This double parsha describes the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). 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, and the Mishkan is assembled, together with the Priests' garments, just as God had commanded. And finally, the work is completed, and God's presence fills the Mishkan.
Vayakhel-Pekudei - Edie Friedman
Edie Friedman is the founder and director of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality (JCORE). It was founded 30 years ago in order to activate the Jewish community to play a more active role in combating racism and developing a just multiracial society.
On the face of it, the detailed description about building the tabernacle in this week's Torah portion (Exodus 35-40) contains little which helps us in our understanding of some of the many social problems facing us in contemporary Britain – such as racism, poverty and inequality. However, I would like to pick out four specific aspects and comment on their relevance today.
The first is the importance of people working together. This portion concentrates on a specific community of Israelites. There has been a tension throughout our tradition and history – some would call it a creative tension – between concern for ourselves alone and that for the wider world: in short, the tension between universalism and particularism. The community in which we live today is clearly much more diverse than the relatively homogeneous Israelite community of the Torah. Despite the pressures promoting insularity, such as concern over antisemitism and polarised positions on the Middle East, we must nevertheless seek to create opportunities for working together with others within our plural society.
A second aspect is contained in the verse "Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the Sabbath day" (Exodus 35:3). Although this verse is often interpreted literally in terms of what must not be done on the Sabbath, rabbis have also encouraged us to see the words in a figurative sense, imploring us not to ignite a situation which can cause stress or conflict, or hurt other people. Experience has taught us that incitement can also be encouraged through passivity, by choosing not to get involved in trying to remedy a situation. Consequently a vacuum can be created. A good illustration is when people remain silent in the face of racism, allowing groups such as the BNP and certain sections of the press to exploit the opportunity to demonise asylum seekers and refugees.
A third area for comment is the very detailed description of the exact requirements for building the tabernacle. Here we need to reflect on the challenge of achieving the right balance between a concentration on the minutiae and the bigger picture. We can get so caught up in the detail that we ignore the goal towards which we are striving, particularly in a rapidly changing world, where old remedies no longer apply. Much of today's debate about multiculturalism illustrates this point.
Finally, as we conclude the Book of Exodus, we are reminded of the words which we say at the end of each of the five Books of Moses – hazak, hazak, ve-nithazek - be strong, be strong and may we be strengthened. These words address the individual, as well as the community. We become stronger when we work and learn from others both within and outside our own particular community.
My thanks to Rabbi Charles Emanuel for discussing this portion with me.
To Detach Oneself from the Community
"And the princes brought the onyx stones and the filling stones ..." (Exodus 35:27)
The letter yud is missing in the word "ve'ha'Ne'si'im" ("and the princes") – Rashi (11th century commentator) explains that this is because the princes decided to wait for the Community to finish donating to the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and they would supply whatever was still needed.
The Avnei Azel (Rabbi in pre-war Warsaw) explains that the Torah chose to delete the letter yud because it is the letter that denotes plural (hinting at the Community), and it was because the princes detached themselves from the Community (rising above the "hoi poloi") that they are taken to task here - the letter yud also represents Hashem and its removal is a sign of Hashem's displeasure (c.f. the renaming of Joshua).
The Rabeinu Bachye (12th century) learns from here that one should never ignore the opportunity to be among the first to give to the Community, the first to perform a Mitzvah, even for the sake of "giving others a chance". There will be ample opportunity for others to do good.