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Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei

March 11, 2010

By Julius Rabinowitz

This week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel, begins with a familiar litany that I will paraphrase: six days you may work, but on the seventh day you are forbidden to do work.

We’ve heard this many times already, and we’ll hear it many times again: it accompanied God’s giving of the manna; it resounded very loudly on Mount Sinai with booming thunder and other noises. And we’ve heard it twice again since. So, why does Torah repeat it once again in this week’s parashah? Are we so dense that we need this constant drilling? Or maybe its inclusion this week teaches us something else.

This week, Torah juxtaposes the Shabbat prohibition with the command to build the mishkan, the Tabernacle – the portable shrine erected by the Israelites in the wilderness after they left Egypt and that served as God’s “home” on earth. The Rabbis of the Talmud rely on this textual relationship to teach us that the labors that went into the construction of the mishkan, 39 categories of them, constitute the prohibited labors not to be undertaken on Shabbat.

But perhaps we can learn something else from the relationship between Shabbat and the construction of the mishkan.

Through the ages Shabbat has not been seen as a day of “thou shalt nots”; but rather as God’s gift to the Jewish people that has served as the “glue” keeping them together in the millennia of exile in foreign lands. As the great Zionist thinker and ideologue Ahad Ha’am said, “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” And even in this day, when Jews in the diaspora are, relatively speaking, not oppressed peoples but nevertheless threatened by the danger of secular assimilation, the weekly arrival of Shabbat reminds us, in case we forgot during our six days of slavish labor to the almighty dollar, that we are Jews, and that our “Jewishness” derives not from anything other than God.

In looking at the construction of the mishkan we can derive a similar cohesiveness benefit resulting to the community that participated in it. Rather than it being a compulsory tax of a set amount, the funding mechanism used for the mishkan’s construction resulted from what “a person feels like giving” (Exodus 35:5), that the Israelites came forward only as they were “ready to volunteer,” (Id. 35:21); and that the gifts were made by “those who wanted to make a donation.” (Id. 35:22) In sum, these donations were made by the Israelite community “asher nadav lebam” – from their heart. (Id. 35:29)

Against the backdrop of the Shabbat descriptive, we can see that just as Shabbat’s experience is more richly felt through the positive impact that it generates for its participants and not as a series of “don’ts”, this giving from the heart to support the building of the mishkan, too, can have secondary benefits upon those who partake in it. Indeed, one need only observe the first word of this week’s parashah to appreciate what those benefits could be: Vayahkhel – and Moses gathered the entire community to participate in this process. Moses understood all too well that by affording this group of recent slaves the opportunity to give of themselves according to their “wants,” and not as part of an obligation, they could be transformed into a solid community, far better than as a result of any direct command from God to do so.

Moreover, this kehilah-strengthening consequence of Israelites is further evidenced by the unusual descriptive used by Torah to identify the actual participants in this massive effort: “kol ish v’ishah” – every man and woman. This is in sharp contrast to the usual, “children of Israel” or “Israelites” descriptive used for other events in the desert.

So, in this day as we face financial challenges to support the numerous undertakings that we pursue, we may want to study this event and appreciate its value. All too often, the focus in succeeding with these challenges is on the immediate objective they seek to achieve. However, if more attention is given to the benefits redounding to the giver such as the cohesiveness experienced by the Israelites of the desert as well as the holiness extending to this type of participation, not only can the immediate objectives be closer to fruition but the long term goals that we seek to imbue within our communities the spirit of a single kehilah can result.


Julius Rabinowitz is a rabbinical student at The Academy for Jewish Religion.