It’s been a while since I was asked to write Mt. Sinai’s “Parsha Perspectives,” and honestly I wasn’t sure if being asked to do Vayakhel of all parshiyot was a compliment. At any rate it was a moot point since I just missed the deadline (one which I hadn’t been told of beforehand). Still, here’s what would have been printed in the short space allotted.
One of the central themes of sefer Shemot is Benei Yisrael’s transformation from slaves of Pharoah to servants of Hashem. While commentators dispute the chronology of the events in sefer Shemot, the order of the narratives as written convey the nuances of Benei Yisrael’s evolution and religious maturation as well as the development of a divine relationship. The process of developing a relationship is typically overshadowed by the revelatory spectacles of Yetziat Mitzraim and Matan Torah. However we do find such evidence by contrasting the mundane details of the mishkan with the narrative of the golden calf.
Part of the slave mentality which Benei Yisrael needed to shed was the simplistic extremes of authority and anarchy. At one extreme, slaves are wholly subservient to their masters, blindly following their superiors. But with the conditioned repression of slaves’ self-determination and responsibility, sudden “freedom” quickly became lawlessness. Both of these extremes are evident by the incident of the golden calf. Lacking the authority figure of Moshe the nation demanded that Aharon create a new authority for them to worship. The need to follow a singular authority was so great that when Aharon demanded the specific donation of nose rings, “the entire nation” immediately complied (32:3). And yet, once their addiction to authority was satisfied, they then descended into hedonistic chaos (32:6).
The mishkan on the other hand could not be built by mindless slaves but through people who had the capability of introspection and appreciated individuality. As noted in Y. Shekalim 1:1 45d the mishkan was not funded by “the entire nation” but rather by “those of generous hearts” (35:22). Hashem did not demand uniform donations like nose rings, but rather solicited various precious metals, stones, and fabrics, oil, and even labor (35:5-19).
In a parallel to the two sets of tablets, the second description of the mishkan involved more human interaction and input. Before the narrative of the golden calf, Hashem singled out those who were to work on the mishkan, singling out by name Betzalel and Aholeiav b. Achisamach and those who happened to merit merit divine imparted wisdom (31:2,6). But after the sin of the calf the workers were described as those who felt the internal call to contribute (35:21)). Finally Moshe had been told in, “make for me a sanctuary and I dwell within it” (25:8) yet this axiom is absent from the post-egel details of the mishkan. The seemingly exclusive and authoritarian construct of the mishkan became instead the cooperative work between Hashem and Benei Yisrael.
The true nature of Hashem’s freedom is the balance between individuality and order. Worship cannot be completely individualistic, with each doing what is right in his own eyes (Shoftim 21:25). But even when following the detailed specifications and limitations of building a mishkan, there must also be the contributing human element. In achieving this balance we
may emerge from the slavery of rote obedience in order to worship Hashem with our personal essences, with all of our hearts and souls (Devarim 6:5).