Vayakel/Pekudei 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayakel/Pekudei

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Vayekhel-Pekudei (Exodus 35:1-40:38)

OVERVIEW

A double portion is read this week:

Parshat Vayekhel tells the story of the actual building of the Mishkan; before this, we’ve only read the instructions for building it. Upon Moshe’s instructions, the people bring all the materials necessary: skins, wool, special woods, precious metals and stones. Master craftsmen do the specialized tasks.

Parshat P’kudei is the final weekly portion of the Book of Exodus; usually, but not always, read with the preceding parsha. P’kudei relates the final details of the building of the Mishkan, and takes its name from the accounting of all the gold and other precious metals used in its construction. Once all the tasks were completed, God’s palpable Presence rests in it, in the centre of the Israelite camp, a Presence so powerful that even Moshe could not approach the innermost parts of the Sanctuary. The Presence appeared as a cloud by day and as fire by night, and went in front of the people in their long journey.

IN FOCUS

“Moses assembled the entire Israelite community and said to them, ‘These are the words that God has commanded for [you] to do. . .’ ” (Exodus 35:1)

PSHAT

In the previous three Torah portions, Moshe has received from God the instructions for the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary. Moshe now gathers the people together to give them the instructions he has received- the word Vayekhel literally means “gather together.” Moshe could not build the Mishkan on his own, but needed the participation of the entire people.

DRASH

Rashi makes a cryptic comment on the building of the Mishkan which may raise more questions than it answers:

    Moses assembled the entire Israelite community- on the day after Yom Kippur, after he came down the mountain.

What Rashi seems to be doing here is linking the previous story to the building of the Mishkan. In chapter 34, after the Golden Calf, Moshe goes back up the mountain, and asks to see God’s “face.” Instead, Moshe receives a revelation of God’s merciful and forgiving aspects. He then brings two new tablets down the mountain; rabbinic tradition has him returning to the people, with the symbol of God’s forgiveness and a renewed covenant, on the day which would eventually be Yom Kippur.

OK, so far, so good, at least in the world of midrash. Rashi, then, wants to make a midrash that Moshe gathered the people immediately (well, the next day) after coming back to them with the new tablets of the covenant. Aside from solving certain rather academic chronological problems, what could Rashi be trying to teach here?

One possibility which occurs to me is that Rashi is subtely comparing building the Mishkan to building a Sukkah, the “booth” which many Jews build during the harvest holiday which begins several days after Yom Kippur. To show that the “work” of religious observance and spirituality never ceases, even after a peak experience like Yom Kippur, many people symbolically begin to build their Sukkah right after breaking their Yom Kippur fast- maybe they just put in a nail or two, but they want to demonstrate that spirituality doesn’t stop, even for a day.

Another possibility is raised by the Hasidic teacher R. Moshe of Kobrin:

    Moshe wanted to hint to the Israelites 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. (Source: Itturei Torah)

A third possibility is that this midrash isn’t about the people’s experience, but Moshe’s. It was Moshe who had the “peak experience” (literally, up on a mountaintop!) in our story and it may have been Moshe himself who needed to channel his revitalized spiritual energy into a constructive project. How many times have you or somebody you know gotten a tremendous boost from a conference or a lecture or a religious service, and then just let that energy dissipate without being utilized for constructive purposes? People often get excited at new beginnings, but then the excitement fades once it becomes a daily discipline.

OK, now it’s YOUR turn: what do YOU think Rashi meant to teach by connecting “gathering the people” with the day after Yom Kippur ?

I’d love to hear from you, and we’ll post some replies in our “Reb on the Web” column in the near future.

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