Pekudei »
« Ki Tissa


Vayekhel begins with the commandment of Shabbat before moving onto the building of the Mishkan. The Israelites donate materials with such enthusiasm that Moses has to tell them to stop. Betzallel and Oholiav are appointed as chief architects and artists.

Another voice

Vayekhel by Jonathan Sacks :: 5768

Sir Jonathan Sacks is the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth

The sedra of Vayakhel inspired me to write The Home We Build Together, about Britain, social cohesion and national identity. It took me a long time to decode the sedra's message, but when I did, I realized what an extraordinary story it tells.

The entire sequence, beginning with Terumah and continuing to the end of the book of Exodus, raises obvious questions. Why is the story of the construction of the Tabernacle told at such length - roughly a third of the book as a whole? And what is it doing here? Exodus is about the journey from slavery to freedom, from Egypt to the promised land. How is the building of Tabernacle part of the narrative of freedom?

The answer is that there is more to freedom than release from slavery. The first civil law Moses taught the Israelites, at the beginning of Mishpatim, is about liberating slaves. After six years of service, slaves were to be set free. The word the Torah uses for that kind of liberation is chofshi. But chofesh/chofshi is individual, not collective freedom. It means that you are not subject to anyone else's will. It is what Isaiah Berlin called negative liberty.

A society of free individuals, though, is not yet a free society. A group of individuals free to do what they like, generates not freedom but anarchy. A free society is one in which I do not exercise my freedom at the cost of yours. That requires restraint and a sense of the common good. It needs collective identity and responsibility. To turn the Israelites into a free nation, not just a group of free individuals, Moses had to create a sense of collective belonging. The book of Exodus tells us how hard that was.

When Moses' mission hit setbacks, the people complained. When they came up against the Red Sea, they complained. When they lacked water and food, they complained. Within three days of the division of the sea, they were complaining again.

Then came the revelation at Mount Sinai, the only time in history when G-d was revealed to an entire nation. Yet forty days later they were making a golden calf. If all these wonders failed to generate a collective identity and responsibility, what else would?

It was then that G-d delivered the master-stroke. 'Get the people', He said to Moses, 'to build something'. That is how a nation is made. What is done for us, even a miracle, does not change us. What we do, does. At the critical moment, G-d initiated a role-reversal. Instead of doing something for the Israelites, He asked the Israelites to do something for Him.

It worked. During the whole process of construction, there was no argument, no complaint. The people contributed - so much that Moses was forced to say 'Stop'. From then on Israel was a nation. More was made than the Tabernacle: so too was the people. The construction was an act of society-building. A nation is made by what we do, not what is done for us. Hence Vayakhel, from the word kehillah meaning a community bound by common purpose.

That is what the Tabernacle was: a symbol, in the centre of the nation, of the public square, the common good, the covenant that defined Israel's identity and destiny. Society is - the home we build together.


More by Jonathan Sacks

Another voice by Sasha Frieze

Each person who was ready to volunteer then came forward, Also, each one who wanted to give brought a donation to G-d for the making of the Communion Tent, all its necessities, and the sacred vestments. - Shemot / Exodus, ch35, v 21

Responsibility does not only lie with the leaders of our countries or with those who have been appointed or elected to do a particular job. It lies with each of us individually. Peace, for example, starts within each one of us. When we have inner peace, we can be at peace with those around us. When our community is in a state of peace, it can share that peace with neighbouring communities, and so on. - The Dalai Lama, The Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1989

Never doubt that a small, group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. - Margaret Mead

One generation plants the trees; another gets the shade. - Chinese proverb


More by Sasha Frieze

Other Divrei Torah on Vayekhel

  • 5766 (Edie Friedman)
  • 5766 (Eliot Kaye)
  • 5767 (Alastair Falk)
  • 5767 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5769 (Shep Rosenman)
  • 5769 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5770 (Caryn Aviv)
  • 5770 (David Israel)
  • 5771 (Hannah Kaye)
  • 5771 (Hannah Sasson)
  • 5772 (Raymond Simonson)
  • 5773 (Stephen Slater)
  • 5773 (Adam Rossano)
  • 5774 (Benjamin Crowne)
  • 5774 (Taste of Chavruta)
  • 5775 (Dan Rickman)