Exodus 35:1 – 38:21
After the Ten Plagues;
After the Exodus from Egypt;
After the parting of the sea, and the defeat of Pharaoh’s chariots;
After the Revelation at Sinai;
After the idolatry of the Golden Calf;
After the massacre of 3000 Israelite ring-leaders;
After the destruction of the first set of Tablets;
After Moses returns from the mountaintop with a second set of Tablets;
While the people of Israel are still camped in the Wilderness at the base of Mount Sinai, and after all of this, we begin this week’s Torah portion.
Vayak’heil is about building the mishkan, the holy sanctuary for God in the midst of the camp; and in a very real sense, it is a matter of life and death. Without God, the Israelites would be truly lost in the Wilderness, without access to food or water; with no tangible Promise for the future, and no structure (Torah) upon which to build our new nation. Without the mishkan, we would be alone and without God. Nothing could be more important than getting the mishkan built, and quickly. Indeed, the people are so exuberant in bringing the various donations required to build the mishkan that the actual builders are soon overwhelmed. Moses must intercede to say: ‘Enough already! No more donations please.’ I know of no other temple fundraiser where that happened.
Vayak’heil is about getting the job done. How odd then, that it begins with this:
“And Moses assembled all of the community of Israelites and said to them, ‘These are the things that the Lord has charged to do: Six days shall tasks be done and on the seventh day there shall be holiness for you, an absolute sabbath for the Lord. Whosoever does a task on it shall be put to death …’” [Ex. 35:1-2]
Well, that’s a rather strong statement. This is not the first time Torah emphasizes Shabbat, but the context here is unique. After all that has happened, the Israelites are finally coming to grips with the precariousness of their ‘situation,’ not to mention the awe-inspiring power of God. As a result, and for the very first time, they are MOTIVATED. They need the mishkan, and they are willing to work overtime to make it happen.
Conventional wisdom says that we should leverage times of great motivation for maximum gain. After all, if the entire purpose of the mishkan is to bring the palpable presence of God into our community, then shouldn’t we work day and night, and then start taking a Sabbath afterwards?
The Torah says no – not even for this. There is no question that the task is surpassingly holy but allowing our zeal to lead us to violate the sabbath nevertheless invites death.
Here are two possibilities:
The first is that while in the long run, our future would indeed be bleak without God, there is no imminent danger which can only be averted by working on the sabbath. Building the mishkan will take a good amount of time, and while we might feel better if it were completed a few days earlier, we would not actually be better for it.
The second speaks to both the importance of the sabbath, and to our integrity. The mishkan is, by definition, a temporary structure. If we violate the values of Judaism while attempting to establish Judaism, then what are we really doing? And, if even God needs a day of rest, how much the more so do we?
The challenge of Vayak’heil may be ancient, but it could not be more current. We may feel that we can’t afford to take a day each week. There are so many pressures: work, activities, chores, and so on. How can we possibly keep up?
It turns out we can’t – at least not without Shabbat.
When I was a younger rabbi, I thought that I had to be directly involved in every activity of the synagogue and sit on every committee. I worked so hard, so consistently and for so long, that I eventually wound up in the hospital. I thank God for that wake-up call, and for the congregational intervention which followed, in which the lay leadership worked with me to reduce my workload to a more relaxed 70-hour week. However, I still had a lesson to learn. Not in the synagogue, but in a dojo, the karate school where my children took lessons. Whenever I would bring my kids the owner of the school would nudge me to take the adult class. I declined over and over, citing my lack of free time. Eventually, however, just to make the conversation go away, I gave in. What I learned over time was that taking a few hours a week to take care of my body not only improved my health, but gifted me with greater energy and focus – so that I was able to get more done and with greater quality in a 60 hour work week than I had even before I was cut back to 70.
A few hours of exercise a week did wonders for my physical health and mental clarity. Shabbat does the same for our spiritual health and vitality: it is exercise for our souls. We may feel as if other things are more pressing, but Torah assures us they are not. Even if we are trying to build a mishkan in the short term, we require a weekly Shabbat if we want to enjoy a longer term. To give up the sabbath is to kill our spirits, slowly but inexorably.
Although we speak about sabbath rest, the Shabbat is not about doing nothing. Rather, it is about exercising and refreshing our spirits. Just like our muscles atrophy if we don’t use them, so to our spiritual cores. Just as healthy bodies give us more energy, so too do healthy souls.
Vayak’heil reminds us to bring God into our lives with enthusiasm, and reminds us to prioritize our spiritual health by observing the Shabbat; it reminds us to take the long view, to recognize that the anxieties and worries which drive us to work harder are temporary, and to remember that we bring God into our communities not by building big buildings, but by living our values with integrity.
