“A United People Build the Tabernacle”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Vayakhel, the first of this week’s double parashiot of Vayakhel and Pekudei, we read of the actual construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and its furnishings, and how the craftsmen are selected. In parashat Pekudei, an account is taken of all the donated materials, and the priestly vestments are manufactured. At the conclusion of parashat Pekudei, the command is given for the first time to set up the Tabernacle, and the glory of G-d fills the Tabernacle.

Perhaps the most important and overlying theme of the double parashiot is the opening word of the first parasha, “Vayakhel.” In Exodus 35:1, the Torah states: “Vayakhel Moshe et kol ah’daht B’nai Yisrael, va’yoh’mehr ah’lay’hem: Ay’leh ha’d’varim ah’sher tzee’vah Hashem la’ah’soht oh’tahm,” Moses assembled the entire assembly of the Children of Israel, and said to them: “These are the things that G-d commanded, to do them.”

Rashi notes that only one day earlier, on Yom Kippur, Moses returned to the Jewish people from Mount Sinai, after receiving the second set of tablets from G-d. Bringing with him the message of G-d’s forgiveness, the people were now ready to join together to build the Tabernacle.

At that moment, the Jewish people were united once again, as they had been at the time of the revelation at Mt. Sinai, men, women and children. Now, every one of them would have a share in the construction of the Tabernacle.

For the people of Israel, the sense of unity is one of the most powerful weapons that the nation has in its arsenal to fight off its enemies. Our commentators declare that strife and deception always shake the foundation of our people. It is well known that for the sin of dispute and wanton hatred, the Temple was destroyed. Therefore, at the time of erecting the Tabernacle, Moses gathers the people of Israel, bringing them together to unite them. Indeed, the perfection of the Tabernacle and its ability to sustain itself depends upon the unity of the people.

As previously noted, when the Torah was given by G-d, at Sinai, the people were united. Citing the verse in Exodus 19:2, “Va’yee’chahn shahm Yisrael,” Rashi famously notes, “k’eesh echad b’lev echad,” that when the people encamped at the foot of the mountain, they came together as one person, with a single heart. However, because of the sin of the Golden Calf, the people, who were no longer united, began quarreling with one another. Since the purpose of the Tabernacle was to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses now gathers the people together, so that they may return to their pristine state of unity, as they were at Mount Sinai.

The Sforno insightfully contrasts and compares the history of the Temples that the Jewish people erected. He notes, that even though the portable Tabernacle was intended to serve as a temporary structure to help the Jewish people focus and reach a heightened spirituality, the Mishkan had a longevity that the other permanent, and far more elaborate, Temples did not have.

The first Temple built by Solomon fell into the hands of the Babylonians, and was destroyed. The second Temple built by Ezra, Nehemia and Zerubavel, fell into the hands of the Roman enemy and was destroyed. But the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, which had a  Divine cloud hovering above its roof, never fell into enemy hands.

The Sforno, in fact, suggests four unique qualities that ensured the durability of the Mishkan: 1) The Mishkan was “Mishkan Ha’ay’doot,” it was a Tabernacle of testimony that contained the tablets that were written by G-d Himself. 2) The temporary Tabernacle was commanded to be built and supervised by Moses, the greatest prophet of all times. 3) The Tabernacle was the handiwork of the holy tribe of Levi, and 4) Betzalel, the son of Uri, the gifted architect of the Tabernacle, built every part of the Tabernacle precisely as G-d had commanded Moses.

The Sforno points out that this was not the case with the Temples that were subsequently erected. Despite the beauty and grandeur of Solomon’s Temple, the actual construction was performed by laborers from Tyre in Lebanon. The second Temple, was of even lesser sanctity, because by then the holy vessels had disappeared or had been taken away. Consequently, there was no ark or tablets in the second Temple. The second Temple was constructed at the command of Cyrus the Great, and no Levites participated in its construction (Ezra 8:15).

One might incorrectly assume that the people’s extremely generous gifts of gold, copper and silver to the Tabernacle were the reason that the Tabernacle lasted for so long, but far more gold and silver was used in the construction of the two permanent Temples. Rather, it was the brotherly behavior and the united commitment of the people who built the Tabernacle that resulted in its longevity.

The Tabernacle was originally erected in the Hebrew year 2449 (1312 BCE). The first Temple, which was built 486 years later in the Hebrew year 2935 (827 BCE), stood for 403 (some say 410) years and was destroyed in 3338 (586/423 BCE). The second Temple was completed in the Hebrew year 3412 (516/349 BCE). (Two secular dates are given to account for the different opinions regarding calculation of these dates). It stood for 420 years, until it was destroyed by the Romans, in the Hebrew year 3829 (69 CE).

Despite the great emphasis on unity, our sages declare that unity may be a double-edged sword. In and of itself, unity is not a positive value. It is only a positive value when it is used for positive purposes to enhance Israel’s ability to strengthen its commitment to the Torah. However, in the hands of the wicked, unity can be extremely dangerous. The story of the Tower of Babylon, recorded in Genesis 11, provides a powerful example of the misuse of unity.

By joining all together at the time of the construction and dedication of the Tabernacle, the Jewish people declared their full commitment to G-d and the Torah. It was this resolve to follow the commandments of the Al-mighty, and to observe them, that endowed the Tabernacle with special qualities that the permanent Temples of Jerusalem never had.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat is also known as Shabbat Parashat Parah. It is the third of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the Red Heifer is read from Numbers 19:1-22.