Vayakel 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayakel

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.


Parshat Vayekhel tells the story of the actual building of the Mishkan; before this, we’ve only read the instructions for building it. Moshe tells the people to bring all the materials necessary for the Mishkan: the altar and Ark within it, the menorah [lamp], the curtains, the planks, the coverings, the special garments of the priests, and so on. All the people, men, women, leaders, and regular Israelites, brought their gifts, so much so that Moshe had to call off the collection because they had too much! The actual artisans who built the Mishkan are named: Bezalel and his “first mate” Oholiab, who possessed extraordinary talents and abilities for building, construction, and beautiful crafting. It was to be the visually pleasing and spiritually uplifting centre of the Israelite people.


“The leaders brought the shoham stones and the stones for the settings of the Ephod and the breastplate.” (Exodus 35:27)


It’s an extraordinary scene: Moshe puts out the call that materials for the Mishkan are needed, and all the people respond with generosity and enthusiasm, bringing “gifts of the heart.” (Cf. verse 21) Some women donated gold from their jewelry, while others brought cloth that they had spun and woven. Some men brought animal skins, and others brought precious metals and other kinds of wealth. The chieftains, or leaders [presumably this means something like heads of clans, or sheiks, as it were] brought gemstones for the ritual garments of the High Priest, who wore gemstones called shoham stones on his shoulders and other gemstones set into the breastplate which went on top of the tunic called the Ephod.

(See the archived discussion of the Torah portion Tetzaveh for more on the priestly garments.)


One of the earliest Torah commentaries, dating from the early rabbinic period (about the first few hundred years after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.) is called Midrash Rabbah, or “the great midrash,” which is a collection of homilies and interpretations and comments from the ancient sages. One such sage noticed that in the verse quoted above, the spelling of the word “leaders” is defective; ordinarily, the word nasi [plural nesi’im] would include the Hebrew letter yod, but in this verse it doesn’t. (This sage is unnamed in my edition of Midrash Rabbah but Rashi and others who quote this midrash- possibly from another source- identify him as R. Natan, which works for me.) R. Natan says this is no scribal accident, but offers an interpretation of it, based on the story of the “leaders” rushing in to bring gifts and sacrifices on the day that Moshe and Aaron dedicated the Mishkan. (Numbers chapter 7.)

R. Natan builds his interpretation backwards, noticing that in Numbers 7, the leaders were first in line to offer gifts and sacrifices, while in our verse, Exodus 35:27, they seem to be last. He imagines that the later story is a consequence of the earlier story, so his interpretation goes something like this:

    Why were the leaders so quickly zealous to bring offerings first [In Numbers 7], while in the building of the Mishkan they held back and only offered the gemstones later? Because when Moshe asked all those with willing hearts to bring an offering for the work of God’s Sanctuary, he didn’t speak to them. [I.e., apparently Moshe didn’t go out of his way to give the leaders a special invitation.] They didn’t like that Moshe didn’t speak to them [in a special invitation.] They said: “Let the people bring what they will, and we’ll fill in what’s missing.” All of Israel felt joy to help build the Mishkan, and they enthusiastically brought their donations. . . . After two days, the leaders wanted to bring their offerings, but they couldn’t, as Moshe had already instructed: “A voice went out in the camp, saying: ‘Men and women, don’t bring any more. . .’ ” [Verse 36:7] The leaders were bitter that they did not merit to bring any donations for the Mishkan, so they said: “Since we didn’t merit to bring donations for the Mishkan, let’s bring offerings for the garments of the High Priest.” Thus it is written: “The leaders brought the shoham stones, etc.”

    . . . The Blessed Holy One then said: “The ones who brought with enthusiastic quickness, let it be written that they brought “excess.” [Cf. 36:7], but the leaders, who held back, let a letter be missing from their names.” Thus, the yod is missing from their designation. However, when the Mishkan was built, they brought their offerings with enthusiastic quickness, saying: “When offerings are given in great joy, the Shechina [God’s felt Presence] supports the work of our hands.” Since the Mishkan was already built and not missing anything, what could they do? They brought wagons, so the Mishkan could be carried on them. . . this was a comfort for what happened earlier. [Midrash Rabbah Numbers, 12:6, my translation.]

Rashi relates essentially the same interpretation in a more compact form, but he leaves out the nuance that the leaders felt slighted when Moshe didn’t give them the honour they felt they were due. This seems important to me, because one could perhaps argue that the VIP’s were not unjustified in feeling a little miffed when they didn’t get acknowledged. Rashi, by leaving that part out, leads us to conclude that R. Natan’s midrash is a parable about enthusiasm for the task at hand: never mind getting special honors, if something is needed from you, don’t hold back but offer quickly, honestly, and generously. If you offer grudgingly, or selfishly, or only because you can’t avoid it, then something is missing, just like the letter from the word leaders.

About 700 years after Rashi, the Chafetz Chaim (R. Yisrael Meir HaCohen, a leader of Eastern European Orthodoxy) added another twist to the story. He points out that in Numbers 7, each family leader is named specifically, along with their gifts- even though their gifts were exactly identical! In our passage, however, all the leaders are lumped together in one verse, unnamed.The Chafetz Chaim writes:

    [see] how beloved it is to the Blessed Holy One when people perform [their service] with enthusiasm and connection with the community, instead of a person being haughty with another. . . thus, when the leaders held back from joining with the community in bringing offerings, they got a letter taken from their names. But when they offered willingly, the Torah recorded their service in an honored places and didn’t give them just the right letters, but a whole chapter, each leader with his own paragraph! [Chafetz Chaim Al HaTorah, commentary on parshat Vayekhel, translation mine.]

According to the Chafetz Chaim, then, the leaders were missing not only enthusiasm, but also humility- they were too proud to join the rest of the community in making the offerings. This is another common character trait, one most of us share, to some degree: thinking that some tasks are beneath us, or best left to others of lesser station. In the general world, one who attains a high position rarely performs menial tasks, and in fact would be criticized for doing so; in the spiritual realm, according to the Chafetz Chaim, one attains growth and merit precisely by being humble enough to pitch in when needed.

However, I would like to add one more interpretation to R. Natan’s midrash. I think Rashi is correct in pointing us to the conclusion that the leaders were in the wrong (or at least just kind of immature, or “missing something”) to hold back from offering their gifts with enthusiasm and open generosity. Yet R. Natan’s midrash isn’t only about the leader’s character deficiencies, it’s also about their personal growth. He sees the two stories as evidence of their ability to learn from their mistakes. They may have missed one opportunity, but they grabbed the next one, and that’s the really important thing.

It would be great if we could always “get it right the first time.” As human beings, we can’t; we’re imperfect, and sometimes we act and react in in ways that aren’t the best. R. Natan is telling us: you’re going to miss the boat sometimes- just be sure to catch the next one. In fact, if we take seriously the comments of the Chafetz Chaim, one who is humble enough to learn from their mistakes and grow from the experience can earn special mention in the Torah itself.

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