TORAH PORTION: Vayakhel-Pekudei
Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei, Shabbat Hahodesh

March 13, 2021 | 29 Adar 5781
Torah: Exodus 35:1-40:38; Triennial 37:17-39:21
Maftir: Exodus 12:1-20
Haftorah: Ezekiel 45:16-46:18
In this week's Torah Sparks, you'll find a Dvar Torah on Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei by Ilana Kurshan called "A Stately Pleasure Dome". Vered Hollander-Goldfarb poses questions titled "Why Should the Poor Want to Give as Much as the Rich?". And Bex Stern Rosenblatt writes about "The First Lay Leader" in the Haftorah.
A Stately Pleasure Dome
Ilana Kurshan

The two parshiyot we read this week, Vayakhel and Pekudei, describe the building of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary, in accordance with the specifications that appeared in Terumah and Tetzaveh. Indeed, much of the language of this week’s parshiyot repeats the language of those earlier parshiyot, suggesting that the building of the Mishkan was merely the mechanical, mindless execution of God’s plan, without any room for human initiative. But the Talmud and midrash tell a very different story about the vision and creativity involved in building a dwelling place for God.

A simple reading of the biblical text suggests that God communicated a blueprint for building the Mishkan to Moshe, who imparted it to the artisans, who built in exact accordance with these specifications. But the rabbis did not imagine the process so smoothly. The Talmud (Menachot 29b) relates that the ark, table, and Menorah descended from heaven in fiery form for Moshe to replicate. Moshe turned to God in bewilderment: “How am I supposed to make like those?” (Bemidbar Rabbah 12:10). God responded that he is supposed to use wood and gold to recreate the structures shown to him in a fiery vision: “See and follow the patterns for them that are being shown to you on the mountain” (Exodus 25:40). This midrash suggests that when Moshe went up on Mount Sinai, he was given a vision of a Platonic ideal of the Temple vessels which he then had to translate into earthly materials.

The act of translating vision into reality was not easy for Moshe. The midrash (Tanchuma Vayikra 11:8) plays on the term used in the Torah to describe the fashioning of the Menorah from gold – it had to be mikshah, made of hammered work. The word mikshah comes from the same root as kashah, which means hardness and difficulty. The Menorah posed a particular challenge to Moshe, perhaps because of the elaborate cups, calyxes, and petals adorning its branches. As the midrash relates, God therefore engraved the Menorah upon Moshe’s hand when Moshe was up on Sinai. Moshe was instructed to descend the mountain and then copy the image God had engraved on his hand so as to fashion the Menorah. Only after receiving an in-person tutorial from God on the mountain was Moshe able to come down and fashion the Menorah.

According to this understanding, the challenge of building the Mishkan was the challenge of taking a heavenly vision and transforming it into human terms. This is a challenge familiar to many artists who are afforded a moment of inspiration in which they glimpse a vision which they must then translate into the materials at their disposal – whether it is paint or stone or music or language. The British Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge dramatizes this artistic challenge in his poem “Kublah Khan.” Coleridge explains in a preface that he wrote the poem one night after he fell asleep reading about Xanadu, the palace of the Mongol ruler Kublah Khan. He woke with a poetic vision of the palace, which he set about writing down, but he was interrupted by a knock at the door and the vision fled. The poem depicts the glory of Xanadu while also capturing the poet’s despair at his inability to recreate that “stately pleasure dome” in words, including the damsel who appeared in his vision of the palace:

Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry “Beware, beware!”

The poet longed to revive the symphony he heard and recreate the vision of the palace he saw in his dream, so that he might make domes and caves out of the airy immateriality of language. Devastatingly, the vision fled before he could take down notes on the palm of his hand, and the poem remained, as Coleridge termed it “a fragment.” His Mishkan was never built.

As Coleridge knew, much of the frustration of the artistic life is the frustration of trying to translate vision into reality and inevitably falling short. But this is also the challenge of the religious life. Our tradition imparts to us spiritual ideals that we have to incorporate into the messy reality of life on earth. Like the instructions for building the Mishkan, the Torah may be read as an instruction manual for building an ideal society: Care for the stranger. Respect the elderly. Do not covet. But when it comes to implementing those ideals in our legislation and in our lives, it is often far from simple.

And yet somewhat miraculously, as the Torah reports at the end of Pekudei, the Mishkan was completed according to plan: “Just as the Lord commanded Moshe, so the Israelites did all the work” (39:42). The cloud covers the Tent of Meeting and God’s presence fills the Tabernacle – with its golden Menorah and its braided chains of corded work and its embroidered screens of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, all exactly as God ordained. The building of the Mishkan reminds us that when we are able to translate heavenly visions into human terms, we do not just craft works of magnificent beauty – we also create a space that points to God’s presence in our midst.
Why Should the Poor Want to Give as Much as the Rich?
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb

Text: Shmot 30:13-16 (last week’s Parasha)

13This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall give: half a shekel … 15The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less than the half shekel, when they give the offering of the LORD, to make atonement for your souls. 16And you shall take the atonement silver from the Children of Israel, and assign it to the service of the Tent of Meeting as a memorial/reminder for the Children of Israel before the LORD, to make atonement for your souls.

