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Parashat Vayakhel-Pekkudei: A Dwelling Place for God Paves a Path to Freedom

This week we read a double Torah portion and complete the Book of Shemot (Exodus). Shemot has three parts, each with its own theme: First, the enslavement and redemption of Israel in Chapters 1-12, and second, the giving of the law in Chapters 13-24. Both of these sections are dramatic, riveting narratives.

Then there is the longer, third section, Chapters 25-40, devoted to the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). This section itself has a three-part structure. First, Moshe receives the instructions for building the Mishkan. The middle part is the drama of the Golden Calf and the renewal of the Covenant that follows it. Part three is the actual building of the Mishkan.

The “drama” of the Mishkan narrative is entirely contained in the short middle section, sandwiched by repetitive, extensive descriptions of the Mishkan’s implements, ornaments and vestments.

Note that the Mishkan section contradicts a paragraph in the giving of the law section. Immediately after the Ten Commandments are given, the Children of Israel are instructed to make their altars out of earth and unhewn stone, and to sacrifice wherever they worship. So why is there a Mishkan, with its wood, copper and gold altars?

Some medieval commentators, notably Rashi, offer the solution that God’s decision to build a Mishkan was made only after the lessons learned from the Golden Calf story, which showed that the people needed more structured ritual for worship. In Rashi’s view, drawn from Talmudic Midrash, the Mishkan narrative as well as other events in the Torah are presented out of chronological order. In other words, Section 1 really follows section 2!

There were many altars throughout ancient Israel. In the Book of Kings, Jeroboam set up altars and placed golden calves in Dan and in Beth El. From Dan in the far north to Beersheba in the south, in Southern Judah and Samaria, many horned Israelite altars and several golden calves have been unearthed by archaeologists in Philistine controlled areas of Israel’s coastal plain. Was the Mishkan narrative inserted into the Torah to assert the primacy of the Temple and altar in Jerusalem, as some critical scholars claim?

Like Rashi’s viewpoint, the critical approach seems to me to devalue the narrative, by offering historical explanations not found in the text. I think that the founding book of an indestructible People spanning 3,000 years needs no rewriting!

In conclusion, I’d like to briefly introduce two central teachings that emerge from the Mishkan narrative itself:

1. Moshe tells the people that only someone whose spirit moves him to generosity (נדב ליבו – nadav libo) should donate to build the Mishkan, and the crowdfunding campaign he initiates is in fact so successful that it quickly surpasses its goal and Moshe stops it!

Now recall that just recently these same people had donated their jewelry to build a Golden Calf! The same word, (ויקהל – vayakhel) is used both for the people gathering around Aaron before building the Golden Calf and for Moshe assembling the people (ויקהל – vayakhel) to convey God’s instructions to him for building the Mishkan. An expression that shortly before signaled panic and anarchy now introduces unity of purpose for a constructive goal. With the building of the Mishkan, the Egyptian ex-slaves are becoming a free people.

2. Images are expressly forbidden by the Ten Commandments, yet in the Mishkan two cherubs, (כרובים –cruvim) are placed over the Ark of the Covenant. When is the previous time the Torah mentions cherubs? They are placed at the entrance to the Garden of Eden to guard the way to the tree of life after Adam and Eve were expelled.

In the beginning, God placed humans in the Garden of Eden to dwell there permanently, but that failed. At the end of Shemot, Moshe creates the Mishkan as a dwelling place for God – as an institution offering a corrective to the failures of creation, coming full circle and completing the mission started in Breishit (Genesis).

Shavua tov from Schechter.

Eitan Cooper is the former Executive Vice President of The Schechter Institutes. From January 1, 2024, he is a part-time consultant at Schechter. Since coming to Schechter in 2000, he has served in various capacities, including TALI Outreach Coordinator and Vice President for Development. Mr. Cooper holds a BA from the University of Chicago and an MA from the Hebrew University. He is a graduate of the Mandel School for Educational Leadership and a licensed Israeli tour guide.

Eitan and Anita Cooper made Aliya from the United States in 1983, and are proud parents and grandparents to their growing Israeli family.

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