Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Va-Yakhel-Pekudei

Parashat Va-Yakhel-Pekudei

March 11, 2015

All Together, One at a Time
by Hazzan Marcia Lane

The two final parshiyot, Va-yakhel (“he assembled”) and Pekudei (“accounting”), of the book of Exodus are frequently read together. This is due to the vagaries of the Jewish calendar and to the brevity of these two sections of the Torah, not to any particular theological statement. Nonetheless, the fact that they are so often paired can give us insights into the nature of the phenomenon of ‘peoplehood’ and individuality, and how they are perceived and fostered.

In these parshiyot, right after the section about the idolatry of the Golden Calf, Moses calls together the entire kahal, the whole congregation of Israel. Men, women, children, Israelites and hangers-on, all are present to hear a recapitulation of God’s instructions concerning the collecting of gifts (terumah) and the building of the tabernacle (mishkan) and the creation of the priestly vestments. If you’ve been following the past few weeks of Torah readings you will hear familiar phrases describing the colors, materials, size and shape of the mishkan. Materials are counted and weighed, and in an amazing display of economy of language, the actual building of the mishkan is described and completed. Moses is given instructions for how to set up the tabernacle and its accoutrements. It’s worth noting that the events described in these two sections of the Torah actually took two years to complete.

In describing the assembling of the people, the text of the Torah uses a number of different words to describe a group:

Moses then convoked (va-yakhel/kahal) the whole Israelite community (kol adat b’nei Yisrael)…. (Exodus 35:1)
So the whole community of the Israelites … (Exodus 35:20)
Everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved him … (Exodus 35:21)
Men and women, all whose hearts moved them …. (Exodus 35:22)
Thus the Israelites, all the men and women whose hearts moved them… (Exodus 35 35:29)

There are so many phrases throughout this section that include everyone in the camp in the task of donating or collecting precious metals and stones, weaving and dying fabrics, smelting, carving, and molding the various items that are needed. It’s a massive undertaking, and there is work for everyone.

Only four people are named individually in our parshiyot. They are Moses, who transmits God’s instructions, Aaron, who is to receive the vestments and ritual objects, and two very special craftsmen and artists; Betzalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and Oholiab, son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. These two artists are described as having special skills:

The Lord has singled out by name Betzalel, son of Uri son of Hur of the tribe of Judah. He has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft…He and Oholiab, son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan have been endowed with the skill to do any work – of the carver, the designer, the embroiderer…(Exodus 35: 30 – 35:35)

In fact, Betzalel and Oholiab are mentioned by name in three different places. In Torah-talk, having your name mentioned once is a sign of distinction. Having it repeated multiple times is extraordinary!

In parashat Va-Yakhel, when the work of creating all the poles and sockets, all the drapes and rings, and the carvings is described, one verb is used over and over again: va-ya’as – “he made.” Although some translations frame this in the plural – “they made,” that is not the clear meaning of the word. Dozens of times from Exodus 36:11 to 38:9 we see that same verb: va-ya’as – “he made.” However in the next parashah, in Pekudei, from Exodus 39:4 to 39:31 the verbs are all in the plural: va-ya’asu (they made), va-yah-viyu (they brought), va-yitnu (they placed). Who is “he”? Who are “they”?

If we imagine that “he” is Betzalel, then he must have been one extremely busy guy. The work of Va-Yakhel is all about the building of the tents and enclosures and ritual objects that make up the mishkan. It involves hundreds of sockets and rings and poles and staves. So what is it about the building of the tabernacle that required the efforts of this one individual? And how is it possible that Betzalel alone could have accomplished it?

The passages in Pekudei describe the fabrication of the priestly garments; linen tunic and breeches, headdress and breastplate and sash; clothing for Aaron and his sons. There were only five people who needed to be clothed as priests, and only a single high priest. So why do we see so many plural verbs, referring to the many unnamed people who spun and dyed and sewed these garments?

One might speculate that creating a structure is actually a much larger undertaking and could reasonably require more people to do the work. Also, in an earlier parashah, the command concerning the mishkan was directed to the whole community:

And let them make me (v’asu-li) a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. (Exodus 25:8)

On the other hand, making clothing for another individual is a personal, almost an intimate act, and one that could certainly be accomplished by one person. Why the plural verbs?

I don’t pretend to have a perfect explanation for this conundrum, but perhaps we can think of this as an example of different kinds of sacred tasks for different people, especially in the shadow of the sin of the Golden Calf.

The people have recently damaged their relationship with God, and could be reluctant to deal with creating a ‘container’ for an awesome and angry deity. One of our names for God is “Ha-Makom.” The Place. God’s essence is everywhere. So perhaps one God-inspired individual who did not participate in the sin of idolatry can safely take on the task of creating sacred space on behalf of the kahal – the congregation. But then the kahal assumes responsibility for the person who will be their representative. Those people who create the garments for the priests remain at a remove, a safe distance from divine wrath. And yet they, too, serve God, by making clothing for the priest.

What really matters is that everyone, every man and woman and child, has the opportunity to participate in the great work of service to God. The take-away is, while we are not all touched with the kind of artistic ability or courage that produces great edifices, we are all capable of sacred acts of creativity or kindness.

V’ya’asu kulam agudah ahat la’asot ritzon-kha b’le-vav sha-leim.
May all unite in a single fellowship to do Your will with a perfect heart. (From the liturgy of the High Holidays)


Cantor Marcia Lane is the Director of Education and Engagement at the United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, Darien, and New Canaan.