Some Teachings on Va-yakhel/Pekudei (the final chapters of the Book of Exodus)
offered on Shabbat at Havurat Shir Ha-Yam, San Diego March 17, 2006 27 Adar 5767
Summary of the Parashah
In these last two parashiot of the Book of Exodus, we read of the carrying out of the instructions for building the Mishkan (place of presence) and the Ohel Mo-ed (tent of holy meeting or Holy of Holies) given over the last three weeks in parashiot T’rumah, Tetzaveh, and Ki Tissa, interrupted, significantly, by the incident of the golden calf (building of an un-holy structure).
“kol ish khakham-lev”—every wise-hearted person, skilled person—these people are to construct the Mishkan from the gifts (t’rumah, the lifting up of ordinary objects and materials) which everyone in the community brings as free-will offerings.
B’tzel-el and Ohaliav oversee a crew of craftsmen who assemble all the materials into the commanded objects, forms and dimensions. “B’tzel-El” means Shadow of God, but also “Holy onion!” The Mishkan and Ohel Moed are not so much built-up structures as places designed to peel away the layers of illusion, of ordinary reality, that contain and conceal God-Presence in the phenomenal world. It is a structure defined by screens and curtains, hiding and revealing, at its heart, empty space—the space between the golden keruvim (angels) on the cover of the Ark, the place of meeting with Divinity.
Moses then offers an accounting of all the materiel used in the building of the Tabernacle (Midrash: the leaders of the community must be above any suspicion of personal aggrandizement). The priestly vestments are constructed and all the finished parts of the Mishkan and the Ohel Mo-ed and its vessels are brought to Moses and he blesses the people.
On the first day of the month of Nissan, two weeks short of the first anniversary of the exodus from Egypt, Moses is to set up the “Mishkan Ohel Mo-ed.” This becomes the New Year day.
Visualization: The order of set-up is from the inside out—the Ark of the Covenant, surrounded by its curtain, the table and its vessels, the menorah and light its lamps, the gold incense altar, and the screen at the entrance. Before the entrance of the Tent of Meeting place the altar of burnt offering, the laver between the altar and the Tent, with water in it. Then set up the larger enclosure and put the screen at the entrance of the enclosure. All these things were to be anointed with anointing oil. Then Aaron the priest is to be brought to the entrance of the Ohel Moed with his sons, washed, dressed in sacred vestments, anointed and consecrated to serve as priests. His sons are to be likewise anointed, to serve as priests to Ha-Shem in perpetuity.
Moses does all this and offers the first burnt offering and grain offering himself.
Great sadness washing over me as I write these words. That form, just knowing it’s there, at the center of the land, changes life. I’ve gone into shrines and Temples and churches and synagogues, all over the world, searching for that quality of connection, some particular configuration of space, familiar but mysterious, out of reach, a built-up, carved-out place, a Divinely mandated design, meant to simultaneously reveal and conceal—longing for the sacred space that was ours! To know it gone, never again to exist in the world brings up a great grief, an inconsolable sense of loss!
Why is such minute attention paid to the creation of a structure that long ago crumbled to dust, and which, if it ever existed in this form (of which we have no evidence), will never exist again?
Based on Netivot Shalom, Trumah, “V’asu li mikdash, v’shokhanti b’tokham,”
One would think that all the instructions for building the mishkan are outdated matters, important for another time and generation, but not implicating us. Why then do the great Torah commentators call it “the highest of the high, the deepest of the deep,” revealing the hidden secrets at the heart of Creation? The Torah’s instructions, teach the khasidic commentaries, are about no less than how to draw Divine Presence into our earthly existence.
According to the Slonimer Rebbe, the qualities needed to create the mishkan, chochmah, binah, and da-at—those with which God fills B’tzalel (whose name means “in the shadow of God,” see Ex. 35:31: “vay-maleh oto ruakh elohim b’khomah, bit’vunah, uv’da-at”)—are the same as those with which God created this olam, the earth and the sky. In kabbalistic terms, B’tzalel was endowed with the same secret wisdom and creative capacity as HaShem: he was gifted with the knowledge of how to combine the letters, the building blocks of creation from which eretz v’shamayim were formed. So the 1st of Nissan and the setting up of the Mishkan represent a holographic replaying of the Creation of the world, an expression of that same Divine creative endeavor.
