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Torah Sparks

March 17, 2012 – 23 Adar 5772

Annual: Exodus 35:1 – 40:38 (Etz Hayim p. 552; Hertz p. 373)
Triennial: Exodus 37:17 – 39:21 (Etz Hayim p.560; Hertz p. 379)
Maftir: Numbers 19:1 – 22 (Etz Hayim p. 880; Hertz p. 652)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16 – 38 (Etz Hayim p. 1287; Hertz p. 999)

Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser

Moses convokes the Israelite nation and reminds the people of the proper way to observe the Sabbath, detailing the prohibition against kindling or using 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.

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. 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 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.

The closing portion of the Book of Exodus, Parashat Pekudei, opens with an inventory of the metals that had been contributed to the sanctuary, together with a more precise count of the Israelite population that brought those gifts: 603,550 men over the age of twenty, when they became eligible for military service, with the implicit addition of their families.

A detailed description of the elaborate priestly vestments is provided, corresponding to earlier accounts in the Book of Exodus. The tabernacle is finally completed. Moses bestows a blessing on the Israelites for their diligent efforts. The completed tabernacle, now ready for “deployment,” is erected and its furnishings properly arranged – at God’s command – “on the first day of the first month” – effecting a fitting New Year’s celebration. It has been precisely nine months of national and spiritual gestation since the revelation at Mount Sinai. The ritual implements within the sanctuary are anointed and dedicated to their sacred functions. In a final consummation of the construction effort, the Divine Presence fills the tabernacle. “When the cloud lifted from the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out,” continuing their trek to the Promised Land. During these journeys, the cloud of God’s Presence would rest over the tabernacle by day and take on a fiery aspect at night.

Theme #1: “Over-Share!”

“All the artisans who were engaged in the tasks of the sanctuary came, each from the task upon which he was engaged, and 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: their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done.” (Exodus 36:4-7 -- Vayakhel)

Derash: Study

“‘The people are bringing more than is needed.’ This is included in the text both in praise of the people for bringing so much, and to glorify the honesty of the artisans. Their leader is to be praised as well, for having all this proclaimed throughout the camp. For he had no desire for their silver and gold, as do other national leaders.” (Rashi)

“‘Their efforts had been more than enough.’ So the artisans did not need to cut corners for fear they would run out of materials.” (Sforno)

“To devotion God set no limits, and to dedication of the spirit God set no bounds; but great quantities of tribute God did not demand, and the people were restrained from bringing too much gold to the tabernacle. Though the Temples of Solomon and Herod were far more costly, it is written that the Divine Presence was found more constantly in the humbler structure.” (Ruth Brin)

“No one ever attains very eminent success by simply doing what is required of him; it is the amount and excellence of what is over and above the required that determines the greatness of ultimate distinction.” (Charles Kendall Adams, 19th Century Professor of History)

“Let any man turn to God in earnest, let him begin to exercise himself unto godliness, let him seek to develop his powers of spiritual receptivity by trust and obedience and humility, and the results will exceed anything he may have hoped in his leaner and weaker days.” (Aiden Wilson Tozer, Christian Preacher, Author)

Questions for Discussion

How do these verses (and their interpreters) frame the tabernacle as a fitting model for the contemporary congregation?

How might Professor Adams’ comment apply not only to the tabernacle, but to other aspects of Jewish life, observance, and study? To our personal relationships and commitments?

How might Rashi’s reading of our text apply to questions of public policy in tough economic times?

Though certainly humbler than Solomon’s Temple, as Ruth Brin observes, the tabernacle was elaborate, colorful, and adorned with rare and precious materials – especially given its wilderness venue. Simplicity and opulence are relative and to some extent subjective terms. What principles should guide us in determining what is appropriate in the physical maintenance and appointment of our synagogues? With what other values and priorities must such concerns be balanced?

