Hebrew Insights into Parashat Vayak'hel – Sh’mot (Exodus) - 35 - 38:20
The Parasha before us, and the subsequent one, seal off the book of Sh'mot. The two of them recapitulate the instructions for constructing the Mishkan, its utensils, the priests' garments, and also reiterate the calling of the two craftsmen who were to be in charge of the work. However, because the instructions in our text describe the actual implementation of the work, they are animated with a sense of activity. The act of contribution, for example, is fraught with enthusiasm and vitality, while everyone appears to be doing his utmost within his (or her) means and capabilities.
Just before examining these accounts, let us pause to look at yet another injunction regarding the Shabbat. In this instance it appears to be a prelude to the construction of the holy edifice, with an emphasis on keeping the Shabbat set apart by not doing any manner of work (including kindling of fire): "… everyone doing work in it shall be put to death" (ref. Ex. 25:2,3). In all likelihood this was to serve as a reminder to the Israelites that even the building of the Mishkan does not supersede the Shabbat rest.
Vayak’hel, “And Moshe gathered…” “Vayak’hel”, from the root k.h.l - “to gather unto” – for the purpose of executing the plan. And as we shall see shortly, a plan is unquestionably being set up here. In 35:10 an invitation is issued for "every wise-hearted one among you, let them come and make all which YHVH has commanded" (emphasis added). Such an open summons had not been issued previously. Now that the people were both contributing and participating in the actual work, the camp was bustling with activity. The skilled and the unskilled, the rich and the poor, the rank and file together with the leaders – all were doing their part.
Let us now simply follow the text, taking note of the activity, the mass inclusion of the entire community, and the Spirit of eager willingness and generosity that pervaded the camp. "And all the congregation of the sons of Israel went out from Moses. And they came, everyone whose heart was lifted up, and everyone whose spirit made him willing. They brought the offering of YHVH for the work of the tabernacle of the congregation, and for all its service, and for the holy garments. And the men came in together with the women, everyone willing of heart. They brought in bracelets, and nose rings, and rings, and ornaments, every gold article, and everyone who waved a wave offering of gold to YHVH. And everyone with whom blue was found, and purple, and crimson, and bleached linen, and goats' hair, and rams' skins dyed red, and dugong skins, they brought. Everyone rising up with an offering of silver and bronze, they brought the offering of YHVH; and everyone with whom was found acacia wood for any work of the service, they brought. And every wise-hearted woman spun with her hands; and they brought spun yarn, blue, and purple, and crimson and bleached linen. And all the women whose hearts were lifted up in wisdom spun the goats' hair. And the leaders brought the onyx stones and stones for the setting, for the ephod and for the breast pocket, and the spice, and the oil for the light, and for the anointing oil, and for the incense of the perfumes. And every man and woman whose hearts made them willing to bring for all the work which YHVH commanded to be done by the hand of Moses; the sons of Israel brought a willing offering to YHVH… “(35:20-29-emphases added).
As mentioned, this action-packed passage is characterized by the willingness and eager participation of everyone involved. A similar atmosphere is also echoed in chapter 36, where Betzal'el and Ohali'av (Aholiab) and all the ones endowed with Elohim-given wisdom and a desire to do the work, take the contributions from the people: "And they took every offering before Moses which the sons of Israel had brought for the work of the service in the holy place, to do it. And they brought to him still more willing offerings morning by morning. And all the wise men came, those doing every kind of work for the sanctuary, each one from his work they were doing"…(36:3, 4-emphases added). Here we see the co-operation between the lay people and the experts, all of whom were providing abundance of such magnitude, to the extent that Moshe was told…"The people are bringing more than enough for the service of the work that YHVH commanded to do"… (v. 5). Moshe therefore "commanded, and they caused it to be voiced in the camp, saying, 'Let neither man nor woman make any more offering for the sanctuary; and the people were held back from bringing'" (v. 6).
The wisdom, skill, and expertise with which the work was carried out clearly did not originate with the expert artisans themselves. In 35:31, 32, 34 we read: “And He has filled him [i.e. Betzal’el] with the spirit of Elohim in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge… to devise designs. And He has put in his heart that he may teach” (emphases added). Betzal’el’s protégé, whom he was teaching, was Ohali’av from the tribe of Dan. Having been endowed from above with the skillfulness and ability to carry out the work, Betzal’el, true to his name, appears to be residing “in the shadow of the Almighty.” His assistant’s name expresses a similar concept, as Ohali’av means, “my tent is the Father.” Thus, the artist engaged in crafting the Mishkan (Tabernacle), declares, by his very name, Who is the real Abode!
