Vayakhel (Gathered) – Exodus 35:1 – 38:20
A simple structure constructed of volunteered items easily found in ordinary households, the Tabernacle represents the very essence of human freedom and equality.
This week’s Torah portion opens with Moses’ instruction to the Children of Israel to donate items for the construction of the Tabernacle and its various vessels. It echoes the very similar commandment that God gave to Moses in Chapter 25. It would seem, therefore, that the repetition would be superfluous. Why didn’t Scripture just tell us that Moses commanded the people to donate and they did?
In reading the verses in chapter 35, however, there is something very special that is conveyed through the details mentioned here. Like the previous instruction, Moses asks for those “of a generous heart” but he details the actual items needed for each vessel or structure: Oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, and onyx stones and stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breast piece. (Exodus 35:8-9)
Moses is inspiring the people, enabling them to understand that their donation will contribute in a very direct way to a specific purpose. In the same vein, he asks for skilled craftsmen to construct very specific items: “The Tabernacle, its tent and its covering, its hooks and its frames, its bars, its pillars, and its bases; the ark with its poles, the mercy seat, and the veil of the screen” (Exodus 35:11-12).
But the most moving part is the description of the actual donations brought by the people. Again, the phrase “everyone whose heart stirred him” (Exodus 35:21) is repeated. “So they came, both men and women. All who were of a willing heart brought brooches and earrings and signet rings and armlets, all sorts of gold objects, every man dedicating an offering of gold to the Lord. And every one who possessed blue or purple or scarlet yarns or fine linen or goats’ hair or tanned rams’ skins or goatskins brought them. Everyone who could make a contribution of silver or bronze brought it as the Lord’s contribution. And every one who possessed acacia wood of any use in the work brought it. And every skillful woman spun with her hands, and they all brought what they had spun in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen. All the women whose hearts stirred them to use their skill spun the goats’ hair. And the leaders brought onyx stones and stones to be set, for the ephod and for the breast piece, and spices and oil for the light, and for the anointing oil, and for the fragrant incense. All the men and women, the people of Israel, whose heart moved them to bring anything for the work that the Lord had commanded by Moses to be done brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord” (Exodus 35:22-29).
Each man and woman did what he or she could to help. Those who could spin the yarns did so. Those who had precious gems and gold and silver to donate, did so. Those who had skins or fabrics donated them. The detail presented here, of each type of donation and each person who took the time to determine how he or she could help, all as moved by their hearts, teaches a very important lesson indeed.
Often, it is the success of a project that history records. When great kings of antiquity built monuments to celebrate victories or to worship a pagan god, we know nothing of the ordinary people who participated in the construction. In fact, it is likely that these temples and monuments were built by slaves who were forced to labor with great suffering to build a magnificent structure at the whim of their master.
Not so the Tabernacle. It is a simple structure constructed of items easily found in ordinary households – fabrics and skins and jewelry. And Scripture stresses that it is built through donations, simple items brought by ordinary people, as their hearts and spirits moved them, voluntarily, to take part in the building of a structure that would serve as their center of worship, their vehicle to reach God. It is a structure that represents the very essence of human freedom and equality, even as it sets strict limits on the access of ordinary people to its innermost sanctum. But the restricted access does not reflect upon the status of the individual, for each individual is equal before God, as reflected in his ability to participate in this great national project. Restricted access is an expression of great holiness and sanctity, not of inequality and oppression. The high priest who enters the Holy of Holies represents the people and enables atonement for their sins – he serves them who have enabled this vehicle for serving God to come into existence.
Shalom from Samaria,
Sondra Oster Baras
Director, Israel Office