If you do not currently observe the Sabbath, or an ‘absolute Sabbath for the Lord,’ then start off small. Going from 0 to 100 in an exercise program won’t work, nor will it work here. Instead, start to exercise your spirit with a commitment to yourself: do one or two things every week to bring Shabbat into your life which you currently do not do. As you get stronger, you can slowly add more. Don’t take my word for it. Test it for yourself. See happens in your life over time as your spirit slowly grows. It is not for nothing that Ahad HaAm famously quipped: “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.”
Exodus 30:11 – 34:35
Moses was the greatest leader of Israel ever – past, present and future. The Torah says so, and also the sages. Yet, he did not work alone. The Exodus story highlights two Israelite leaders, each with their own very different leadership styles. Moses was the ‘political’ leader and prophet, driven by passion and spurred to action by his sense of injustice and outrage. As a prince in Egypt he killed an Egyptian taskmaster for beating an Israelite slave. As an agent of God, he confronted Pharaoh (albeit with fear and trepidation at first) demanding that the Israelites be set free. And in this week’s parasha he defended the Israelites before God because God was going to destroy them over the Golden Calf; then, when he finally saw the Calf himself, he ordered the immediate execution of 3000 ringleaders.
Aaron, Moses’ brother, was a very different kind of leader and was tapped to be the High Priest. The role of the priest was to serve as the great connector between Israel and God, to bring the Israelites closer to God through the sacrificial rites. He was well suited to this task because Aaron always sought ways to end conflict and create peace. According to tradition, whenever Aaron heard two people arguing he would go to each of them and tell them how much the other regretted his actions, so that each thought the other was ready to apologize. Then, when they finally met, they were able to see each other as friends.
In this week’s portion, Ki Tissa, Aaron takes his pursuit of peace to its logical extreme. Moses has gone up the mountain to receive the tablets and has been gone for over a month with no word. The people become agitated and afraid, and they gather against Aaron saying:
“Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him.” [Ex. 32:1]
Aaron does not argue against them, and to be fair, may have felt threatened for his very life. Instead he instructs them to bring gold, and then uses their gold to make the Calf.
The great Rabbi Hillel was well versed with the leadership styles of both Moses and Aaron. He knew that Moses was the greatest Jewish leader ever to be, and he knew that Aaron built the Golden Calf in a moment of weakness, yet he taught:
“Be a disciple of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to Torah.” [Pirke Avot 1:12]
To be clear, Hillel was not suggesting we do whatever we are told, especially when it comes to building idols. Rather, Hillel understood that conflict and confrontation do not bring people to Torah. Hillel is compared over and again to one of his great contemporaries, Shammai. Shammai was more like Moses, passionate about his principles and quick to anger when they were violated. Hillel, on the other hand, took a softer approach, refusing to lose his temper and patiently meeting people where they were, using their own logic and methodologies to bring them to Torah.
As a pedagogic approach, this makes great sense. But what about as a model for political leadership? Given the reality of our turbulent world, Rabbi Mark Greenspan asks: “Should we be disciples of Aaron?” It is a fair question.
Hillel lived under Roman rule after the fall of Jerusalem (but before the destruction of the Temple), when Jews lived or died at the mercy of their conquerors. He understood that to confront the Romans directly was suicide, and so in that sense he sought peace over conflict. For two-thousand years of exile our people did the same – seeking peace rather than conflict in the many lands where we lived. Yet, Hillel had his limits. He would not give up the study or teaching of Torah – not even if it were to put his life at risk. For Hillel the pursuit of peace was the best available approach in the service of a higher purpose, but it did not supplant that purpose.
In the Exodus we needed both Moses and Aaron. Under the Romans we needed both Hillel and Shammai, and many others like them. Our tradition teaches us to pursue peace whenever possible, but also to hold true to our values and our covenant with God. The difficult part is to know when we should be more like Moses and when more like Aaron, and to remember to keep the wisdom and values of our tradition front and center when our emotions rise. In the end Rabbi Greenspan turns to the Psalms for guidance, and so should we:
“Adonai oz l’amo yiten; Adonai yivarech et amo bashalom. May God grant strength to our people. May God bless our people with peace.” [Psalm 29:11]
Exodus 27:20 – 30:10
Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky shares a story once told by Rabbi Sidney Greenberg about a time he brought a group of Kindergarteners into their synagogue sanctuary. Rabbi Greenberg pointed to the Ner Tamid and asked if any of the children could tell him what that was. One little go-getter raised his hand and said confidently: “That’s the INTERNAL light.”
Although the answer was technically incorrect, the insight was spectacular. The Ner Tamid is the ETERNAL Light, commanded in this week’s Torah portion, which must be placed in the tabernacle outside of the curtain over the ark. It is called “Eternal” because we must never let the light go out. Every synagogue in the world has a Ner Tamid over its ark, and it has come to symbolize both the presence of God, and the need for our constant effort to bring and maintain God’s presence in our midst.
