Parashat Pekudei 5776

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein, 11 March 2016


This week’s Torah portion is the final weekly section of the Book of Exodus. It is called Pekudei as it begins with a statistical record of the materials used for constructing the Mishkan (Tabernacle), moving through to its completion, God’s approval sealed with a cloud descending on the Tent. One verse stands out as pivotal, separating the conclusion of making the constituent parts from their assembly in situ.

Va’teikhel kol avodat mishkan ohel moed, va’yaasu bnei Yisrael k’khol asher tzivah Adonai et Moshe, keyn asu – Thus was completed all the work of the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting. The Israelites did so; just as the Eternal One had commanded Moses, so they did (Ex 39:32).

There are many questions that can be raised regarding the jumbled syntax of this verse and somewhat strange attribution of actions. In his Commentary, Or Ha’Chayyim, Hayyim Ibn Attar (1696-1743), the outstanding Moroccan Kabbalist, Talmudist, and leader of the Moroccan Jewish resettlement in Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel focuses on the latter question, the surprising attribution of actions. The verse states that the “Israelites did so, just as God had commanded Moses:” But didn’t the skilled craftsmen, led by Bezalel and Oholiav, carry out all the work, building the structure of the Tabernacle and all its utensils and priestly garb?

Or Ha’Chayyim states, “Though it was Bezalel and his fellow craftsmen and women who actually performed the tasks, a person’s agent is as themselves and therefore the making [of the Tabernacle] was attributed to the Israelites. Though Bezalel only did what God had instructed, it was the children of Israel who delegated and approved him.” What a thoroughly modern way of interpreting this text giving relief to those who are hopeless at DIY, much to the chagrin of preceding generations! For we might say that we renovated or decorated our house when the fact is that we employed the builders and decorators – sometimes our parents – to do the work on our behalf!

This is as vital to our civil society, as it is for the governance of our Synagogue. We have the right to elect our civil leaders and we elect the Council of our Synagogues. We see this as our right and yet the interpretation of the Or Ha’Chayyim suggests that it is also our duty to participate by electing our leaders. This is not a passive role but an activity intrinsic to the validity and authority of our systems. Without the delegation and approval of our leaders, not only will the work of society or our Congregation not happen but also the glue, which binds us together as Community also, fails.

In civil society and in most organisations there are too few who see it as their duty to vote or to participate in positions of leadership or to support that leadership behind the scenes: Are we all too comfortable, believing that others will do the work not even to bother checking, reading a manifesto to hear what work might still need to be done to build, mend or progress, asking questions as checks and balances.

In our Liberal Jewish Community, we do not expect a cloud to cover our Synagogue building by day and a fiery light by night to signify God’s approval. Each one of us has the task, the duty, to provide our seal: Through our actions. To delegate – not to abdicate is our duty, if we choose not to lead.

This past Shabbat was Shabbat Shekalim, the Sabbath when we hear about how all adult males were required to donate a half Biblical shekel weight to the maintenance of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). It was completely democratic, although as an egalitarian brand of religion, we would not let the women off so lightly!

Let us turn again to the Or Ha’Chayyim for a comment that binds the concept of Shabbat Shekalim and our verse:

“Evidently the text wished to indicate the mutual, interlocking character of observing the Torah, by means of which the Israelites brought reciprocal benefits on each other. The Torah was given to be collective observed by Israel as a whole. Each individual would contribute their best to their mutual benefit…The Eternal God gave us 613 commandments and it is impossible for one individual to observe them all…Some commandments apply only to priests, others by Israelites and others by women. In what way it is feasible for the individual to observe all the precepts, attaining the complete perfection symbolised by the correspondence between the negative and positive commandments of the Torah and the 248 limbs and 365 sinews respectively of the human body? The answer must be that the Torah can be observed collectively, by the people as a whole, each individual deriving benefit from the observance of their neighbour and each individual’s performance complementing the other.”

In the view of the Or Ha’Chayyim, the Torah is a social code designed not for use in isolation but for a whole community or society. Without each individual member paying their equivalent of a Biblical half shekel; without each individual member performing at least one mitzvah, one duty, the social code is devalued.

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