The great detail in which all appurtenances of the Mishkan, all the vessels, all the rituals are described and stretched out over five parashiot of Torah (T’rumah, Tetzveh, Ki Tissa, Va’yakhel, and Pekudei) hints at the spiritual importance of the Mishkan, intended by God to be an “apartment” for the Divine on Earth. Each detail is intended to teach a particular variety of service to HaShem.
Are you to serve as a socket, a carrying pole, a boundary curtain or an inner curtain, an altar, a vessel? As the ethereal intoxicating smoke of the incense, the oil for anointing, or the head that is anointed?
V’asu li mikdash, v’shokhanti b’tokham (Ex. 25:8): let them make me a dwelling place, that I may dwell among and within them. In other words, “If you build it, I will come! I will fill it with my immanent Presence! Your holy work with the materials of this world will allow you to perceive the Holiness that infuses all of Creation!”
How can the structures we build in the physical realm be magnets for the Divine, drawers-in of the Divine, teaching each of us the nature of our unique connection with Holiness?
Based on Netivot Shalom, Ki Tissa, “Godel Avodat Haketoret”
The Slonimer Rebbe re-tells a midrash from the Tankhuma, one of the early compilations of Torah commentary, in which, at the moment Moses is about to actually assemble the Mishkan, he quails (not for the first time in his career!):
And it becomes evident within the aspect of these words that the matter of the Mishkan and of its vessels are matters so extremely high that no mind can carry the load of it and they are beyond human understanding. We see this in the Tankhuma (Pekudei) when Moshe says, “ ‘Ribono Shel Olam, I don’t know how to set it up,’ God said to him, ‘Start moving your hands and you will intuit how to set it up.’ And God stands over Moses and says, ‘I will write upon you that you may be empowered to raise it up.’ ” This encapsulates the whole discussion of the Mishkan, that the Holy One desired to make for Godself an apartment on the earthly plane, and all the vessels of the Mishkan and every single detail of its building calibrates very high matters that hint at its hidden secrets. And in light of this, Moshe says, “I don’t know how to set it up.” And God says to him, “Do with your hands as if you were raising it, and I will raise it.”
In all that I build, that I create in my life, can I perceive the Holy One of Blessing standing over me, beneath me, in me, creating through me? Can I get out of the way—let go of my need to own, to accomplish, to sign? Can I let go of my fear of failure and allow God’s hands to work through mine? After all the details are specified, known, after I have done my preparation, the final step involves emunah, faith. We act, allowing a mysterious Force, beyond imagining, beyond comprehension, to act through us. We are not redeemed, the building is not erected, until we have turned ourselves over to God, to be God’s instrument, until we have allowed ourselves to be commissioned as God’s building contractor. Then our every action is in-formed by Divine grace. Then every structure, every project, every child born, every meal cooked, every piece of work we attempt, connects us with the unseen realm of the Creator.
Va-yar Moshe et kol ha-m’lakhah v’hinei asu otah ka-asher tzivah Ha-Shem, ken asu vay’vareykh otam Moshe, And Moses really took in the whole gestalt, all the physical, creative, earthly work and what do you know!—they, the people, had made it exactly as according to the cosmos’ spiritual imperatives, meaning, they had gotten themselves out of the way and let themselves be guided by HaShem. And Moses acknowledged their holiness. (Exodus 39:43, Pekudei)
The cloud of Holy Presence, Shekhinah, fills the mishkan, so that Moses himself is unable to enter. And all the people see this Presence, not only the priests and elders, but l’eynei kol b’nei Yisrael, the eyes of all those God-strugglers saw the cloud by day and the holy fire by night, and the movements of their lives were guided by God’s movement for all their years of desert wandering. What would it mean to continuously perceive and to follow the movements of the Divine, to be guided by Presence, throughout all the wanderings of our lives?
Aliyah: reading the end of Sh’mot, verses 40:33-38
The Blessing: that our hands can become God’s hands, our bodies God’s bodies, our buildings, our work, and our hearts dwelling places for Holy energy and our actions expressions of our Highest nature
Khazak, khazak, v’nit’khazek Strength, strength,may we be strengthened