Text: Shmot 38:25-28

25And the silver of those of the community who were recorded came to a hundred talents, and a thousand seven hundred and three-score and fifteen shekels, … 26a beka a head, half a shekel, … for each one who was entered in the records from twenty years old and upward…. 27And the hundred talents of silver were for casting the sockets of the sanctuary…

  • Unlike the rest of the materials for the Mishkan (Tabernacle), the silver for the foundations was not donated. What was its source?
  • Why do you think that every person was commanded to bring half a shekel of silver for the Mishkan rather than ask for donations? After all, people gave very generously.
  • Why do you think that this “tax” was an equal amount for everyone rather than a percentage of one’s income?*

Commentary: R. Samson Raphael Hirsch Shmot 30:16

The service of the Tent of Meeting is never the Temple service in its regular meaning - …sacrifices etc…. rather [it refers to] the service for the Temple… the actual building of the Temple and its maintenance…. As our verse is speaking about the use that was made of the silver …here it means making the Mishkan.

  • What do you think is the significance of commanding a contribution from everyone for the building itself?
Commentary: Ibn Ezra (second commentary) Shmot 30:16

You shall take – this is explained in Parashat Pekudei. For the Mishkan is standing on nothing but the silver of atonement as a reminder/memorial to the Children of Israel.

  • According to Ibn Ezra, what is the foundation of the Mishkan? Why should the Mishkan be built on such a foundation? What do you think it was supposed to remind the Israelites?
  • How might this explain the need for everyone to give an equal amount of silver – half a Shekel?

* A trigger: How do we want people to think of themselves, and be thought of, before God?
The First Lay Leader
Bex Stern Rosenblatt

What does it mean to be a lay leader? What does it mean to follow a passion without making it a profession? Is there intrinsically a division between the rabbis and the congregation? If so, where does the lay leader fall? To what extent is lay leadership tied up in financial support for the congregation or institution? And what motivates lay leaders to sacrifice on behalf of their communities?

We can begin to answer these questions by reading about the first lay leader, the nasi in this week’s Haftarah, Ezekiel 45:16-48:18. The nasi emerges as a new and distinct role in Ezekiel 40-48. We find ourselves once again after the destruction of the First Temple, imagining the ways we will rebuild the Temple and rebuild the nation. We have already looked at the role of the priests, now from the Zaddokites, in the rebuilding (see my Haftarah commentary on Parashat Tetzaveh.) The nasi emerges with the priests as an integral part of Ezekiel’s vision of the new world.

The term nasi appears many times in the Tanakh, carrying various meanings. Coming from the root nsa, to lift up, it can mean prince or leader, tribal chief or ruler, and sometimes is used to refer to King David and his dynastic line. Rashi notes the confusion over what is meant by ‘nasi,’ noting that he thinks it means high priest but has also heard that it can mean king. We can find an answer in the middle, understanding nasi as lay leader, existing in the space between priests and people, exercising leadership while leaving kingship to God.

The nasi fills a number of roles. He serves as the conduit between the priests and the people, acting both as a messenger between the two groups. He has a special place reserved for him in the Temple compound - the eastern gate. He can enter the Temple and observe the workings of the priests, but he is not one of them. He joins the people in their access to the Temple on hagim, entering from the northern gate and proceeding to the southern gate. The nasi is a role model, knowing when it is appropriate to relinquish his privileged viewpoint to represent the people better.

The nasi is also a financial provider. He is granted choice land, surrounding the Temple. From this land, he must provide various sacrifices for the sake of the entire people. Although they also give back to him, the financial burden on him is much greater than what he receives. For this reason, he is granted the land. He models how to use his fortune to give back. Ezekiel is at pains to establish strict rules around how the nasi can pass down his land. It is to be kept within the family - it cannot be given as a permanent gift outside the family. And the family is subject to the same norms as the nasi, to continue to use their wealth to support the people. 

Many commentators express discomfort at the difference between the way hagim are to be celebrated in Exodus and the changed laws that Ezekiel presents here. And there is always a danger, as we tell and retell the Pesach story every year more distant from the first telling, that we adapt the story to the point of losing all meaning. There is a possibility that, having lost Moses as a leader, and then having lost the Temple and sovereignty itself we invent a nasi to serve a role that did not originally need to exist. As we turn again toward Pesach this year, may we read and respect the original stories, understanding our own lay leadership in light of the wisdom and adaptability of earlier models.
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