Archive for Pekudei

Pekudei/ Shabbat Shekalim: Known By Our Giving

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pekudei/ Shabbat Shekalim 

“When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the Lord a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled.” (Shmot/ Exodus 30:12)
Good afternoon! 
It’s been a challenge to get a regular Torah commentary out every week with all the changes here in the Hudson Valley- all good ones!- so I appreciate your patience and understanding. This week, in addition to the regular Torah reading, we have a special reading from the Torah which describes a half-shekel tax paid by each Israelite. We read this passage before the new moon of Adar (or, this year, second Adar, as it’s a leap year), which thus comes about 6 weeks before Passover. Historically, the half-shekel was collected in the spring for the upkeep of the ancient Temple; the occasion of the yearly reading is called Shabbat Shekalim. 
On a practical level, the half-shekel tax was used for both communal religious needs and also as a means of counting the people; most commentaries understand the linkage between census and collection of the half-shekel as teaching that the Israelites themselves were not counted directly, but rather the coins collected were numbered in their stead. Our friend Rashi brings an ancient teaching that the “evil eye” is attracted to numbered things, so in order to avoid a plague or calamity of some sort, better to count the money rather than number the people. (We can also note in passing that the atonement mentioned above may refer to atoning for the Golden Calf, after which there was a plague, but let’s leave more on that for another day.) 
Perhaps the notion of the “evil eye” is mere superstition, but then, it’s interesting that this conception of reified negativity is framed in terms ofseeing. What would it mean to count the Israelites directly? It might mean seeing each person not as an individual but as mere “human resources” (I have never liked the moral implications of that term) for military or economic production. You might think it’s even more dehumanizing to count the coins instead, but maybe numbering the half-shekels is a way of forcing the officials to realize that each person has something to contribute, each person is equal in the eyes of God, each person is known not by size of donation but by a willingness to help build a holy community. 
Maybe the “evil eye” in taking the census means seeing others as just numbers, in which case, it’s hardly a superstition but an all-too-common contemporary problem. We are not numbers, nor statistics, nor mere economic units; we are all, each in our own way, contributors towards a society in which equality and dignity should be holy values. Counting coins instead of people reminds us that the people themselves are more than just units in a ledger; nurturing and valuing the contributions of each individual should be the goal of a holy community. 
Shabbat Shalom, 

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Pekudei: Marking our Shabbat

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pekudei

“It came to pass in the first month, in the second year, on the first
day of the month, that the Mishkan was set up. Moshe set up the
Mishkan, placed its sockets, put up its planks, put in its bars, and
set up its pillars.. . . . . ” (Shmot/Exodus 40:17-18)

Hello again! This week we’re reading the final portion of
Shmot/Exodus, Pekudei, in which the Torah relates the building and
assembly of the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary, as quoted above. Later
in Jewish history, the rabbis of the Talmudic period [up to about 600
C.E.] expounded many laws and teachings about even the most minute
aspect of the Mishkan and its successor, the Beit HaMikdash [Temple]
in Jerusalem. The rabbis taught that every board forming a wall or
boundary of the Mishkan had to be placed on the same side as it was
when the Mishkan was originally set up- that is, a board in a certain
spot had to be in the same place every time the Mishkan was
reassembled, in the same spot on the east or west side, for example.

OK, I can hear the fiber optic cables resonating with your puzzled
exclamation: “uh, so, what does the punctiliousness of Biblical-era
construction crews have to do with current Jewish practice?”

Glad you asked!

Some of you may remember that most of the laws of “resting” on
Shabbat, like not building, planting, sewing, cooking, etc., are
derived by the rabbis from the various sorts of labors that went into
building the Mishkan. The rabbis saw that the commandment for Shabbat
was given along with the instructions for building the Mishkan (cf.
Shmot/Exodus 31 and 35). They then reason that the “work” [melachah,
or creative, purposeful labor] which is being prohibited on Shabbat
must be conceptually related to all the positive instructions for
building the Mishkan which follow.

Thus, if you have to build structures or tie knots to make the
Mishkan, you should not do those things on Shabbat.

