Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5780

Rabbi Cantor Gershon Silins – 20 March 2020

This year, two weekly Torah readings combined on this Shabbat, Vayakhel and Pekudei. Both are concerned with the building of the Tabernacle and creating the material basis for the people’s worship of God. In Vayakhel, we are told that the entire community was engaged in the project, but that two men were singled out because they excelled at all the crafts required in the building and decorating. The second of them, Pekudei, begins with an accounting of the materials used in the work. The Midrash (Midrash Tanchuma Pekudei 7:4) asks why there needed to be such an accounting, and answers that, although God trusted Moses, not everyone in the community did. “When one person would praise him, another would retort: “Fool, do you imagine that a man in charge of the work of building a Sanctuary, with weights of silver and gold that are not examined, nor weighed or accounted for, will not become wealthy!” When [Moses] heard that he said: “Be assured, when the work of the Tabernacle is completed, I will give them an accounting.” And that is what we have here. Even though this work was (according to the biblical text) commanded by God, it was created by people, and nothing that we do can be without fault.

I find this curiously encouraging. We live in a conspicuously imperfect modern world, and we might be tempted to see the biblical world as perfect, or at least closer to perfection than ours is, ruled, as the text tells us, by God’s commandments transmitted through Moses. How good can it get! But we see, over and over again in the biblical narrative, that the people who were alive then were no more perfect than we, and no more satisfied with the world they lived in.

Still, the Tabernacle must have been gorgeous. And in this portion we also see a repetition of the priestly garments, which must have made the priests look almost literally superhuman. I thought about this last November, when I attended the enthronement of the new Bishop of Norwich.

I was particularly struck by the magnificence of the priestly garments. The Bishop wore gorgeous robes and head covering, and was impressively majestic, appearing almost superhuman. As Christianity and Judaism diverged from their shared biblical roots, Christianity in many (though not all) cases adopted the magnificence of the Tabernacle and the majesty of the priests. Judaism took a different path. The rabbis understood the priests essentially as functionaries, with a crucial but very proscribed role. The first mishnah of Tractate Avot describes the succession of the Oral Torah from God to Moses and on to the Sages. The rabbis saw that succession as going from God to Moses, from Moses to Joshua, to the elders, then to the prophets and the members of the Great Assembly. The priests are not part of the line of succession. Without the Temple and its ritual, they had lost their function. Rabbis, on the other hand, have neither a supernatural relationship to God nor a privileged place in worship; they are important because of their devotion to study and to the emerging Jewish people, but they are also human beings with all the frailty that entails.

This portion outlines two poles of religious life: on the one hand, the glorious edifice, the superhuman priests with their mysterious rituals, and on the other, the day to day business of accounting of the precious metals, the craftsmen (who were distinguished principally by their ability), and the physical work of construction. It is through the ongoing work of careful, devoted people who do the accounts and open and close the building, who keep Judaism alive today so that we might encounter a glimpse of the transcendent. Our path to it is through maintaining our connection, not to those who might seem to be elevated beyond their humanity, but rather to ordinary human beings empowered by faith, study and devotion.

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