- Moses teaches the rules of Shabbat. (35:1-3)
- Moses asks the Israelites for a donation of gifts and those who are skilled help build the Mishkan [Tabernacle] under the direction of Bezalel and Oholiab. (35:4-38:20)
- A statistical summary of the materials used for the Tabernacle and an account of producing the priestly vestments are recorded. Moses blesses the Israelites for the work they did. (38:21-39:42)
- Upon God's instruction, Moses sets up the Mishkan and the priests are anointed and consecrated. (40:1-33)
- A description is given of a cloud that covers the Mishkan by day and a fire that burns by night, indicating God's Presence therein. (40:33-38)
Rabbi Laura Geller
This week’s double Torah portion, Vayak’heil and P’kudei, is very familiar because much in it repeats what we read several weeks ago. In the earlier portions, God commands Moses to erect a Mishkan, a portable sanctuary, with all the ritual objects furnishing it?the Ark, the menorah, the sinks for the priests to wash before they begin their daily tasks?and then gives detailed instructions about the priestly vestments.
In this week’s portion, the Torah tells us that the people did exactly as God commanded Moses. But instead of reporting: “And Moses did as God commanded,” the text provides another very detailed description of each of the objects and clothes, repeating with great specificity everything we’ve already heard. Dr. Carol Meyers labels the earlier instructions “prescriptive Tabernacle texts” because they prescribe what is to be done, while our portions, which describe the implementation of the instructions, are called “descriptive Tabernacle texts” (see The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss [New York: URJ Press, 2008], p. 521). What separates the two accounts is the sin of the Golden Calf.
Why does there need to be such detail? Maybe it is to reassure us that even after such an egregious sin as the idol worship of the Golden Calf, not only has God forgiven us, but also, we’ve finally gotten it right. We shouldn’t worship a golden idol, but we can use gold and other valuable resources to symbolize God’s presence among us through the Mishkan. And apparently we did, as we read: “. . . all the artisans who were engaged in the tasks of the sanctuary came . . . and said to Moses, ‘The people are bringing more than is needed for the task entailed in the work that YHVH has commanded to be done.’ Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp: ‘Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary’ ” (Exodus 36:4–6).
But perhaps we are simply meant to learn that attention to detail is important. Anyone who has ever remodeled a home or redecorated a room knows how many details are involved: color, texture, shape, size, material, and so on.
There is one detail that I have always found fascinating. “He made the laver [sink] of copper and its stand of copper, from the mirrors [mar’ot] of the women who performed tasks at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting” (38:8). B’mar’ot hatzov’ot literally means “the mirrors of legions,” but as The Women’s Torah Commentary explains, because hatzov’ot is grammatically feminine, the text must be talking about women (see The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 536).
Rashi, the famous eleventh century commentator, notices that only here in the whole story of the making of the Mishkan do we have an account of a specific gift and what it was used for. He imagines a dialogue between Moses and God:
“Mirrors?” Moses demands of God, “The women are bringing mirrors? How dare they bring these trinkets of vanity into a holy place? I forbid it! Mirrors just lead to lustful thoughts!”
But God intervenes: “Accept them, for these are more precious to me than anything because through them the women set up many legions [i.e., through the children they gave birth to] in Egypt.” When their husbands were weary from backbreaking labor, the women would go and bring them food and drink. Then the women would take the mirrors and each one would see herself with her husband in the mirror, and she would seduce him with words, saying, “I am more beautiful than you.” And in this way they aroused their husbands’ desire and would copulate with them, conceiving and giving birth there, as it is said: “Under the apple tree I aroused you” (Song 8:5). This is [what is meant by] that which is said, “with the mirrors of those who set up legions, that is, the mirrors of those who had lots of children” (see Rashi on Exodus 38:8).
Imagine what it must have been like for the Israelite men forced to do backbreaking, demeaning work. Their spirits were destroyed; they had lost all hope for the future. It was the women who kept the men’s will to live alive. Even in those horrible circumstances, the women would beautify themselves with the help of these mirrors, using makeup from with whatever dyes and rouges they could find, making themselves attractive to their partner. When the men came home, exhausted and dehumanized, their wives would arouse them by flirting, by playing erotic games, by looking with their husbands into the mirrors, by teasing “which one of us is more attractive?”
These women didn’t give up hope for a different future. They were responsible for our spiritual survival. It was their initiative, courage, and faith that led to the next generation. Perhaps because of that the Talmud tells us: “It was because of the righteousness of the women that we were redeemed from Egypt” (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11b).
That detail about the mirrors reminds us of the special role that women played in the liberation of our people, and that detail links this story to Passover.
That link is important because this is a special Shabbat, Shabbat HaChodesh, the Shabbat when we announce the upcoming month of Nisan, which begins on Tuesday. Nisan is the month in which we celebrate Passover.
The Book of Exodus concludes with P’kudei. The portable Tabernacle is ready. A cloud rests on it by day; by night a pillar of fire, “in the view of all the house of Israel through their journeys” (Exodus 40:38).The journey continues.
And we take with us on that journey the attention to detail that reminds us about hopefulness even in dark times. We carry God with us as we look forward to the future.
Chazak chazak v’nit’chazeik.
From strength to strength, may we strengthen each other.