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Torah Sparks

Parashat Vayakhel
February 22, 2014 - 22 Adar I 5774

Annual (Exodus 35:1-38:20): Etz Hayim p. 552; Hertz p. 373
Triennial (Exodus 35:1-36:19): Etz Hayim p. 552; Hertz p. 373
Haftarah (I Kings 7:40-50): Etz Hayim, p. 574; Hertz p. 382

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

With the Golden Calf incident behind them, the Israelites are asked to re-assemble in front of Moses, who reminds them of the requirement to observe Shabbat. The people are asked to contribute materials for the Mishkan; they bring so much that Moses must ask them to stop.

Bezalel and Oholiab are introduced to the people as the chiefs of the Mishkan construction project. They set to work efficiently and complete building the sanctuary's individual items.

Theme #1: We Didn’t Start the Fire

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 any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day. (Exodus 35:2-3)

In his address to all of Israel, Moses re-affirms the importance of observing the Sabbath, highlighting the prohibition against lighting a fire.

They set fire to the house, they inflamed the palace. One day passed, then two: the fire ate the house, the flames consumed the palace. Three days passed, then four: the fire ate the house, the flames consumed the palace. Five days passed, then six: the fire ate the house, the flames consumed the palace. Then, on the seventh day, the fire died down in the house, the flames died down in the palace; the silver had turned into blocks, the gold had become bricks. Baal the Conqueror was glad: “I have built my house of silver, my palace of gold.” -- Ugaritic text from Stories of Ancient Canaan, Michael David Coogan, ed.

Hadrian issued a decree that no fire be kindled in Rome [for three days]. But on that very day, toward evening, when Hadrian went up to the roof of his palace, together with Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah, the two lifted their eyes and saw smoke rising from a distant corner. … Rabbi Joshua said, “May the breath of a man like you be blasted out. While you are still alive, your decree has not endured even for one day, whereas since the day our teacher Moses decreed for us, “You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day” (Exodus 35:2-3), have you ever seen any Jew kindle a fire on the Sabbath? And yet you say, ‘I am better than Moses!’” -- Ecclesiastes Rabbah 35:3

In the six days of doing [building, buying, selling, making, manipulating, wheeling and dealing] resides great power for all the nations of the world, but the holiness is concealed. The children of Israel have an additional portion from on high, however, about [a strange kind of "not] doing": the sign of Shabbat. Therefore it is written in this week's parashah, "These are the things that Adonai has commanded you to do," which is immediately followed by Shabbat: a time of doing nothing. For this reason the only way to repair the workday doing is through receipt of the higher [spiritual] strength. The children of Israel alone, therefore, are able to repair the work of Creation for they alone possess Shabbat, the spiritual strength of knowing when to do nothing. -- Sfat Emet

Questions for Discussion:

The Ugaritic text quoted above indicates a parallel to the beginning of this week’s portion in that it speaks of the building of a beautiful sacred space, the use of fire, and the refraining of fire on the seventh day. How do the commonalities in these ancient texts help us to understand the beginning of our Torah portion better? Is it helpful for us to know that seemingly random references in the Torah were likely not considered random in ancient times?

Ecclesiastes Rabbah relates a story about a Roman leader who claims that he is greater than Moses; the proof against Hadrian is that the Romans defy him immediately after issuing a rule similar to that of our Torah portion. Has the voluminous number of laws in our tradition caused Jews to have a predisposition to be obedient, as Rabbi Joshua claims? Or, if given a benevolent and fair leader, are most people willing to be obedient?

Sfat Emet speaks about the value of knowing when not to work, allowing the work we do to be that much more meaningful. Indeed, many joggers say that the best part of jogging is stopping, and taking the time to appreciate what they have accomplished. Why is it so difficult to appreciate the work we do when we are in the midst of it? Besides the Shabbat, what are other ways for us to stop to reflect on a job well done?

Theme #2: Too Much of a Good Thing?

[The tabernacle artisans] said to Moses, “The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Lord has commanded to be done.” Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp: “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” So the people stopped bringing. (Exodus 36:5-6)

Israel’s generosity overflows, and Moses is forced to halt the donations for the Tabernacle.

The people’s relation to the Golden Calf and to the Mishkan are set into a simple matrix: in both cases, they are spontaneously generous with their gifts of gold; in both cases, they have to be restrained, so overwhelming is the flood of gift. … In the framing midrashic narrative, however, the people first give gold for the Golden Calf and then for the Mishkan. It is this narrative that is plausibly described as “atonement”; the Mishkan is the redemptive project that gains them forgiveness for their earlier sin. -- Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture

A couple I know were speaking to an elderly male friend who was suffering from horrendous back pain. The woman asked the man if there was any medication that could relieve the pain. “There is, but it costs sixty dollars, and I can't afford it,” [he said]. That evening the woman gave the man a thousand-dollar check, and suggested that he immediately go and buy the medicine. As she explained the large gift to her husband, “If he is in such pain and still is not buying that medication, it must mean that he lacks money for many other things as well.” There are many people who ask for too much for themselves, but there are also people who ask for too little. ... [S]ometimes you have to give more than enough if you truly want to give enough. -- Joseph Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values

A strong theological interest of the narrative is evident which takes note of the people’s zealous response to the cult whenever possible. -- Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus

Questions for Discussion:

Zornberg suggests that the extreme generosity of the Israelites regarding the Mishkan indicates a similar behavior to their eagerness to build the Golden Calf. While it’s hard to criticize the people’s actions in this week’s Torah portion, is it concerning that the Israelites’ behavior is so extreme? Does Moses’ plea to cease the donations an attempt to explain the benefits of moderation, or is this just a stopgap to ensure that the Tabernacle artisans are not overwhelmed?

Telushkin’s story reminds us that people who ask for help likely need far more than what they ask for, yet they refrain from asking too much from any one individual. When we do need to ask for help (for ourselves or for a good cause), what are the best methods to get what we need? Is it chutzpahdik to ask for more than what we think others might give? Does the generosity of the woman in this story offer us a different model of giving to those in need?

Childs tells us that the Israelites are enthusiastic in all manners of the foundations of the sacrificial system, not just in building of the Mishkan. Presumably, the sacrificial cult speaks to the Israelites’ religious sensibilities. What modern Jewish activities and rituals resonate best with our communities? When we discover what works, is it best to continue repeating those activities as much as possible? Or must we reinforce the idea that Jewish life requires proper balance?

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