Getting back to our current Torah portion and the verse quoted at the
top of the page, the ancient rabbis taught that each board of the
Miskan- in order to be put in its proper, regular place- had a special
identifying mark on it. Thus, even though writing is not an obvious
part of building the Mishkan, writing or making identifiable marks is
still within the original categories of things we don’t do on Shabbat
because they were done for the Mishkan. (Cf. Mishnah Shabbat 12:3)

With me so far? OK, let’s take it one step further to clarify a common
misunderstanding. Many people who incorporate aspects of Shabbat into
their weekly practice refrain from buying and selling, which makes so
much sense in a world of 24 hour commerce and oppressive materialism.
Yet what’s interesting is that the traditional discipline of not
handling money on Shabbat is actually derived from the primary
principle of refraining from writing: the ancient rabbis were
concerned that if we handled money, we’d be tempted to buy or sell,
which would lead to writing a contract or receipt.

Not writing on Shabbat hardly seems like “work,” as we commonly
understand the term, but I remind you that the Hebrew word is
“melacha,” which does not mean “work” in the sense of bodily exertion,
but it means effecting power over the world, engaging in some
deliberate action to change something in the physical cosmos. To put
it another way, Shabbat is the day that we change our doing so that we
have a different context for being. We write to remember, we write to
make our thoughts permanent, we write to record a transaction- but on
Shabbat, there is an opportunity to experience the world as it is,
right in that moment. On Shabbat, we reencounter the world, finding it
very good, being present in it as best we can, without saving the
moment for later. That’s why we put the pencil- or computer- down, and
lift our eyes up to the Heavens, once a week, on the seventh day.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vayakel-Pekudei: Building With Words

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayakel/Pekudei

Speaking of interesting, this week’s double Torah portion, Vayakel-Pekudei, tells us about
the actual building and assembly of the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary, and gives an
accounting of all the materials used. Previously, Moshe had received all the detailed
instructions for the Mishkan, but now he gathers the entire people to do the work of putting it

“Moshe then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: ‘These are
the things that the Lord has commanded you to do . . . . .’ ” (what follows is a few
verses about Shabbat, but after that, it’s all Mishkan, all the time.) (Shmot/Exodus 35:1)

The first word of our parsha, “vayekhel,” is related to the word “kehillah,”
which is often translated as “community,” as in a common idiom for synagogue, “kehillah
kedosha,” or “holy community.” It’s not an easy word to translate directly, but our friend
Rashi gives us an insight when he says that “vayekhel” is a causative form of the verb,
meaning, Moshe “caused the people to be gathered.” Rashi goes on to point out the difference
between assembling a bunch of boards and sockets- we just do it with our hands and
hammers, as a direct action- and causing a group of people to come together, which is done
through words. Thus, when our JPS translation says that Moshe “convoked” the people, it
means that he called out to them so that they would come together for the purpose of
doing the collective work of building the Mishkan.

To put it another way, to physically assemble the Mishkan required the action of
hands, but to make a true community out of the people required persuasion and the
articulation of both vision and values. A kehillah, a community, cannot be put together by
force, but is something chosen freely by people who have been inspired to come together for a
common purpose. The purpose of the kehillah that Moshe “assembled” was to build
the Mishkan, which represented the Divine Presence dwelling among the people. The
purpose of any contemporary kehillah is fundamentally the same, to create a spiritual
center for a purposeful community, which in turn requires no less persuasion than that which
Moshe offered to our ancestors, and which will in turn yield results that are equally
crucial to the vitality of our people and the healing of the world.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Pekudei: Beauty and Humility

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pekudei

Shabbat Shalom!

This week we conclude the book of Shmot/Exodus: the Mishkan
(Portable Sanctuary) is finished, under Moshe’s supervision, and
when the final pieces are put together, the Presence of God
rests on the Mishkan in the form of a cloud. (Cf. Shmot 40:34)
When the cloud lifts, the people would follow it, and when it
rested, there they would camp.

