Parshat Vayakhel Pekudei 2017
Trumpets should blare and fireworks should fill the desert sky. And in a way they do. A cloud hovers during the day and a fire at night. The Tabernacle is complete. God has taken up residence in that temporary abode and all is well with the Israelites, a mere few years out of Egypt. Picture the movie version, with close-ups of the uplifted faces of the Israelites, eyes shining, smiles lighting their dusty faces. And indeed, this is truly a high point, the conclusion of intensive work by almost the whole camp of Israelites, perhaps even enough to wipe out the bitter memory of the golden calf.
This is how Shmot ends, the book that describes the process through which a rabble of slaves becomes a nation. Who knows, perhaps all the niggling details of building the Tabernacle are symbolic of how the various elements of the Israelites coalesced into one nation.
Rabbi Jonathan Sachs contends that we should view Bereshit and Shmot as one unit divided into two mirror parts. The subject of the first part is the creation of the world, the selection of Avraham as our progenitor and the development of one family as guardians of the faith. Bereshit ends with this extended family moving down to Egypt.
Shmot, which opens four centuries later, presents this same family, now expanded into hundreds of thousands of people who are enslaved in Egypt. The bulk of Shmot is devoted to the evolution of these masses into a nation, first in terms of physical freedom and then in terms of spiritual enlightenment.
Despite the difficulties, at present the people are united, wandering around in a bubble of divine glory and unity that is reflected in the Tabernacle. This is its role. The Tabernacle is both a spiritual landmark and a physical landmark, symbolizing much of what made the Israelites into a relatively cohesive unit.
Spiritually, its importance is obvious. Physically, we must remember that the people did not have their own land. They did not have a capital, they did not have the trappings of a nation. Even their recallable history was one of slavery. It’s hard to build a viable vibrant nation on slavery. But a Tabernacle built through cooperation and the contribution of all is a centerpiece, a base around which to congregate and coalesce.
Returning to Rabbi Sachs, he takes his literary connection between Bereshit and Shmot even further. Bereshit begins with the creation of the world, from the chaos and nothingness of a cloud to everything we have on earth – and then God rested. Shmot begins with the creation of a nation out of nothing but a few nebulous memories and concludes with the construction of a sanctuary in which God can rest His cloud and his spirit.
Some commentators see the Tabernacle as compensation for the golden calf – the people now had a specific location where they “knew” their God “resided”. And with its cloud, the Tabernacle was a sharp reminder of what had transpired atop Mount Sinai.
We can also compare what happened to the Israelites after the golden calf and after the Tabernacle was completed. When payback time comes for the calf, only a few thousand are punished, indicating that despite the general hullabaloo, not that many people participated in the revelry.
For the Tabernacle, on the other hand, we are told that everyone gave what he could: animal skins from those who had, good wood (a very important commodity in the desert), gold, silver, fancy cloths, everything came in. Men and the women worked on putting it all together under the supervision of Bezalel and Aholiav. It was only through joint effort that the work was completed. And because everyone was involved, all felt they had a part in it.
This feeling of togetherness, of a shared destiny, probably had its first glimmers in Egypt with the announcement, which we read in today’s Maftir, declaring Nissan the first month of the year. You can ask, What’s the big deal about announcing a new year? We do it, the Chinese do it, the Persians do it – so what?
The “so what” is that it was a total break from slavery. One of the blatant characteristics of slavery is lack of control over your time. Someone else tells you what to do and when. We’re all slaves today to our smartphones. Like the Israelites in Egypt, when it rings or dings we jump. Here, for the first time, the people were being told that time was in their hands and that this was their new year.
This week we enter the month of Nissan, with its frantic preparations for Pesach. Spring is a time of renewal, of rebirth after a cold winter, a time when whatever juices we have left begin to flow again. It’s a time of togetherness, of preparing and celebrating together. It’s a time when we should be thinking of what unites us, as the Israelites were united back then, and not what divides us, as some of our politicians would have us believe.
We don’t have the Tabernacle but perhaps the deep-seated memories of the exodus from Egypt and the paths we trod together, which we read about on Seder night, will somehow work their magic and allow us to overcome some of our differences of opinion. (We are allowed to dream!)