This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Matt Lubin
The final verses of Sefer Shemos are quite climactic, with G-d’s glory filling the Mishkan so intensely that Moshe himself could not enter, and a description of G-d’s intimate closeness (in the form of a cloud) with the Jewish people throughout their desert journey. However, the concluding section of Sefer Shemos, taking the final six chapters as a whole unit, is anything but dramatic. After already having detailed the specifications of the Mishkan and priestly garments earlier in the book as G-d had commanded them, there seems to be little reason for repeating over one hundred verses of architectural and sartorial minutia. One would have thought that one verse, “and the Jewish people did as G-d had commanded through the word of Moshe” suffices to replace these hundred verses.
When the Torah repeats, however, it rarely repeats verbatim, and the order of vessels in Parashas Vayakhel is not the same as that of Parashas Terumah. A rather well-known Midrash notes that in commanding the construction of the vessels, first Moshe was told of the Aron, then Shulhan, Menorah, and only afterwards of the curtains and tent-structure, while in their implementation, the structure was built before the vessels. The Talmudic version reads:
G-d told Moshe, tell Bezalel to make Me a Mishkan, Aron, and vessels, and Moshe went and reversed it, saying, “Make an Aron, vessels, and Mishkan.” [Bezalel] said to him, “Moshe our teacher, the way of the world if that a person first builds a house and afterwards brings inside the furniture, but you’re telling me to make the Aron, then vessels, then Mishkan! Where would I put the vessels that I made?! Perhaps this is what G-d had told you: make the Mishkan, then Aron, then the vessels.” [Moshe] said to him: “Perhaps you were in G-d’s shadow [bezel e-l, a play on Bezalel’s name] that you knew [and indeed you are correct]!” (Bavli Berachot 55a)
Why, according to this recounting, would Moshe have reversed the order of G-d’s command (and the Torah’s structure of Parashat Terumah reflect this ‘decision’) only to be corrected by Bezalel’s reasoning?
In comparing the descriptions of the building of the Mishkan and its vessels in Parashat Vayakhel with the account of the making of the clothing in Parashat Pekudei, one notes an interesting contrast: while the Mishkan’s construction consists almost entirely of dry details, except for the opening and concluding passages, Parashat Pekudei is sprinkled with constant references to the commandment of G-d; everything was made “ka-asher tsivah H’ et Moshe.” Why does this refrain appear so often (almost twenty times) in Pekudei but not in the Torah’s description of the Mishkan’s construction?
Without necessarily offering this as a textual solution, it is possible that the Torah intends for a particular impression upon the reader of these chapters. After Moshe tells the people of the general plan and they donate their resources for the effort of building the Mishkan, the reader first encounters lengthy details of the materials, curtains, pillars, and specifications, in all of their dry detail. That this is a holy endeavor, the product of religious inspiration, is all but forgotten. The abundance of specifications can be overbearing, and did, in fact, limit the religious devotion of many: an announcement had to be made in the camp that the donations exceeded what was needed “according to G-d’s command” (39:5). It is all too easy to imagine the crestfallen faces of those who were turned away, who had to walk away with the pain of rejection, wondering why G-d did not desire their donation. The specifications of “G-d’s command” could even be religiously stifling, not just tedious.
Reading on, however, the Torah text begins to brighten. After building the Mishkan structure, we are first reminded that all of it was all done according “what was commanded by Moshe” (38:21)—no, not Moshe alone, but “according to all that G-d had commanded,” (38:22) the doubling here seeming to slowly pull the reader out of the doldrums into increased religious awareness. The phrase “as G-d had commanded Moshe” then appears after the production of every article of priestly clothing and at the conclusion, a total of seven times in verses 39:1-31. Then, in the final scene of Sefer Shemos, this phrase is repeated over and over again as Moshe dresses Aaron and his sons and physically constructs the Mishkan (for a total of ten times between 39:33 and 40:33), with the final passage, of course, being the presence of G-d Himself (40:34-38). The ultimate purpose of the Mishkan, forgotten in its initial stages of construction, is realized with an increasing refrain that becomes a crescendo.
The building of the Mishkan began with the noblest of motivations; only donations made of pure intent were acceptable for the Mishkan (cf. Rashi to 25:2) and those who donated their materials or efforts were described as nidvei lev, of generous heart. It is easy, however, once one must be involved in the nitty-gritty of woods and metals, to forget these noble thoughts. Perhaps, then, Moshe first instructed Bezalel regarding the Aron, then vessels, and finally the tent, because although this is not the most pragmatic order, it is the proper axiological sequence: the Mishkan exists for the Shekhinah, which rests upon the Aron (cf. Rashbam to 25:10). One must begin a project with a vision of its end, even if that vision cannot be realized until the completion of a long and hard process; sof ma’aseh be-mahashava tehilah. Perhaps another built-in defense against losing sight of the aim of this construction process is contained in the opening verses of Vayakhel: all building was to stop on Shabbat, a weekly reminder of the G-d for whom this Mishkan is being built.
The mundane slog of everyday life hopefully begins with a vision, whether it was “making the world a better place,” building a Jewish home and family, or the like. Religious inspiration, however, is transient, and what accompany us after inspiration leaves are the nuts and bolts of fulfilling G-d’s command–those details that can be tedious at best, and stifling at worst. Despite the drudgery, however, the Parshah teaches that the goal does break through at the end, in all its divine glory.