This week’s double Torah reading, Vayakhel – Pekudei, brings the Book of Exodus to a dramatic close. It is also somewhat redundant, in that it describes in great detail the actual building of the Tabernacle that was commanded, in equal detail, in Exodus 25-31. Yet, as I study these chapters each year, I am awed by how far our people have come in these forty chapters of the Book of Exodus. The narrative began in chapter one with Jacob and his children being welcomed into Egyptian society. Then in the eighth verse of the Book of Exodus we are told that “There arose a Pharoah who did not know Joseph.” A privileged community quickly became an oppressed minority, enslaved to Pharaoh. By the time the Book of Exodus ends this week, our ancestors have become the free-will followers of God and the recipients of God’s greatest gift, the Torah.
But it has not been an easy road. People Israel suffered anguish as slaves, and then doubt and backsliding as a free people. For example, in our Torah reading last week, the Israelites came close to destroying the entire covenant by giving in to their weaknesses and worshiping the Golden Calf. Nonetheless, they endured, and in this week’s reading, they see the fruits of their labors.
One lesson I have relearned this year from my journey through the Book of Exodus is that the challenges to personal and communal freedom come from both threats that are external and internal. One year after the plague of covid-19 descended upon our generation, I can empathize with the fear and the anxiety of the Exodus generation and also recognize that our choice in following or rebelling against the wisdom of compassionate leaders has consequences.
The Torah reading this week emphasizes the extraordinary outpouring of generosity that greets Judaism’s first building fund campaign. The tabernacle is built from two distinct sources of contributions. The first was a minimal tax of a half shekel, the second was the free will offerings brought by the people. The Torah tells us that it was not a select few that contributed, but rather, “the whole community “ (35:20) . In fact, it’s interesting to note that the text makes a special point of showing that gender distinctions are irrelevant by stating that both men and women share equally in this outpouring.
By finishing the construction of the mishkan, the portable tabernacle that will accompany them in all their travels, they have acquired something beyond a symbol. The tabernacle is God’s dwelling place and its completion in this week’s reading is a fulfillment of the mitzvah recorded 15 chapters earlier, “Make Me a sanctuary so that I can dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8)
We are told in chapter 36 that everyone gave generously to this first Jewish capital campaign. But this democratic generosity needed something more. It needed the genius of exceptional and talented individuals, in this case Bezalel and his aide, Oholiab. Bezalel is the ultimate artist, able to fashion this messy hodgepodge of gifts of earrings, rings, purple yarn, linen, dolphin skins, acacia wood, listed in our double parsha and turn them into a tabernacle that was both functional and beautiful.
To me, another lesson for our moment in time we can learn from this parsha is that even though all of us are equal before God, all of us should be considered equal in the eyes of each other, each of us is different. Each of us is unique and each of us possesses unique gifts and talents that we can choose to contribute to the service of God and to the task of building a better community and a better world for all.
This year of isolation, and the duel pandemics of covid and political unrest in America, in Israel, and around the world, has brought me to truly appreciate this lesson from the building of the mishkan. This Torah portion, this year, speaks to me with the lesson of the founding principle of American democracy, as found in our Declaration of Independence,
“All men (and women) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among them are life , liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
However, equal before God and with equal rights within the community does not mean that all of us are possessed of the same talents or that each of us are exactly the same. DNA study has proven in our generation that while all of us share more than 99.9 percent of our DNA, every human being is unique. This is an idea that Judaism has postulated for multiple millenia, in texts in both the Torah and the Rabbis’ commentaries.
The covid-19 pandemic and the equally deadly pandemic of hate that threatens the body politic of democracy here in America and around the world has led me to think of both the Torah and the Declaration of Independence as calls for us to recognize our interdependence.
A second new insight I see this year comes from the opening paragraph of Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1-3) where we find a repetition of the command to observe Shabbat with which the command to build the tabernacle concluded in chapter 31 of Exodus. Nachum Sarna z”l, the great Biblical scholar who taught generations of rabbis at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the mid 20th century, makes note that the tradition of lighting Shabbat candles was derived from these verses. Sarna, as noted in the JPS Exodus Commentary, taught that while it was the rabbis of the Talmud who ruled that light kindled before Shabbat could be used on Shabbat, it was the Geonim of Babylonia in the post Talmudic era who attached the recitation of a blessing to the practice and thereby made it a mitzvah to light the lamp of Shabbat, “l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.”
As we conclude the reading of a book of Torah, the tradition is to stand and proclaim: “Hazak Hazak V’nitchazek!” meaning “Be strong, be strong, may we all be strengthened!”
May God give us all the strength to ride the rollercoaster of life and give thanks for our blessings.
May God give us the strength to recognize the individual talents and weaknesses of ourselves and others.
May this Passover which we are approaching truly be a z’man herutanyu, a time when we liberate ourselves from our fears, our anxieties, and our hatreds and begin the journey with the mixed multitude of humanity toward our personal Mount Sinai experience where we will all proclaim together, as did our ancestors in Exodus 24:7, “Naaseh v’nishma” and take responsibility for being God’s Hands and Voice in the world.