If while reading the Torah portions of Vayakhel and Pekudei you get the feeling of deja vu, it’s because they essentially repeat the instruction of the building of the tabernacle that we read only a few weeks ago. There is one difference, however. Earlier, we read of God’s instruction to Moses regarding its construction, and now we learn of its implementation.
Considering that the Torah is extremely precise in its language and economical with its use of words — indeed, numerous laws are derived from even an extra letter or nuance — it’s rather baffling that more than 100 verses essentially repeat two previous portions. Why not simply write that the Jews built the holy sanctuary precisely as Moses instructed them?
The answer came to me on a recent Friday morning in Jerusalem. Seventeen colleagues and myself had spent the week in Israel visiting numerous government and civic organizations in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Hebron and Jerusalem with a focus on social justice, both among the Jewish and non-Jewish populations.
A few hours before Shabbat, we gathered to study a Hassidic text at the Mayanot Institute in Jerusalem on the kabbalistic view of ego vs. self-abnegation. The Midrash teaches that modest Mount Sinai was chosen as the site of the giving of the Torah, even though there were more impressive mountains that would have elicited a greater sense of awe and majesty befitting the most important moment in Jewish history.
Sinai was chosen to demonstrate this most important prerequisite for engaging Torah: To truly get it, we must approach it humbly, as the very first teaching of Ethics of our Fathers emphasizes: “Moses received the Torah from Sinai.” Not at Sinai but from Sinai. This powerful lesson of Sinai being inexorably linked forever with Torah is that only through true humility and getting over our sense of self do we merit the values of Torah to transform us.
Our challenge is to search within ourselves for the underlying source of our preoccupation with pursuing social justice. Is it because it’s a Torah value, a divine mandate, or a reflection of our own emotional and psychological need?
Why do some causes matter more to us than others? Do we feel the same compassion for our brothers and sisters living in our holy city of Hebron protecting, by their very presence, the city of our forefathers and Judaism’s second most sacred site, as we do those in more secular Tel Aviv? What of the isolation of Israel by the world? Do we clamor for justice as one of the Torah’s mandates, or is it our own cause? How do we translate the pure Torah vision that we be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” with the often messy and complicated reality in our holy land?
The purpose of the tabernacle and the subsequent Temples was “they shall make me a sanctuary that I may dwell amongst them” (Exodus 25:8).
The great kabbalist Rabbi Isaiah Halevi Horowitz (1560-1630), author of the monumental work the Sheloh, writes that since the verse employs the plural “them” rather than the singular, the Torah must be referring not to the sanctuary but to the people themselves.
According to this mystical interpretation, God’s commandment was never for a home of gold, silver and marble. Rather, God’s desire is that we create a space in our hearts and souls for him to abide in. Our very beings should function as portable temples that elevate our lives to be sanctified wherever we are.
This is perhaps the reason for the lengthy writing on how it actually was constructed. Initially, we read of God’s vision of what this temple should look like. The challenge for us was to translate a celestial idea into a human reality, to implement the noble and spiritual ideals of the Almighty’s vision.
That is why after each item was built, the Torah reiterates numerous times the phrase “and they made it as God instructed Moses.” For as we learned at Sinai, our shining temple upon a hill, or the one we carry within us, was to be a testimony to the world that we are committed to its values. Our pursuit of justice should not be exclusively for those we feel the need to help, but rather for all our brethren, wherever they live.
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Orthodox Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at [email protected]