“Rochel the Riveter”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Vayakhel, continues the excruciatingly detailed description of the building of the Tabernacle and its furnishings. Much of the text is a virtual repetition of the details and instructions that were enumerated in the previous parashiot of Terumah, Tetzaveh, and parts of Ki Tisa. At this point, it would be quite natural for those studying these portions to throw up their hands and say, “Al-mighty G-d, enough already!”

Since the Torah is always careful not to repeat texts without good reason, the numerous repetitions that are found in the description of the building of the Tabernacle and the priestly vestments must come to teach something of profound importance. It is therefore incumbent upon serious students of the Bible to carefully inspect the differences and nuances in the various parshiyot and to analyze the parallel verses in order to reveal the important underlying lessons.

What is striking about parashat Vayakhel are the numerous times that women are mentioned in the process of building the Mishkan. This is even more surprising when we realize that women play neither a primary nor prominent role in the functioning of the Tabernacle and the Temple. Although there were instances when women were invited into the Temple, their roles on these occasions were mostly as spectators, rather than participants. Consequently, any roles that women played in building and preparing the Tabernacle are certainly unexpected.

When studying the Torah texts it becomes rather obvious that, while not playing a primary role, women nevertheless played a significant and honored part in the preparations for the Tabernacle. The fact that they are mentioned so frequently in the opening chapter of parashat Vayakhel underscores the importance of their contributions. This prominence also highlights the fact that, as opposed to the men, the women were not at all involved in the worship of the Golden Calf, but when it came to building of the Tabernacle, women gave generously and with an open hand.

After mentioning that in response to Moses’ appeal every man whose heart inspired him came and brought their donations for the work of the Tabernacle, the Torah records a very strange and rather cryptic verse (Exodus 35:22): “Va’yah’voh’ooh ha’ah’nah’sheem ahl ha’nah’sheem,” and the men came with (or on) the women. This verse proceeds to note that everyone whose heart motivated him brought bracelets, nose rings, rings, body ornaments, and all sorts of gold ornaments as an offering of gold to G-d.

The Ramban, together with other commentators who are sensitive to this unusual expression recorded in the Biblical text, note that the phrase “The men came with (or on) the women” implies that the women forced the men to come and give, and that the men were indeed secondary to the women. Since the types of jewelry and ornaments that are mentioned in this verse are usually worn by women, this teaches that as soon as the women heard that these precious gifts were needed, they immediately rushed to bring them for the Tabernacle.

This, of course, is in stark contrast to the description of the men’s behavior at the Golden Calf where it says (Exodus 32:3), “Va’yit’pahr’koo kohl ha’ahm et niz’may ha’zah’hav ah’sher b’ahz’nay’hem,” and the entire people removed the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. Our commentators there tell us that the women refused to give their ornaments to the men for the Golden Calf, so the men simply ripped them off their ears, wounding the women. However, in the instance of the Tabernacle the women were in charge, forcing the men to give their valuable jewelry and ornaments.

Other commentators demur, explaining that the strange expression in the verse concerning “the men coming with (or on) the women,” indicates that the women simply did not trust the men after what they had done at the Golden Calf, and insisted on accompanying their husbands to make certain with their own eyes that these valuable ornaments were actually donated to the Tabernacle, and not diverted to make another Golden Calf.

Although the text mentions the role of the women donating the material for the Tabernacle several times, there is one specific reference to a physical role that the women played, aside from simply donating material. In Exodus 35:25, the Torah states: “V’chohl eesha chach’mat layv b’yah’deh’hah tah’voo,” and every wise-hearted woman spun with her hands. The verse then notes that the women spun yarn of turquoise, purple and scarlet wool and linen, and that those women whose hearts inspired them with wisdom spun goat hair.

Although many varied skills were needed in fashioning the Tabernacle, the only physical skill where women were recruited and actually performed was spinning. They did not participate in the carpentry, the metal work, or setting the fine stones. There was no “Rochel the Riveter” to stand up and declare: “My country needs me and I will do whatever I can to build the most magnificent Tabernacle for G-d.” Instead, it seems that women purposely limited themselves to weaving.

Our rabbis point out that the reason for the emphasis on spinning was because the women refused to compromise their roles as the primary caretakers of the home and the family. They therefore chose a task that they could perform while they were at home. These women saw themselves as fulfilling the role of “akeret habayit,” not only in the sense of being the caretaker of the house, but rather as being the “eekar,” the essence, of the house. After all, what is the point of building a sanctuary for G-d if Jewish homes are in disarray, and if Jewish children do not receive the proper instruction or sufficient attention?

We see, then, that the details of the Tabernacle teach much more than the vital lessons concerning the centrality of Torah, the importance of sufficient material endowment and the role of sanctity in our “home sanctuary.” The numerous and overwhelming details that are found in the Tabernacle come to teach other profound lessons. Perhaps of all the lessons of the Tabernacle, the most important is that the central sanctuary for G-d is really to be found in the Jewish home.

It is from the details of the Tabernacle that we learn that the Jewish home must never be compromised, nor may we delude ourselves into thinking that our outside responsibilities take precedence over our immediate family needs.

This lesson may be 3,300 years old, yet it resounds with an urgency and contemporary relevance as if it were delivered today.

May you be blessed.