There is much to be said about the final few verses of Exodus,
but for today I’m interested in the idea that the Mishkan was not
complete, as it were, until it incorporated elements of both
human design and images of nature. Even if we accept at face
value the idea that the Mishkan was built according to a precise
Divine plan, it was not made “operational”- according to these
verses- until it also bore the form of a cloud. Sockets and planks
and weavings are almost paradigmatic of what humans create;
clouds, just as clearly, are something purely natural, beyond the
capacity of humans to create or disperse.

To me, the teaching here is that a sacred space built by human
hands- with attention paid to its beauty and capacity to take us
out of our ordinary experience- must also include reminders that
the natural world is wondrous and extraordinary and holy,
existing for its own purposes and not merely as means to our
ends. In this way, a sacred space can be both beautiful and
humbling; beautiful for its artistry, and humbling in the way that
being the vast beauty of nature is awesome and overwhelming.

Perhaps in the Mishkan, the beauty came from the
craftsmanship and the precious materials, while humility was
evoked when people experienced God’s Presence as a cloud,
something from the greater world which transcends society,
something beyond our ability to control or contain.

Last week, as part of the COEJL conference, I had the pleasure
of visiting two synagogues in Maryland which have made their
worship spaces both artistically beautifully and also deeply
evocative of the natural world. Not only that, but as part of their
commitment to include values of environmental stewardship as
part of synagogue life, these buildings were built and are
maintained with “green” principles, even at slight extra cost in the
short run.

First, Temple Emanuel, a Reform synagogue, has instituted a
“Green Shalom” ethic into the everyday workings of synagogue
life. Not only that, but the central worship space of the synagogue
has been crafted to evoke a tree from the land of Israel, thus
linking the idea of the Torah as a “Tree of Life” to the trees of the
land, which are in a very real way the source of our life. Go to: < > and look for the links on the
left hand side. Find the links for “Pictures,” where you’ll see the
sanctuary, and “Green Shalom” for ideas on how this synagogue
has incorporated reverence for nature into its operating

Adat Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue, has a somewhat
different approach to linking worship with the experience of
nature. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find good pictures on their web
site, but what they’ve done (among other things), both to save
energy and evoke the Cloud of Glory in the Mishkan, is to hang
white fabric- almost like giant sails- around the inside of their
sanctuary, diffusing the natural light from the large windows
while at the same time making the sanctuary feel light and open.
Go to: < > . Look for the
link to “history/ blg” at the top of the left hand column to read
more about the principles of both spiritual and environmental
design which went into their building project. You have to scroll
down about halfway into the column to get to the part about
design, but the first part is interesting too.

Finally, to read about the COEJL conference, you can follow this
link to a nice story in the Washington Jewish Week:

Shabbat Shalom,


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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)


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.


“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)


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.


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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Pekudei 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pekudei

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 P’kudei is the final weekly portion of the Book of Exodus; usually, but not always, read with the preceding parasha. 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. With all the details build and ready to go, God finally gives Moshe explicit permission to complete the Mishkan and dedicate not only its vessels and adornments but also the priests who were to serve within it. The final paragraphs of Exodus are the dramatic climax of the entire story of the Mishkan: 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 lead the people in their long journey.

“These are the accountings of the Mishkan, the Mishkan of Witnessing, which were reckoned at Moshe’s instructions. . . ”
(Exodus 38:21)

Once most of the work of building the Mishkan is completed, Moshe apparently wants to make an accounting of all the precious metals used in its construction. The workers who did the crafting and all the specific amounts of gold, silver and copper are listed, as well as how much was donated from various sources and what was made from the metals.

This is an interesting verse, for several reasons. Morally, one could ask why Moshe felt it necessary to make such a thorough listing of all the precious metals used in the Mishkan; after all, he himself, along with Bezalel and Oholiab, who were chosen by God, supervised the collecting and crafting! Most commentators understand this to be an example of ethical responsibility: even though Moshe himself supervised the collection of the gold and silver, he owed it to the people- the donors- to account for every single coin. To put it another way, if the Mishkan was to attract the love and loyalty of the entire Israelite people, there could not even be the possibility of suspicion of the slightest financial impropriety. One commentator makes a comment to the effect that God’s Presence would dwell only in a place with absolutely “kosher” financial accounting practices! Tell that to Revenue Canada!

