Vayakhel-Pekudei: Building a Community (Exodus 35:1-40:38)

Vayakhel-Pekudei: Building a Community

(Exodus 35:1-40:38)

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

As we begin to read this portion, there is a sense of déjà vu. We have so recently read about this exacting blueprint for the Tabernacle, the materials needed to build it, the priests’ vestments, and so on. So is Vayakhel-Pekudei redundant–or was the earlier portion, Terumah, a redactor’s mistake? At first, Vayakhel-Pekudei does seem to be a repetition of Terumah, which described the Divine command to build a Mishkan (Hebrew for Tabernacle).  Some rabbis do think the earlier portion is out of sequence, that its place should be here, the parasha we are reading now. Yet others differ. Both portions complement one another, these rabbis suggest, because the purpose of each parasha is different. And, taken together, they give a fuller picture.

The Gathering of the People

Envisioned by Divine instruction, Terumah was intended to provide a microcosm of the cosmos so that God could dwell among the people. Thus the Israelites would not be alone in the wilderness. That was the purpose of the Tabernacle. The double portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei, by contrast, is about the gathering of the community to put the blueprint into practice – to physically and creatively build a beautiful place for God’s presence to dwell among them. The Tabernacle would serve as an instrument of unification. As the people united to construct the Tabernacle, they would also be building their own community.

With God’s instruction in mind, Moses took leadership, first in gathering the people (Vayakhel means “he gathered”), and then in inspiring them to donate the materials for the Tabernacle’s construction:

“gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen and goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and the breastpiece” (Exodus 35; 5-9)

Even in their haste, the Israelites had brought some transportable wealth (“brooches, earrings, rings, and pendants – gold objects of all kinds,” as well as copper and silver) with them from Egypt, and they gave generously of whatever they had, the yarns, the fine linen, the skins, the acacia wood. As the donations of the people poured in, the chieftains “brought lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece; and spices and oil for lighting, for the anointing oil, and for the aromatic incense” (Exodus 35: 22-29).

Soon no more contributions were necessary. There was more than enough to build the Mishkan!

At this point, skill and experience came into the picture. A talented artist, Bezalel, had been specially selected to supervise the project, together with Oholiab, who complemented Bezalel’s creative abilities with competence in construction and various crafts (Exodus 35:4-38:20).  Now each person, both male and female, was exhorted to help in accordance with the skills, arts, and experience they individually possessed. For example, “all the women who excelled in that skill spun the goats’ hair….Thus the Israelites, all the men and women whose hearts moved them to bring anything for the work that the Lord, through Moses, had commanded to be done, brought it as a freewill offering for the Lord” (Exodus 35: 26-29). So the giving of generous donations was built into the maintenance of the Jewish community a long, long time ago! (Pekudei refers to the Records of the community.)

A Security Blanket

With the building of a portable Tabernacle underway, the production of the priestly vestments began, and when everything was completed, Moses blessed the ancient Israelites for the wonderful work that they had done. The priests were robed (we also read about their fine vestments in Tetzaveh), anointed, and consecrated. Only then was it time for the cloud – representing the presence of God – to make its appearance so that the presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. In what might be considered the most important verses of this portion, a description is given of a cloud covering the Tabernacle (the Mishkan) by day, while a fire would burn by night (Exodus 40: 36-38).

“When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys” (Exodus 40: 36-38)

Together, the cloud and the fire constituted a kind of security blanket as the Israelites continued their journey, knowing that they had a beautiful, portable place they could call home – one built by their own efforts — and that the presence of God would accompany them on their journeys and protect them when they rested.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.