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Torah Sparks

March 5, 2005 - 24 Adar I 5765

Annual: Ex. 35:1 - 38:20 (Etz Hayim, p. 552; Hertz p. 373)
Triennial: Ex. 35:1 - 37:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 552; Hertz p. 373)
Haftarah: I Kings 7:40 - 50 (Etz Hayim, p. 573; Hertz p. 382)

Prepared by Rabbi Mark B. Greenspan
Oceanside Jewish Center, Oceanside, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


Parshat Va-yakhel appears to be a repetition of material presented earlier in the book of Exodus. We find in this Parshah a presentation of the instructions for the building of the tabernacle, Israel's portable house of worship in the wilderness. Moses calls on the people to generously donate the necessary resources for the completion of this project. While the earlier presentation of this commandment came from God, in Parshat Va-yakhel, Moses calls the people together for this purpose. Va-yakhel then is an expression of the nation's own enthusiasm and excitement in participating in this important project.

In the midst of telling us about the building of the Tabernacle, the Torah pauses several times to remind us about the observance of the Sabbath. The sages conclude from this that the prohibitions for the observance of the Sabbath are the same as the types of labor involved in the building and the maintenance of the Tabernacle.

Theme #1: Topic One: How Essential to our Survival is Jewish Unity?

Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them. (Exodus 35:1)

Derash: Study

  • "Moses convoked." It was the day after Yom Kippur, right after he came down from Mount Sinai. (According to the Midrash Moses returned from Mount Sinai with the second set of Ten Commandments on Yom Kippur, affirming to the people that God had forgiven them for worshipping the golden calf.) (Rashi: Rabbi Shlomo Ben Yitzhak, 1040 - 1105)
  • Moses hinted to the people (by gathering them immediately after Yom Kippur) that we should not only be united in love, fellowship, forgiveness and reconciliation on Yom Kippur. Even on the days after Yom Kippur we need to continue to express these qualities. (Rabbi Moses of Kovrin)
  • When the people of Israel stood at Mount Sinai the Torah says "And Israel dwelled there before the Mount" (the Hebrew verb "dwell" in singular expressing their unity). After worshipping the golden calf they became divided and separate from one another. The tabernacle came to atone for the sin of the golden calf. Moses therefore called on all of the people to come together in unity as they were at the time of the giving of the Torah. (Eretz Hemdah, the Malbim - Rabbi Meir Leibush Ben Michal, 1809-1879)
  • Every Jew depends on fellow Jews for the energy, resources, and courage to be a Jew. (Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, 1881- 1993)
  • Nowhere else do we find a similar commandment in the Torah in which Moses calls on "The entire community of the people of Israel". Since all of Israel was called upon to contribute to the building of this public institution, it was necessary to call on the entire people to be present for this commandment. In order for the Tabernacle to be a spiritual center for the whole Jewish people it was essential for there to be a sense of partnership in its building. (Parpiraot LaTorah, Rabbi Menachem Becker)

Questions for Discussion

  1. What is so unique about the beginning of Parshat Va-yakhel is that it captured the attention of the sages over the ages? Mah Nishtana, How is the beginning of Parshat Va-yakhel different from most of the other weekly Torah portions?
  2. In what ways did the building of the Tabernacle express the unity of the Jewish people? What other purpose did the building of the Tabernacle serve?
  3. Do separate congregations promote or diminish the unity of the Jewish people today? How can congregations work together to create a greater sense of unity among the Jewish people? Are there other institutions today that might help to promote Jewish unity?
  4. Too often we are overly critical of the other movements in the Jewish world today. Come up with a list of some of the positive contributions that the Reform, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist Movements have made to Jewish life. What contributions has Conservative Judaism made to Jewish life?

Theme #2: The Prohibition Against Fire on Shabbat

These are the things that the Lord commanded you to do: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does work on it shall be put to death. You shall not kindle a fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day. (Exodus 35:1-3)

Derash: Study

  • Though you are engaged in work dedicated to the divine purposes, be on guard not to perform any work on the Sabbath. (Ibn Ezra: 1086- 1164)
  • The prohibition highlights man's acknowledgment that his ability to master matter (represented by fire) is lent to him by God and is only used in His servant. (Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808 - 1888)
  • Lighting, extinguishing, or transferring fire on the Sabbath is forbidden under Jewish law. Some scholars liken electricity to fire, therefore prohibiting turning on or off all electrical devices on Shabbat. Others in the Conservative Movement maintain that electricity is not fire according to either science or Jewish law and that it does not violate the prohibition. Nevertheless, activities prohibited on other grounds - such as shaving, cooking and doing laundry - remain prohibited even if done electrically. (Etz Hayim Humash)
  • (A Chasidic Insight) The rule applies figuratively as well. Do not add fire to your talk on the Sabbath by adding to dissent, gossip, and negative criticism. (The Torah: A Modern Commentary)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. According to the biblical commentator, Ibn Ezra, what is the connection between the building of the Tabernacle and the prohibition against work on the Sabbath?
  2. The threat of death if one works on the Sabbath seems very harsh. Why do you think the Torah decrees such a harsh penalty for someone who fails to observe the Sabbath? How should we respond to this penalty today?
  3. The prohibition against kindling a fire is one of the few specific prohibitions singled out in the Torah though rabbinic literature derives many more. Why do you think the Torah mentions this one? Do you think electricity should be considered fire? Why or why not?
  4. How might Rabbi Hirsch's point of view influence one's opinion on the status of electricity even if scientifically it can be shown that fire is different from electricity? How else can we express the idea of God's mastery of the world through the observance of the Sabbath?
  5. How does this Chasidic insight understand the prohibition against "kindling fire in your dwelling places"? Is it really a good thing to avoid argument and dissent at the dinner table and in synagogue on the Sabbath? What type of dissent and debate do you think is acceptable on the Sabbath? What type of conversation should we avoid?

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