means colours. Rabbi Yehuda says that the animal was a huge kosher animal and had one horn – was this the origin of the story of the Unicorn?
There is also much discussion about the Aron Kodesh (ark) which held the Luchot (tablets). Why was the ark decorated in gold, why were there (according to Rabbi Yitchchak Luria) 3 arks, one inside the other, why were there cherubim? The answers, especially the complicated gematria will have to wait for someone much cleverer than me. The important things for me are that (a) the Aron was fitted with staves, used to carry it wherever Bnei Yisrael needed to move during their travels; and, perhaps more importantly, (b) even though it and its contents have been hidden from sight for many, many, many years, their truth and spirit endures.
Well, I suppose that I should really return to the beginning, with the word “Vahyahkel” – this means “to assemble” – and this word was used in the previous Parsha as well, when the Israelites assembled to prepare the idolatrous golden calf. This links the two parshiot in a very interesting way. Rashi points out that Moshe said to the people “These are the words that G-d has commanded [you] to do.” (Rashi adds the word “you”, which he says is implied). Moses could not build the Mishkan on his own; he needed the participation of the entire people.
Rashi (35:27) quotes a Midrash that the princes pledged to donate what would be missing when the congregation finished giving to the construction of the Mishkan. They underestimated the people’s generosity and enthusiasm. In the end, all the princes could do was to bring the precious stones for the ephod and the breastplate – the building was the gift of the community. The gifts were all “asher yidenu liebo” – each person according to his generosity. Had the people been taxed a certain amount per person, the message would have been what they gave was important, not how they gave it. Here indeed was the forerunner of the “great society” our present-day politicians are talking about.
Rabbinical tradition is that Moshe returned to the people with the symbol of G-d’s forgiveness and a renewed covenant, on the day that would eventually become Yom Kippur. Rabbi Moshe of Kobrin says that it was to make the Israelites realise that not only on Yom Kippur must people be filled with remorse and contrition, love of one’s fellow-person and friendship, but also on the day after Yom Kippur one must continue in the same fashion.
Rabbi Boruch Leff says that the power of community is the reason why we repeat the construction of the temple. All the community donated until Moshe said “enough”. The book of Sh’mot is about the formation of the Jewish Community. The Mishna says in Pirkei Avot (4:14) “A group gathering for the sake of heaven is so powerful that it is guaranteed to have lasting effects”. The key to the parsha is to understand the importance of a congregation and its spiritually powerful actions. Every detail of the construction of the Mishkan is written, so we too can appreciate it.
Rabbi Simson Raphael Hirsch, of blessed memory, links the two so well. Please forgive me for quoting him so fully. “Now that the Testimony of the Law, the pledge of G-d’s special Presence in the midst of the people, had been given to Israel once again, the erection of a dwelling-place for this Testimony had again become relevant. The grim events described previously, which had jeopardized the realisation of this task, are of the most far-reaching significance for the task as such, for the Sanctuary (Mishkan) and the purpose for which the Sanctuary is to be erected. The construction of the Sanctuary was to take place under the impact of a completely new experience. The people and the priests had come to realise how weak and imperfect they still were, how much they still needed to work upon themselves incessantly and how greatly they were in need of uplift and atonement. Moreover, they had come to know G-d in all the severity of His judgement, but also in all the fullness of his grace. They had experienced all the nuances of our relationship with G-d, from the feeling of utter rejection by G-d up to the height of divine favour regained. The Sanctuary to be constructed was to become the place from which the ideal of their vocation would shine forth forever to individual and community alike. It was to be the place where, at any stage of error and weakness, they would find renewed strength to work their way up again and to persevere on the high level of their vocation and where they would find G-d’s help and blessing for both objectives. Thus, the experience that had been recorded forever in the history of the nation between the time it had been commanded to build its very first Sanctuary, and the actual execution of that command, is documentary proof that it is possible at any stage of error to return; and to regain the favour of G-d.
But the most significant element in this experience which preceded the construction of the first Sanctuary is as follows: The nation had committed the most serious crime in its history thus far; and yet it had been able to regain the greatest demonstration of Divine favour without having a temple and without making any offerings. If any more proof were needed that a temple and offerings in themselves do not secure G-d’s favour can be won, then such proof is most cogently offered by this experience, which preceded the construction of the first Sanctuary, and which has become so inextricably woven into Israel’s history.”
So we see that the portion is not just a DIY manual – it is much more, it is a blueprint for a community that works together, in wisdom, peace and harmony, for a great and holy goal. Much to think about?
- Now, back on the top of the mountain, God descends in a cloud, shields Moses, and proclaims, “Adonai! Adonai! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of fathers upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.”
- Rev RS Hirsch – notes to Chapter XXXVI of Shemot