Archive for Vayakel/Pekudei

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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Vayekhel-Pekudei: Equal Souls

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayekhel-Pekudei / Shabbat HaHodesh 

“See, the Lord has singled out by name Betzalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Yehudah. He has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft . . . He and Oholiav son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan have been endowed with the skill to do any work. . . as workers in all crafts and as makers of designs.” (Shemot/ Exodus 35:30-35, abridged.)

Good Morning!

It’s going to be a busy weekend in Torah reading: we have a double portion to conclude the book of Exodus, and we also read a special portion for Shabbat HaHodesh, which always falls before the new moon of the month of Nissan (and hence about two weeks or a little more before Pesach.)

The Torah readings conclude the narrative of the building of the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary; in these final chapters, two craftsmen, Betzalel and Oholiav, oversee and carry out the actual fashioning of the many components of the sacred structure. These were made from wood, fabric, skins, precious metals and even jewels, and required skill and experience in fashioning. The Torah tells us that the two chief craftsmen, Betzalel and Oholiav, have a special sort of inspired holy spirit to do their work as artisans.

So far, so good, but notice in the verses above that there’s one important difference between Betzalel and Oholiav: the former is of the tribe of Yehudah, while the latter is of the tribe of Dan. Now, we might dismiss this as a random fact of genealogy, or the Torah’s desire to show the men in their social and personal context of family history and tribal affiliation, but of course the ancient rabbis see more to it than that.

Our friend Rashi, quoting an earlier rabbinic text, points out that Yehudah- the tribe of Betzalel- is the “greatest” of the tribes (presumably because line of King David comes from Yehudah), while Dan is one of the smaller or “lower” tribes, having descended from Rachel’s maidservant Bilhah. Yet as Rashi points out, the Holy One made the descendant of Yehudah and the descendant of Dan equal in the work of the Mishkan; he even brings a verse from Job to prove it:  “a rich one was not regarded more than the poor.” (Job 34:19)

Now we can understand Rashi’s comment is not about genealogy but about the inclusive nature of spiritual community. If all people are inherently b’tzelem Elohim [literally “in the Divine Image” but refers to our spiritual capacity] then of course it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, from a family of machers or a family of nudniks, high status or regular Joe. What matters is your dedication to the work of the community: spirituality, loving-kindness and actions for justice.

In the case of Betzalel and Oholiav, their special task was to make the physical structure of worship, but there are many ways to create sacred space and sacred community. The challenge for synagogues and other spiritual communities is to empower every seeker to contribute their unique gifts, and the job of every seeker is to discern how she is appointed to offer something unique and precious. It might be a gift of resources, time, compassion, skill or love, but only you can give it.

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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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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