Archive for Vayakel

Vayakhel-Pekudei: Building from the Heart

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger
Torah Portion: Vayakhel-Pekudei
Every man whose heart uplifted him came, and everyone whose spirit inspired him to generosity brought the offering of the Lord for the work of the Tent of Meeting . . . .(Shemot/ Exodus 35:21)
Good afternoon! This week we are concluding the Book of Exodus with the details of actually assembling and accounting for all the pieces of the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary. The Mishkan and its vessels included gold, silver, bronze, fine fabrics, and precious stones, but the Torah emphasizes over and over that it’s not enough to have beautiful things- the Mishkan was made by those with wide hearts and generous spirit. To put it another way, if you want to build a Mishkan, a dwelling place for the Holy, you can’t just have a nice physical structure, but you need the hearts and love of those who contribute and assemble there. 
This week’s Torah portion tells us that all the people gave, and they gave willingly and generously, even giving their jewelry and personal adornments. (Cf. verse 22, right after the verse above.) To me, these verses are key to understanding the idea of the Mishkan: it is a place, a thing in the world, but what makes it holy is the love and humility and selflessness that goes into building it. To make a place of experiencing the Sacred, the people literally had to take off their jewels and gold- the markers of status and rank- in order to join with others to meet the Holy.
So the Mishkan, in this reading, is less about all the details (as important as they were for later commentary) and more about the experience of the people who gave of themselves, and found an openness to the Holy as a result. This principle is no less true today: all great spiritual paths speak of losing yourself (in the sense of outer markers of the ego) in order to find a deeper, truer, realer self in relationship with others and with the Holy. 
To make this point even more explicit, I would call your attention to the awarding of this year’s Templeton Prize- a kind of Nobel prize for moral or spiritual excellence- to Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Archecommunities, which bring together people of differing intellectual abilities to live together in community. This is truly holy work, and explained beautifully in a series of short videos which can be found on this page, in which Vanier explains his philosophy of love, service, and becoming fully human. These short videos are beautiful and compelling, and illustrate the idea that what evokes the Divine in this world is not things but people, people who give with open hearts, and are forever changed. 
Shabbat Shalom, 
The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Vayakel: Fire and Rest

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayakel

As winter continues to blow cold in Poughkeepsie, we come across an
irony of Jewish practice, at least for me. I like nothing better on a
cold day than to sit by a fire in the fireplace (which I’m doing as I
write this). Given that I have an oven for cooking and electricity for
lights, making a fire is more like a meditation and I experience it as
both relaxing and conducive to thought and reflection. Yet the day
devoted to both rest and reflection, Shabbat, is a day when building a
fire is explicitly prohibited, as we learn from this week’s Torah
portion, Vayakel:

“You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwelling places on the
Sabbath day.” (Shmot/Exodus 35:3)

Now, what’s interesting about this verse is the ancient sages don’t
think it’s actually necessary, because in Shmot 31, we already learn
we’re not supposed to do any “work” [melacha, meaning, intentional
exerting of power over the material world]. Since lighting a fire is
certainly melacha, why does the Torah tell us separately not to light
fires on Shabbat?

One interpretation, going back to the Talmud but mentioned by Rashi
and others, is that the Torah separates out fire from all the other
categories of things not done on Shabbat in order to teach just that:
that each category (like making a fire, or cooking, or sewing, or
digging, or building, etc.) is its own separate practice and not
lumped in with all the others. That is, not sewing is its own
discipline, separate from not writing or cooking, for example.

What I like about this interpretation is how it reminds us that the
practice of Shabbat (and it does take practice) is not “all or
nothing,” but something that we can grow into over time. We might
start by taking on one of the “melachot,” such as cooking, and slowly
increasing our understanding of how to create a “palace in time”
without needing to transform our lives all at once.

On the other hand, fire itself is an interesting problem for
contemporary Shabbat observance, because there is just no getting
around the fact that driving an ordinary car, with an internal
combustion engine, involves igniting and feeding a fire- that’s how
cars move! (Let’s leave a purely electric car for another day.) There
are other issues with driving on Shabbat, but since fire is explicitly
mentioned in the Torah, one could reasonably ask how the Conservative
movement could issue a permissive ruling on the topic, which it did in
the late 50’s. (The famous “driving t’shuvah.)

The authors of the paper permitting Conservative Jews to drive to
synagogue argued that the fire in a car’s engine is not the same as
the fires prohibited by traditional Jewish Shabbat practice because
we’re not lighting the fire for the primary reason of doing something
with it directly (like cooking) but in order to power an engine and
move something (the car) from one place to another. I’m
oversimplifying, but the basic idea of this t’shuvah [rabbinic ruling]
is that the use of fire in a car’s engine is not melacha – again,
defined as purposeful exertion towards changing the world in some
material way- at least not as the Torah itself understood it.