The young boy in Rabbi Greenberg’s synagogue missed that point but stumbled across something beautiful: not only do our sanctuaries contain a special light, but each of us also contains a special light. Rabbi Isaac Luria, the great kabbalist, taught that in creating the universe, part of God was splintered into countless tiny divine sparks. This is the source of the term Tikkun Olam, which means repairing the universe. One tradition teaches that every time a Jew performs a mitzvah a spark is reunited with its Source, and the universe is healed just a little bit. However, a second tradition says that each spark is a human soul, that each of us contains a tiny spark of the Divine within. In other words, we all have Internal Lights. We are simultaneously part of what is broken in the cosmos, and part of the Divine, and we have the power to heal.
The mystics teach that the light within needs both our attention and our care, and that with the effort of study, prayer and the performance of mitzvot that we can make the spark glow brightly and even grow. I would add acts of gemilut hasadim to the mix – acts of love and compassion.
The rabbis were right to require a Ner Tamid in every synagogue. We need both the light and the reminder so that we continue to renew the holiness within our communities. The Kindergartener who called it an Internal Light was also right. We have internal lights as well, which we must nurture to bring out the holiness and human potential within us.
If we tend to both, well then, who knows what we can become?
Exodus 25:1 – 27:19
One of the remarkable characteristics of Toraitic law is that most of the 613 Commandments do not follow the “if – then” formula. “If – then” laws are far more common in the secular world, and most legal systems would not function well without them. What is an “if – then” law? If a crime is committed then there will be a specific punishment or penalty; and as a deterrence, the worse the crime, the harsher the punishment.
While there are some exceptions, the Torah does not generally take this approach. At Sinai while giving the 10 Commandments, God does not say: ‘this is the penalty for murder.’ Instead, God simply says: “Don’t murder.” [Ex. 20:12] Why does this distinction matter? The “if – then” model assumes that we will commit crimes and establishes a system for handling crime and punishment. Torah does not. By saying “don’t murder,” God effectively places the responsibility solely upon us, reminding us that we are perfectly capable of not committing murder. We are capable of living to a higher standard.
This does not mean that we will, or that it will be easy to maintain that higher standard. We are, however, capable. It will require effort, and even hard work – and that work begins with parashat Terumah.
In last week’s portion, following the Revelation at Sinai, the Israelites say to Moses: “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do and we will heed.” [Ex. 24:78]. Then Moses heads up to the mountain to receive the commandments, where he will be for 40 days.
Terumah begins with a strange commandment, given that Moses is supposed to be up on the mountain:
“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the Israelites, that they take Me a gift from every man, as his heart may urge him you shall take My donation.’” [Ex. 25:1-2]
The purpose of these gifts is to build the mishkan, the Tent of Meeting where God will ‘dwell’ in the midst of the camp; and this verse has become the clarion call for of every synagogue capital campaign since. The rabbis wonder, however, why the command is for us to take God a gift, rather than give God a gift. The answer is surprising. While giving a gift of tzedakah is a great mitzvah, taking a gift suggests that we are participating in the work of delivering the gift directly to the beneficiary. In other words, we are doing the work of collecting tzedakah, instead of stopping at the point of contribution.
Yet, if we are commanded to take a gift, then why is it according to how our hearts may urge us?
The midrash (Tanna d’Vei Eliyahu) says that the moment the Israelites said “we will do and we will heed” that God immediately told Moses, “Let them take Me an offering/gift.” The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, taught: “If a person feels an urge to perform a commandment, he should take this urge and convert it to action, or else the urge will soon disappear without a trace.” His student, the Sadeh Margalit then taught: “Therefore, following all the enthusiasm which resulted from the receiving of the Torah, God said to Moses, ‘Take this enthusiasm and transform it into action – by building the Sanctuary.’”
So, we are not to give gifts, but make the extra effort to bring our gifts to God; and we are to especially look for those opportunities to act when our hearts are moved and filled with spiritual enthusiasm. But what does any of this have to do with choosing a higher standard over the “if – then” system?
It all comes back to the idea of a willing heart. In another midrash, Exodus Rabbah, we read:
“At the time that the Holy Blessed One told Moses about all the tasks associated with the (building of the) Tabernacle, Moses said before him; ‘Master of the universe will the Israelites be able to do this?’ The Holy Blessed One said to him ‘Even (a single) one of the Israelites could do it.’ As it is written ‘of every man whose heart is willing.’” [Exodus Rabbah, chapter 33]
Every single one of us capable alone of building a Sanctuary for God in our midst. And when we talk about bringing our gifts as an offering, it does not just mean physical wealth, but also our other gifts – our skills, our wisdom, our knowledge, our strength and our hearts.
Our camp now spans the world rather than base of Sinai, and we no longer have a mishkan as described in this portion. However, every generation can build a place for God in our midst. We can live to the higher standard. We are eminently capable. Torah says so.
All we need are willing hearts, and the discipline to turn our commitment into action.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras