AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Vayakhel-Pekudei

Parashat Vayakhel – Pekudei

Adar 25, 5780 – March 21, 2020

Torah Reading: Exodus 35:1 – 40:38

Haftarah: Ezekiel 45:18 -46:15



Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Vayakhel and Parashat Pekudei. This is the first instance in this series where we have encountered two Torah portions that are read together on one Shabbat. As the Torah is divided and read over the course of the year, there are – in short – more portions (54) than weeks (max 48) within which to read them, and so some are doubled up.[1] And this is one of those weeks! I’ll start with Vayakhel, which is Hebrew for “he convoked,”[2] which comes from the same root (קהל) as the Hebrew word for community (קהילה) (k’hilah). Vayakhel means “to call together, to assemble or to gather” which is exactly what Moshe Rabbenu (lit. Moses our Teacher) does with the B’nei Yisrael before he repeats the commandment to observe Shabbat. In this parashah, the Israelites are again instructed to build the Mishkan, yet the commandment to keep Shabbat is given first. There are, of course, reasons for this:


1) The first big reason is that Hashem gives the People of Israel two Sanctuaries: one in place (or in space) – and this is the Mishkan– and the other, which is in time, and this is Shabbat. Much commentary in this Torah for the Earth audio series has emphasized place and has almost given it priority as an ecologically situated dimension. But something very special is happening with the gift of a sanctuary in time – meaning, that wherever one is, wherever one is in place (that any Jew throughout the diaspora, or even outside of Jerusalem) can construct a sanctuary for worship. This is not to say that Shabbat is a sanctuary outside of space; time and space are interrelated dimensions, and this is very important as we think about our ecological activism. By praying at the same time, every day or every week, we can use the sanctuary of time to interact with the sanctuary of space – a time based practice can also root our being to space (and to the land), which is a powerful ecological idea.


2) Second, there’s a reason why Shabbat takes priority over the building of the Mishkan. In the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah, 25:12) we read about how the Sages equated the Sabbath with the entirety of Torah and all its commandments. The Talmud (Horayot 8a) teaches that “idol worship constitutes a repudiation of all 613 commandments,”[3] and given that we have just moved past the sin of the golden calf, it follows that the nation of Israel would have to accept all of the commandments again. The first verse of the parashah “alludes to this, with a seemingly superfluous phrase to do them [the line reads: “Moshe assembled the entire assembly of the Children of Israel and said to them: ‘These are the things that Hashem commanded, to do them.’”], which can also be rendered to repair them.”[4] The gathering of Parashat Vayakhel is an initiation of the repair that must occur after collective idol worship – the repair of the infrastructure of emanation of G-d that was damaged by the sin. This is an instance where, after a monumental transgression, the community gathers together to initiate healing. In a world damaged by human action, and overwhelmed by the need for environmental repair, our coming together as a global community would be a suitable start.


In (35:22) we are told that “everyone whose heart motivated [them]” donated an abundance of materials for the construction of the Tabernacle – so much so, in fact, that Moshe is prompted to stop people from giving any more (36:6).[5] This is, of course, interesting because it is a form of giving – and a form of urgency – that our modern world requires. Take Notre Dame, for instance, which is a sacred site in the Christian tradition that recently caught fire and was severely damaged. Millions of dollars in donations poured in to help rebuild the site, which was notable act of charity. But think about all of the sacred sites of Native Peoples that have been destroyed, or desecrated by being made into parking lots or shopping malls – these places are in need of great giving: the giving of not only our monetary resources, but of our awareness, our consciousness, and the part of ourselves that recognizes the sacredness of the land. Parashat Vayakhel is about communal giving for the benefit of the greater good and can remind us to honor the dimension of sanctity, the dimension of the sacred (no matter it’s form) – even if it exists outside of our own tradition. Next, we have Parashat Pekudei (and I’ll be brief here)– Pekudei is Hebrew for “records [of]”[6] or “accounts” which begins with an account of all the gold, silver and copper that were donated for the construction of the Mishkan. Much of the content that is covered throughout this dual reading of Vayakhel-Pekudeiis essentially a repetition of the material that we have covered in Parashot Terumah, Tetzaveh, and Ki Sisa. The only difference is that the Tabernacle is actually built, and the priestly vestments are actually made. On Rosh Chodesh Nissan (the new moon of the month of Nissan) the Tabernacle is erected, and Moshe (as the incumbent High Priest) anoints the Mishkan, all its furnishings, and initiates his brother Aaron and his four sons. After this a cloud settles over the Tabernacle, signifying that “the glory of Hashem filled the Tabernacle…For the cloud of Hashem would be on the Tabernacle by day, and fire would be on it by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.” And this concludes the Book of Exodus. Chazak! Chazak! Venitchazeik!