Now, back to the earthly Mishkan… The specifications for the Ark of the Covenant, the Table of Showbread, and the Lampstand are listed in 37:1-24. In Hebrew these three articles are “a’ron, shulchan, and menorah” – rendered literally as, “cabinet/closet/chest (e.g. 2nd Kings 12:10,11), table and lamp” (e.g. 2nd Kings 4:10); a comfortable abode, under any circumstances, especially in the desert! But what about a washbasin for a quick freshening up, and maybe mirror to make sure every hair is in place? Well, the account in 38:8 does not fail to mention the basin, and the mirrors out of which it was constructed. In addition, although not mentioned in the Parasha’s text specifically, there is another term used elsewhere for the Ark of the Covenant. It is a “ki’seh” – a “chair”, which is also the Hebrew word for “throne”. The “Ark of the Covenant” is YHVH’s seat of glory, and was so described in Yisha’yahu (Isaiah) 61:1, in reference to Shlomo’s (Solomon’s) Temple, and also in Y’chezkel (Ezekiel) 43:7, regarding the future Temple.
The making of the bronze basin (or laver) and its base captivates our attention, as they were made from "the mirrors of the [women] who congregated at the opening of the Tent of Meeting" (38:8). Much has been said about the symbolism of the mirrors plating this basin, where the priests were to wash their feet and hands (that is, to consecrate themselves) before approaching the Altar, as an allusion to one of the steps on the progressive path of faith taken by the Believer. However, in the scene at hand we encounter women who had assembled, “tzov'ot”, by the entrance of the Mishkan. The verb and root tz.v.a is also used for “army” and “hosts”, such as in "YHVH Tzva'ot." In Shmuel Alef (1st Samuel) 2:22 we find once again this "army of women" by "the opening of the Tent of Meeing". In T’hilim (Psalms) 68:12 we read: "YHVH gave the word; great was the company - "tza'va" - of those who proclaimed [female gender] it; Kings of armies ("tzva'ot") flee, they flee, and she who remains at home divides the spoil." Last week we saw the People of Yisrael in their frenzy to make the golden calf, using gold earrings worn by their "wives, sons and daughters" (Ex. 32:2). This week, many of the same people are making contributions for the Mishkan, and some of the donations are of the very same materials that were used for the abominable idol (35:2). The women who had contributed the mirrors, thereby giving up their vanity, are seen here drawn to the house of YHVH and forming a company, literally an "army", which proclaims His Word and is therefore far mightier than even that of "kings of armies" (ref. again to Ps. 68:12). Hence, according to the Psalm, their reward (or "spoil") is also far greater. Were these women motivated by a desire to repent and atone for the terrible sin committed so callously and recently by the People of Yisrael?
When all was said and done, the work was considered a genuine collective endeavor of national scope. Not many years prior to this event, these same people had had over them "slave-masters who afflicted them with heavy burdens. And he [Israel] built store cities for Pharaoh" (Ex. 1:11). Now, the Nation as a whole is engaged in a totally different “work,” the “avoda” of the Mishkan, the avoda – worship and service - of YHVH. Did they ever reflect back to those dark days, considering in awe their currently changed circumstances and status?
Whether or not they did, the transformation that had taken place was quite amazing! In Egypt they were treated as a faceless mass, having suffered a loss of individual identity to the point that they were referred to in the singular form (e.g. Ex. 1:10-13, Parashat Shmot). By comparison, in 36:8 – 37:9, the work performed in the Mishkan is also described in singular form. However, against the backdrop of the preceding descriptions, the picture set before us here is entirely different. If the oft-repeated “and he made” (note, this singular form may not be reflected in all the translations) are in reference to Betzal’el, we are left in no doubt that he had the full and active support and participation of the People as a whole. But if the reference is to more than one person - it would signify unison. Once again, just as we observed in Parashat Trumah (26:6. 11) the Mishkan itself was to be made of a great variety of components but yet was to be “one” (36:13, 18). Similarly, this was also the case with the People of Yisrael, who was (and is) to portray the eternal principle of ‘unity of diversity’, so well illustrated in our text.