A Look at Parashat Vayakhal

Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash
Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash

פרשת ויקהל

שמות Exodus 35:1 to 38:20

During Hebrew Leap Years (7 years out of a 19 year cycle), an extra month of Adar (אדר) is added. During Hebrew Leap Years, congregations read Parashat Vayakhal this week, and the final portion of the Book of Exodus, Parashat Pekude the following week. During non-leap years, both parashot are read this week During non-leap years, both parashot are read this week.         

Each is a relatively short portion and both deal primarily with the construction and preparation   of the Tabernacle (משכן – Mishkan) where the ark is housed, and with the priestly vestments.

Logically, the Tabernacle would need to be built before the Ark, so why is this order reversed? One explanation (a weak one in my opinion) proposed by the Talmud is that the contents of the Torah are not always presented in chronological order.

Chapter 35 – Reminder of sanctity of the Shabbat

We start off once again with reference to Shabbat. Note the draconian penalty for violation. While there is no definition as to what defines “work”, we do see prominent prohibition to kindling fire (Without matches, starting a fire was, while somewhat of a bother, not an especially onerous task).  For discussion: Why the stress on, and special significance of “fire”? Perhaps because kindling and maintaining a fire was the most common and mundane task. In most ancient traditions, fire was a mysterious, perhaps magical, and certainly mystical phenomenon belonging to the gods (recall in Greek mythology how Prometheus was severely punished for giving fire to humankind). While fire offers protection at night  from predators and is needed to cook food and to keep warm, it is mercurial in its danger (such as lightening from the heavens).

Following a brief reintroduction of Shabbat, with clear warnings about the consequences of violating its sanctity, the balance of this parashah and next week’s is devoted to the construction of the Tabernacle and the fashioning of the accouterments for the High Priest. Rashi teaches that the instructions are preceded by the reinforcement of the significance of Shabbat to stress that work, even holy work connected to the Tabernacle and preparing the Priests, does not supersede the holiness of Shabbat. It should be further noted that the Rabbis of the Talmud defined the 39 types of labor prohibited on Shabbat as those types of labor that were needed to construct the Tabernacle.

Construction of the Tabernacle

Coming on the tail of the Golden Calf incident and partial reconciliation with G-d, construction of the Tabernacle is a community enterprise, facilitated by freewill offerings (כל נדיב לבו)  from the people (are they really “freewill offerings”, with no social coercion?).

Those that are skilled in the various relevant tasks are invited (summoned?) (וכל חכם לב בכם יבואו) to participate in constructing and furnishing the Tabernacle as well as the service vestments and the holy vestments for the officiates and the priests respectively. The elaborate robes and accessories that the priests were commanded to adorn both uphold the dignity of this high office and create an apartness, possibly even eliteness, keeping them, especially the High Priest aloof from the common (mainly impoverished) people at the time. Did this open the door, as we began to see in Second Temple times, to the sense of entitlement and corruption that permeated the priestly class?

This project is perhaps also intended to heal the people and give them the strength, and perhaps the courage to move on into the wilderness and prepare for the tasks and challenges that lie ahead. Additionally, perhaps after the incident of the Golden Calf, G-d realized that the people needed a tangible object or place to connect with Him, one that does not smack of idolatry. The Tabernacle might have been designed to fulfill this need in a way that Gd would not find objectionable.

Compare this to the disastrous coming together to build and   worship the Golden Calf. While this is supposed to be a communal enterprise, note that the honor of contributing precious stones for the ephod (vestment worn   by the priests) and breast piece is reserved for the tribal heads.

Appointment of Skilled Artisans

Moses announces the appointment by G-d  of the gifted artisans Bezalel (בצלאל – “In the shadow of Gd”) and Oholiav (אהליאב – “Father’s tent”) to direct the work of the skilled artisans, in designing and constructing the Tabernacle in accordance with G-d’s commandments. Note that we were previously introduced to Bezalel and Oholiav in last week’s parashah (Ki Tisa, verses 31:1 through 31:11). The verses in this week’s parashah almost mimic the previous verses with the exception that in Ki Tisa G-d is instructing Moses and here Moses is instructing the people.

Chapter 36 – Rejection of latecomers’ Contributions

Due to the overwhelming reception of the project, Moses needed to put a halt to further contributions. Why? Possibly the message was that only those that rushed to contribute willingly, only their gifts will be  accepted. The late arriving potential contributors perhaps are only giving begrudgingly, not willingly. If so, as they are only giving due to social pressure, possibly their gifts are       not wanted and not accepted.

Chapter 36 (Continued) to Chapter 38 – Detailed Specifications

Note the detailed technical instructions for constructing and furnishing the tabernacle, the ark, and the altar. Why the complex level of detail?  Also, if these were instructions as handed to Moses, why is the narrative in the past tense, is reporting what was done?

The rings for the poles   that must carry the weight are made   out of gold,  a soft metal that cannot beat weight. One Rabbinic interpretation is that the Ark propels itself, the poles being merely symbolic.

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