There are two themes I’d like to talk about this week, as they pertain to the earth and to the natural environment. Just to be clear, I’ll discuss them in the reverse order in which they appear in the text, and those themes are: 1) artistry and 2) rest. There’s a quote in the commentary of the Stone Edition Chumash that I’d like to read, and it corresponds to the verse (35:21) describing those volunteers who came to do the sewing, weaving, and building of the Mishkan. It reads as such: “In Egypt, there we no Jewish artisans, since the Egyptians did not train them or permit them to develop their talent for their finer skills.”[7] I wanted to highlight this point because the same thing has happened in an industrial age, where everything has now become mass produced by machines and automated. While not bound by physical slavery, those of us in parts of the world that are causing ecological damage, have become inflicted with another type of slavery: a type of paralysis and a stagnation of our natural abilities. There is still the inspiration, the desire – of course – to contribute. Yet how many of us, over the course of just a few generations, have been witness to the disappearance of a craft? How many of us take our shoes to the local cobbler for repair? Sew our own pants or grow our own food with seeds that have been passed down from harvest to harvest? How many of us can truly say that we feel entirely self-sufficient in our own homes, and in our own lives? We have lost the basic skills to craft for ourselves the items of everyday living, which has made us reliant upon corporations to produce those products and that artisanship for us. This is the ultimate aim of modern industry – to strip us of our own creative power and capacity for self-sufficiency. In active resistance against an existence dependent upon industry, movements like those aligned with the ideals of The Transition Handbook[8]have popped up around the world, seeking to decentralize fossil-fuel based industries and empower local populations to create more sustainable communities. In fact, much of the emphasis in Parashat Vayakhel is on the artisan – Bezalel, alongside Oholiab and every “wise-hearted [hu]man within whom Hashem had endowed wisdom and insight” (31:1) are commissioned to build the Tabernacle and its furnishings. Bezalel was the chief architect and is said to have possessed the knowledge of how to manipulate and combine the primordial letters with which G-d created the world.[9] In this way, Bezalel wasn’t an ordinary artisan – he was familiar with the Kabbalistic text the Sefer Yetzirah(The Book of Formation or The Book of Creation), which understands letters – and the metaphor of language – to be the base reality from which the entire universe is constructed. This is even hinted at in the first line of Genesis (1:1), where we read “בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת” which is understood to mean “In the beginning of G-d’s creating.” In Hebrew, אֵ֥תis the direct object marker, indicating that the heavens and the earth were the objects of G-d’s creating. But, the point here is that again – we read – “Bereshit bara Elohim et”: etbeing constructed from the first and the last letters of the aleph bet – aleph and tav – the significance being that in the beginning of G-d’s creating, G-d created the world with letters. Bezalel had knowledge of how to wield these spiritual forces into the very fabric of the Tabernacle, so that the physical, earthly structure could mirror that of a heavenly, spiritual architecture. Once again, this is why the commandment to observe the Sabbath is reiterated in this parashah, as “Sabbath observance is a prerequisite to the Tabernacle.”[10] Shabbat is rooted in the primordial flaring forth of the cosmic world and is the source of blessing for all of creation. While it is the seventh day and completes the week – “In the words of the well-known Sabbath hymn (Lecha Dodi), [we sing]: last in deed first in thought”[11] This is the aleph and the tav, the end and the beginning, which represent the essence of the Torah and symbolize the significance of human endeavor. There is a reason why the account of the Tabernacle’s construction concludes with the Ark, the Table and the Menorah. These are the items that represent G-d’s teachings, our struggle to sustain the physical world, and our obligation to spread light into the world.[12] It is this triad of vessels that is the lifeblood of all artistry, the essence of the letters which give form and order to our world.