Our verse also presents a stylistic challenge: why is the Mishkan given two names? The first time it’s merely called ” the Mishkan,” and the second time it’s called ” the Mishkan of Witnessing” [Mishkan Ha’edut]. Ibn Ezra offers what is is probably the simplest and most direct explanation: the Mishkan is called the “Mishkan of Witnessing” because at its centre it has the “Ark of Witnessing,” [see 39:35], which contained the two Tablets that Moshe brought down from Sinai. The Tablets are also in places called the “Tablets of Witnessing” [luchot ha’edut; see 34:28-29, among other places.] For Ibn Ezra, the Mishkan gets its designation from the holy objects within it, which perhaps get their name from the idea that the people “witnessed” the giving of the Torah and thus willingly accepted the covenant that the Tablets represent.

Rashi has a less practical, more homiletic commentary: he says that the Mishkan is called the “Mishkan of Witnessing” here because it “witnesses” to Israel that they were able to reconcile with God after the sin of the Golden Calf- the Presence of the Shechina was a “witness” to God’s forgiveness of the people’s idolatry. A great Hasidic master, R. Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, [usually known by the title of his most famous book, the Sefat Emet] picks up on this this idea of the Mishkan being a “witness” to the reconciliation between God and Israel:

    Why did they need this witness? Israel had been deeply disgraced by that sin. Now God gave the [people] the tabernacle as witness, in order to strengthen their hearts, to show that had indeed repaired the damage wrought by their sin. The fact is that Israel are God’s witnesses, as it says: “You are My witnesses” [Isaiah 43:12] But how is it possible that Israel, who were created to bear witness to God’s oneness, could themselves worship idols? This thought caused Israel to neglect their witnessing, until God had to demonstrate that the sin was incidental to who they were, brought on by “mixed multitude.” Thus they really were worthy to witness God, just as they had been previously. The rabbis in fact teach that “Israel were not deserving of such a sin; it came upon them only to teach them the way of teshuvah.” It came to teach every person who returns not to let himself fall to low in his own eyes, for by teshuvah we really are restored to what we were before. [The Language of Truth*, 140-141]

The quote above was taken from a new translation and commentary on the Sefat Emet by the contemporary rabbi and scholar of Jewish mysticism Arthur Green.* Continuing the chain of commentary, Rabbi Green, in his explanation of the passage quoted above, challenges us not to despair in our spiritual strivings:

    The insight that guilt is the great impediment to true religious life is one that was well known to Hasidic masters, beginning with the Baal Shem Tov himself. Among the most essential innovations of Hasidism is the insistence that expressed here that teshuvah, return to God, really does work, and that the one who returns is fully renewed in God’s presence. The real task is to be sure that our witness goes forward, not interrupted by our own sense of inadequacy to the task. If we wait until we are perfect to attest to God, we will never do our job. [ibid.]

This whole line of interpretation is quite amazing: apparently, Rashi and those who follow him propose that the entire narrative of the Mishkan, which takes up a major portion of the book of Exodus, has at its symbolic core the repairing of the relationship between God and Israel. The Sefat Emet says that even the sin of the Golden Calf, which was ostensibly the cause of the problem in the first place, was actually only to teach Israel how to return! Taken literally, this is a problematic statement, as we would then have to assume that God caused the people to sin as a pedagogical device. However, as Rabbi Green points out, the inner meaning of these midrashim is to encourage and strengthen us in our spiritual strivings; the Sefat Emet is concerned with the psychology and emotions, not systematic theology.

Most of us don’t do anything as dramatic as build a golden idol, but many of us sometimes feel like we’re not going anywhere, we’re not growing or feeling any sense of spiritual wholeness or relationship with the Holy One. The Sefat Emet says: keep trying, and never let yourself believe that you are unworthy of a relationship with God. That’s not to say that living your life in the light of God and Torah (however we understand the term) is easy; after all, the Israelites had to build the Mishkan, with great effort and sacrifice and attention to detail. No less would be expected of anybody trying to repair a broken relationship; the extraordinary promise of the end of the book of Exodus is that broken relationships can be healed and broken souls can again be whole with God.

*The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, translated and with commentary by Arthur Green, Jewish Publication Society, 1998.

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