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Torah Sparks

February 26, 2011 – 22 Adar I 5771

Annual: Ex. 35:1 – 40:38 (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. 574; Hertz p. 382)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
Baldwin, New York

Torah Portion Summary

Moses convokes the Israelite nation and reminds them of the proper way to observe the Sabbath and the need not to work then, specifically articulating the prohibition against the use or kindling of fire on Shabbat.

Moses calls upon the people to provide materials for completion of the tabernacle. The Israelites respond enthusiastically, exceeding the need and producing a surplus of materials. The parashah repeatedly mentions that women participate in this process, referring to a group of women "who performed tasks at the entrance of the tent of meeting." Professor Nahum Sarna insists that "nothing is known about this class, so it is likely that these women performed menial work. None of the evidence supports the notion that they exercised any ritual or cultic function." Nevertheless, the conspicuous presence of women in the communal affairs of Israelites who were occupied with the needs of the sanctuary provides early evidence of the spiritual sensitivity that always touched the souls of Jewish women, and who have such varied opportunities for its expression in our own age.

The creatively gifted Bezalel, who was further blessed with the ability to teach others effectively, is designated as the leading master craftsman in the effort to complete the beautification and maintenance of the Sanctuary. He is the eponymic inspiration for the renowned Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Tel Aviv, founded in 1903. Oholiab also takes a leading role in providing for the tabernacle's artistic and esthetic needs.

Parashat Vayakhel revisits information familiar from earlier chapters in the Book of Exodus, describing the construction of the tabernacle and its various furnishings and accoutrements, including, the table, the menorah, the altar, incense, oils, and so on. The final details reported in the parashah are construction of the priestly laver from copper mirrors donated by Israelite women, and a report on the dimensions of the enclosure for the holy precincts.

Theme #1: "Your Art's in the Right Place"

"See, the Lord has singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. He has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft." (Exodus 35:30-31)

Derash: Study

"Anyone who has special talents, such as Bezalel's artistry, has to realize that God gave him these talents only to use them to do His will. If he fails to do what is expected of him, heaven forbid, eventually he will be called to account for misusing his talents, be they in the realm of wisdom, strength, riches, or possessions." (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein)

"Bezalel was endowed with wisdom and understanding because of the spirit of devotion and self-sacrifice shown by his ancestors. His grandfather Hur had allowed himself to be put to death rather than help the children of Israel set up the Golden Calf, and the tribe of Judah, of which he was a member, had been the first to dash into the waves of the Red Sea at the Lord's command." Meshech Chochmah "The right hand of the artist withers when he forgets the sovereignty of God." (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)

"The artist must penetrate into the world, feel the fate of human beings, of peoples, with real love. There is no art for art's sake. One must be interested. One must be interested in the entire real of life." (Marc Chagall)

"If there were no other proof of the infinite patience of God with men, a very good one could be found in His toleration of the pictures that are painted of Him and of the noise that proceeds from musical instruments under the pretext of being in His ‘honor.'" (Thomas Merton)

"Religion is the everlasting dialogue between humanity and God. Art is its soliloquy." (Hans Werfel)

Questions for Discussion:

Is human giftedness purely a matter of God-given grace, unearned and undeserved, as Rabbi Feinstein implied, or is it the product of generations of family history, priorities, hard work, and genetics? An old New England proverb tells us that "A child's education begins several generations before its birth." How does this apply or relate to the commentary of the Meshech Chochmah?

What personal traits do we attribute directly to God's benevolence? To nature? To nurture? To our families and other significant influences? If we, like the tribe of Judah, are able to pass on gifts of the spirit to our future descendants, what are they likely to be? What would we want them to be?

Of what real danger is Heschel warning artists? To what other skills and areas of human endeavor does his admonition apply? To what do we as individuals and as communities)owe the "sovereignty of God"? How does Rabbi Heschel's statement differ from (and relate to) Rabbi Feinstein's comment?

The visual arts have a history of limited scope in a Jewish religious context. Has this had a constructive impact, or are we esthetically disadvantaged by a theological bias against graphic representations? How has the Jewish community collectively compensated for this historic pattern?

Theme #2: "Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era?"