Theme #2: “The best tzitz in the house”

“They made the frontlet for the holy diadem of pure gold, and incised upon it the seal inscription: ‘Holy to the Lord.’” (Exodus 39:30 -- Pekudei)

Derash: Study

“The tzitz was one of the eight special garments worn by the high priest. This was a gold plate worn across the forehead, engraved with the words ‘Holy to God.’ The Torah commands that the tzitz ‘will be on his forehead – always’ (Ex. 28:38). The sages understood this requirement not so much as addressing where the head plate is worn, but rather how it is worn. It is not enough for the tzitz to be physically on his forehead. It must be always ‘on his mind.’ The high priest must be constantly aware of the plate and its succinct message, ‘Holy to God,’ while serving in the holy Temple. His service requires conscious recognition of the purpose of his actions, without irrelevant thoughts and musings.” (Rabbi Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen Kook)

When the kohain gadol would fasten the tzitz across his forehead he publicly declared that he and the mishkan were one. He and the Temple service were one. Not only was God’s presence manifest within the four walls of the tabernacle but also God was manifest through the person of the kohain gadol. Engraved across his forehead were the words, ‘Holy To God!’ It is no small accomplishment for a free willed creature to manifest God. It demands a lifetime of concentrated devotion and scholarship. It involves molding one’s character to reflect every sensitivity and concern while being strong and courageous against all and any adversary. I would like to suggest that each of us is a kohain gadol to our children and students. It is incumbent on us to ask ourselves, ‘When my children or students look at me do they see the words Holy To God engraved on my forehead?’” (Rabbi Aron Tendler)

“Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel! The bum’s as holy as the seraphim! the madman is holy as you my soul are holy!” (Allen Ginsberg, “Footnote to Howl”)

Questions for Discussion

To whom was the inscription on the tzitz addressed? To the high priest, his priestly subordinates, the people, or God? Would Rabbis Kook and Tendler disagree?

Allen Ginsberg’s ecstatic poetic piece (though too long – even in its excerpted form – for inscription on a priestly diadem, and edited here to omit its more graphic and unseemly content!!) arguably relates to a Jewish perspective on holiness. Was the high priest inherently holy (or holier than others)? Or was he – like many of our experiences and endeavors – only holy in potential, dependent on our choices and actions? In short, was “Holy to God” a description of the priest, or a prescription for his personal comportment? Was the inscription a warning and exhortation to us all (as Rabbi Tendler – who no doubt would be surprised at his comparison to Ginsberg – seems to say)?

Elsewhere in the Bible “Holy to the Lord” is a status attributed to Shabbat, the people Israel, firstborn sons and livestock, and the festivals. What does it mean to be holy? Where do we find examples of true holiness today? What demands does the asserted holiness of the Jewish people make on us as individuals? On our families and communities? Is the assertion of national holiness simply jingoistic chauvinism, or does it imply a set of hopes and standards toward which we are charged humbly to aspire?

Where have you witnessed holiness outside the Jewish tradition and community? Does the possibility of true holiness in adherents and exemplars of other faiths compromise the message on the tzitz? Or is recognition of that possibility a uniquely Jewish virtue?

Historic Note

Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei, describing Moses’ continued leadership of the people Israel, and his blessing to them, is read on March 17, 2012, as many of our neighbors celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day. Patrick, who brought Christianity to Ireland, had much in common with the Israelites and their leader. Born into privilege, Patrick was later enslaved and subsequently escaped his tormentors. He “felt no need to apologize for his flight or to justify it. Patrick simply believed God’s authority to be higher than his master’s authority.” Furthermore, “Patrick felt the frustration of a stutterer. Patrick realized that this very ineloquence was what made his message compelling, for it made it clear that God had something to say” (Jonathan Rogers, “Saint Patrick” – Christian Encounters Series).

Halachah L’Maaseh

Takkanat usha, recorded by the Talmud in Ketubot 50A, established the principle that we should not give more than 20 percent of our income to tzedekah, lest we impoverish ourselves and impede our ability to provide for our own family’s needs. The Chofetz Chayim (Ahavat Chesed 2:20: 1-3) teaches that this limit does not apply to those whose considerable wealth makes greater tzedakah expenditures possible without compromising their own and their family’s financial well-being. The Chofetz Chayim further recommends devising a personal financial plan to assure that people distribute between ten and twenty percent of their income to tzedakah. Authorities disagree as to whether this calculation is to be made based on one’s net or gross income (see Ahavat Chesed 2:18; Responsa Avkat Rachel 33; Aruch Ha-Shulchan Yoreh Deah 249:7).

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