The authors came to these conclusions in order to encourage people to
get to synagogue if they lived far away, which is a great goal, but
nevertheless, the plain meaning of our verse is that fire is not part
of Shabbat. Yes, many will drive to synagogue because it’s too far to
walk, but perhaps the ideal of a Shabbat close to the earth- a Shabbat
practice which makes one feel the heat of summer and cold of winter
while walking under the sky- is worthwhile to remember. Not lighting
fires- including engines- might mean more walking, and simpler meals,
and a calmer way of being, at least once a week, all of which are part
of making Shabbat not just restful, but holy.

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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Vayekhel: Stewardship of Money and Mission

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayekhel

Greetings from snowy Swampscott!

I just got back from the joint conference of COEJL (Coalition on
the Environment and Jewish Life) and JCPA (Jewish Council for
Public Affairs); I’ll have some thoughts on what I learned as part
of next week’s parsha study. What follows is an idea I presented
as part of a d’var Torah to the national board of COEJL at its
meeting after the conference.

In the Torah portion Vayekhel, we learn about the building of the
Mishkan by skilled artisans. Even though we’ve been reading
about the Mishkan for weeks now, before this portion it’s all been
instructions- now the plans are implemented and reviewed. The
entire people participate in the building of the Mishkan, by
bringing materials to be used in its construction: precious
metals, gems, fabrics, wood, skins, etc. In fact, the people bring
so much that Moshe has to call off the collection efforts:

“And they spoke to Moshe, saying: ‘The people are bringing very
much, more than is enough for the labor of the articles which the
Lord had commanded to do.’ So Moshe commanded, and they
announced in the camp, saying: ‘Let no man or woman do any
more work for the offering for the Holy.’ So the people stopped
bringing.” (Exodus/Shmot 36:5-6)

Now, clearly, this is a problem many organizations would love to
have! Most synagogues- and churches and schools and other
non-profit organizations- are constantly struggling to balance the
budget while doing the work they’re called to do. Salaries,
insurance, utilities, and overhead all have to be paid every
month, and fund-raising is hard and often thankless work. Not
only that, but few people want to give money to pay the lease on
the photocopy machine- people often want to give for more high-
profile programs or building projects .

In fact, almost any non-profit executive or board member could
instantly recite a whole list of great things they’d be able to do
with more money, so the thought of telling the people to stop
bringing donations- as Moshe does- seems silly, even farcical.
At best, we might use these verses to inspire people to give
more generously; certainly it’s appropriate to be inspired by the
first-ever Capital Campaign in the history of the Jewish people!

Yet even though as a rabbi and board member I can hardly
imagine telling people to stop giving so much, I think this story is
much more about leadership than donorship (if that’s a word.) I
think Moshe was acting out of the highest ethics in keeping his
trust with the people, and in doing so, setting an example for
everybody who ever asked for a shekel in the years to come.
Moshe wanted all the people to participate in building the
Mishkan, and in doing so, laid out his vision, inspired by
revelation, of a beautiful, but finite, worship space, which would
unite the people in the center of their camp.

The people brought what Moshe asked for, in accordance with
the plans and needs. Had he taken even one board more than
necessary, the building of the Mishkan would have become an
end in itself, tied to the egos of the builders, rather than a means
of worship and spirituality. By stopping the donations, Moshe
communicated something crucial: that building the Mishkan was
something done by the people, through their gifts; for the people,
to deepen their relationship with God; in accountability to the
people, who gave willingly to build it.

When Moshe stopped the donations, and thus showed that he
respected the act of giving, he also stopped (or at least
curtailed) the potential for scandals, rumors, resentment, angry
confrontations, and questions about “where is my donation
actually going?” After all, Moshe got what he asked for, which
demonstrated that the people trusted him to ask for that which
was truly needed; to ask and then take more than what was
needed to build the Mishkan would have abused that trust.

Think about all the solicitation letters you probably get every
week- personally, I probably get about 15-20. They’re all pretty
good at making the case that my dollar is needed for some
important purpose; most are not so good at making the case
that the organization asking for my donation is a careful steward
of both money and mission. Moshe understood that effective
leadership creates a covenant of trust with the community, and
that’s the kind of leadership needed in the many organizations
which serve the Jewish community and wider society.

Not only that, but look at the other side of Moshe’s example: by
being clear about what he needed to build the Mishkan, and by
showing through his deeds that he was a careful steward of the
community’s resources, he also earned the right to ask the
community to give, and give generously. All of us who serve in
communal leadership would love to have fund-raising problems
like Moshe had, but to get there, we’re going to have to build trust
like Moshe did, which is truly the foundation of of our sacred
work, every day.

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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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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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