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Parshiyot Vayakhel-Pikudei

March 12, 2021

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A D’var Torah for Parshiyot Vayakhel-Pekudei
By Rabbi Ariann Weitzman (’11)

Parshiyot Vayakhel-Pekudei recount the building, but more importantly, the embellishment, of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, according to detailed instructions given in last week’s parashah. This lavish description of fabrics, stones, weaving, woodworking, and artisanship comes on the heels of the building and destruction of the Golden Calf. There are some commentators who read the Golden Calf and the Tabernacle as two potential ends to the same impulse: a desire to build a physical presence to represent the ineffable, and to create a home for worship and supplication.

While the episode of the Golden Calf represented the worst possible process for building a site for communal worship, the Tabernacle represented the best. While the Golden Calf was constructed under the leadership of Aaron, who failed to either provide authority or vision, the Tabernacle was constructed under the leadership of first Moses and then Bezalel, an inspired artisan and project manager, whose expansive vision included the entire community. The Golden Calf was constructed in haste, the Tabernacle with forethought and care. The Golden Calf included contributions of only some of the community, the Tabernacle included all.

One key difference between these two structures highlighted by our tradition is the role of women in their construction. To build the Calf, Aaron instructs the men to “take off the gold rings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me,” and in the next verse we read, “all the people took off the gold rings that were in their [masculine] ears” (Exodus 32:2-3). Tradition fills in the space between Aaron’s instructions and the men’s offering of their own earrings: the women were unwilling to give their gold toward building an idol, and protested, so the men had only their own gold earrings to give (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:10). The implication of coercion or force toward the men’s wives and children taints the entire building of the Calf.

The situation with the Tabernacle is quite different. Instead of “taking” anything, each individual is instructed to give according to their heart’s desire (Exodus 35:5, 21-22). Rather than coercion, the Tabernacle is built through consent. Three times we hear that women gave willingly of their own jewelry and other belongings, as their heart moved them, to embellish the Tabernacle. Repeatedly we read that women wove goat hair for the cloth needed, and that they were able to do so because of their skill and desire. In Exodus 38:8 we read that Bezalel made the laver of copper taken from the mirrors of the women who did tasks at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. They gave not only their jewelry that enhanced their beauty, but the mirrors they used to see their own beauty were transformed into beautiful communal tools.

We learn from the midrash that these very mirrors were responsible for the survival of the Israelites under Egyptian bondage:

You find that while the Israelites were making bricks in Egypt, Pharaoh decreed that they were not to sleep at home so that they would not have intercourse with their wives. R. Simeon the son of Halafta said: What did the Israelite women do? They would go to the Nile to draw water, and the Holy One would fill their jugs with little fishes. Small fishes arouse sexual desire (Berakhot 40a). They would cook and prepare the fish, and buy some wine, and then bring it to their husbands in the fields, as it is said: In all manner of service in the field (Exod. 1:14). While the men were eating and drinking, the women would take out their mirrors and glance into them with their husbands. They would say: “I am more attractive than you,” and the men would reply: “I am handsomer than you.” In that way they arose their sexual desires and became fruitful and multiplied. The Holy One caused them to conceive on the spot (Midrash Tanhuma Pekudei 9:1).

The construction of the Tabernacle is mythic and utopic. If the Tabernacle ever existed as a physical structure, it would have been a much more humble one than described here. Nevertheless, these descriptions paint a picture of a communal process we can still strive for. Every person, of every age and gender, must bring their entire selves willingly to the process of constructing communal sacred space. Our shared spaces, now both physical and virtual, only contain sanctity to the degree that they include all who desire to make them beautiful.
Rabbi Ariann Weitzman (AJR 2011) is the Associate Rabbi and Director of Congregational Learning for Bnai Keshet Reconstructionist Synagogue in Montclair, NJ.