According to the Jewish tradition, our relationship to the world is epitomized by how we behave on the Sabbath.[13] The six days of the week are given to us so that we have the opportunity to express our artistry – we do our work, we take care of daily necessities, and implement the mandate to “subdue” the earth. But on the seventh day, something very different happens – our reality changes and we enter into a day of rest. We approach the boundary of one reality and cross over that threshold into another; we cease from creating, from working, and from implementing our artistry. But our artisanship does not end. The six days of the regular work week are likened to the dimension of tzimtzum[14]– this is a Kabbalistic idea that to create the world, G-d first had to create space by shrinking, by contracting, to provide for the presence of a finite reality. The idea here is that the dimension of tzimtzum is a “limited manifestation of G-d’s power and we are allowed and even encouraged to exert our control over the world.” But something changes when we rest, because we relinquish our control over the world and over our power to alter form. We stop working, we stop changing things, and we just stop. In doing so, we relinquish a type of power, yet find a connection to a greater atmosphere of G-d’s presence in the world. Apart from the theology behind Shabbat, rest is a powerful ecological idea. This is one of the reasons why Shabbat is included as one of the Noachide Laws; it is a commandment for the entire world. We reflect upon the effects of our labors, and we acknowledge that all living creatures – and the entire world – needs rest. In times of crisis such as these, the world is crying out for Shabbat because it’s a rest, a reset, an expansion out of the realm of tzimtzum and into a world of all possibilities. In a metaphorical sense, the dual reading of Vayakheland Pekudei is about the intersection between time and space, the timeless and the timely, the finite and the infinite – it is a gathering of many worlds, and the core constituents of the inner self, which serve as artisans (as co-creators) within the world. I hope that we can all learn to be artisans for the earth, and rest for all creatures: this is my hope for tomorrow. Thank you all so much for tuning in and listening. I’d like to end this week with a prayer from the Reform Siddur, Mishkan T’Filah. It goes as such:


In a world torn by violence and pain,

a world far from wholeness and peace,

give us the courage to say Adonai:

There is one G-d in heaven and earth.

The high heavens declare your glory;

may earth reveal Your justice and love.


From bondage in Egypt, we were delivered;

At Sinai, we bound ourselves to your way.

Inspired by prophets and instructed by sages,

time and again, we overcame oppressive forces.


Though our failings are many and our faults are great,

it has been our glory to beat witness to our G-d,

keeping alive in dark ages

Your vision of a world redeemed.

Let us continue to work for the day

when the nations will be one and at peace.

Then shall we rejoice as Israel did,

Singing on the shores of the Sea[15]


Topics Include: Ecology and the sanctuary of time, artisanship and modern industry, Shabbat as an ecological commandment


Listen to this Podcast


References

Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn, ed. The Torah: a women's commentary. CCAR Press, 2017.

Frishman, Elyse D., ed. Mishkan T’filah. CCAR Press, 2007.

Miller, Chaim. “Torah in Ten: Vayakhel.” Available at:

https://www.chabad.org/multimedia/video_cdo/aid/1441844/jewish/Torah-in-Ten-Vayakhel.htm

Neril, Rabbi Yonatan. “Parshat Vayakhel: An Ecological Message in Shabbat.” Available at: http://canfeinesharim.org/parshat-vayakhel-an-ecological-message-in-shabbat/#[11]

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

Shurpin, Yehuda. “Why Do We Sometimes Read a Double Torah Portion? And when do we double them up?” As found at: https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/3779325/jewish/Why-Do-We-Sometimes-Read-a-Double-Torah-Portion.htm

Accessed on March 15, 2020


  1. [1]A regular calendar year has anywhere from 353 to 355 days, with 50-51 Shabbats. Taking into account holidays that fall on Shabbat, where the holiday reading is read instead of the Torah portion, there are (maximum) 48 weeks in a calendar year to read the 54 Torah portions. This leaves 14 parashot that can be paired together. On a regular calendar year (a non-leap year, whereby an extra month of Adar is added), the pairs are as follows: 1) Vayakhel-Pedukei, 2) Tazria-Metzora, 3) Acharei-Kedoshim, 4) Behar-Bechukotai, 5) Chukat-Balak (only outside of Israel), 6) Matot-Massei, and 7) Nitzavim-Vayelech. (Shurpin, “Why Do We Sometimes Read a Double Torah Portion?”) [2] Eskenazi, The Torah: a women's commentary, p.521 [3]Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.517 [4]Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.517 [5]“Man and woman hall not do more work toward the gift of the Sanctuary!” [6] Eskenazi, The Torah: a women's commentary, p.545 [7]Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.519 [8] Hopkins, Rob. The transition handbook: Creating local sustainable communities beyond oil dependency. Finch Publishing, 2009. [9]Miller, Torah in Ten:Vayakhel, 2:08 – as recorded in the Talmud, from the interpretation of Rashi [10]Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.525 [11]Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.525 [12]Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.525 [13]Neril, “Parshat Vayakhel: An Ecological Message in Shabbat” [14]Neril, “Parshat Vayakhel: An Ecological Message in Shabbat” [15] Frishman, Mishkan T’filah, p.157

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