"He made the laver of copper and its stand of copper from the mirrors of the women who performed tasks at the entrance of the tent of meeting." (Exodus 38:8)

Derash: Study

"The daughters of Israel owned mirrors that they looked into when they adorned themselves, and even these they did not refrain from donating to the Tabernacle. Moses spurned them because they were made to serve the evil urge, but the Holy One told him: Accept them, for they are dearer to Me than anything. For it was through them that the women gave birth to whole legions in Egypt. When their husbands were exhausted from hard labor, the women would go and bring them food and drink. Then each of them would pick up her mirror, and see herself with her husband and would speak seductively to him…and arouse his desire, and they would come to be with their husbands and conceive and give birth." (Rashi)

"Why were these mirrors chosen to hold the water with which the priests washed, ‘that they die not?' The priests faced two main dangers in their service. The first was that they might carry contamination into the tabernacle from impurity they had suffered in their private lives. To counter this danger, they purified their hands and feet. The second was that their souls might, in the environment of revealed holiness, leave their bodies. They needed to be held, as the water they washed in needed to be held. The use of the mirrors for this purpose implies that the priests could be protected by being connected to the quality that had enabled the women to affirm life so strongly in the world (as revealed in Rashi's startling comment) and to refrain from participating in the making of the golden calf." (Susan Afterman)

"The women who performed tasks at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting – so as to hear the words of the Living God. As it is said: ‘All who sought God went out to the tent of meeting' These women renounced any interest in jewelryand donated their mirrors in order to demonstrate that they no longer needed them." (Sforno)

"The ritual washing of hands and feet was to remind the priests that they must never tire in their ministrations but must bring ever-new strength and vigor to bear upon their work. Now the priests could hardly have had a better incentive than the knowledge that all classes of their people were supporting their work and that their activities served to strengthen faith even in circles that had seemed least likely to benefit from their endeavors. These mirrors joined to form a laver that was truly fit to dispense to the priests the fresh and clear water symbolizing renewed vigor and inspiration." (Avnei Ezel)

"As fragrance abides in the flower, As reflection is within the mirror, So does your Lord abide within you. Why search for him without?" (Guru Nanak)

Questions for Discussion:

Parashat Vayakhel repeatedly refers to the role of Israelite women in the production of the tabernacle: they weave materials for its décor, they contribute their mirrors for construction of priestly accoutrements, and their efforts are specifically mentioned when it is necessary to curtail donations to the sanctuary. How does this sustained narrative pattern reflect motifs already established in the book of Exodus? Why might this conspicuous emphasis occur in this specific context, the context of the tabernacle and the cult?

Our verse alludes to "women who performed tasks at the entrance of the tent of meeting," though those tasks are never made explicit. What might these women have been doing? What can we learn from their habitual presence at the sanctuary, specifically at its entrance? What might have motivated Sforno's remarkable comment?

Compare Rashi's view of the women and their mirrors to Holocaust survivors who transcended terrible suffering and loss and went on to find new love, build new families and new lives and to make significant contributions to Jewish life and the broader community.

Why did Rashi depict Moses as originally disinclined to accept the women's gifts, only to be reproved by God? To what dynamic in contemporary society, almost 1000 years after Rashi, might this be compared? What groups within our own Jewish communities, presumed by some to be "least likely to benefit from their endeavors," are potential sources of inspiration and renewed vigor for today's religious leaders and the Jewish community at large?

Historic Note

It is claimed by some (and disputed by many!) that Herod dedicated the Second Temple in Jerusalem on February 26, 11 BCE. We read in Parshat Vayakhel of the tabernacle, which prefigured the Holy Temples, on February 26, 2011.

Halachah L'Maaseh

The skilled artistry of Bezalel and his fellow craftspeople inaugurated a long history of hiddur mitzvah, the practice of adding beauty to religious practice, and of consciously seeking out especially beautiful ritual objects, as a matter of religious principle and spiritual discipline. In Shabbat 133B, the Talmud says that this principle applies in a variety of contexts. We are urged, by way of example, to acquire a particularly beautiful suklah, lulav, shofar, talit, and sefer Torah. There is some debate about whether hiddur mitzvah is a biblical concept or was introduced by the rabbis. Baba Kamma 9B says that a person should add a third in order to achieve hiddur mitzvah, either spending one third more, or spending what is necessary to buy, for example, an etrog that is one-third larger than usual. (See also Shulchan Aruch 656:1.)

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