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Vayakhel is a Parsha dealing with the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). It begins, however, with three verses about observing Shabbat. The Rabbis learn from this juxtaposition that the activities which are prohibited on the Sabbath are those activities that were necessary to construct the Mishkan. They also learn from this that keeping Shabbat takes precedence over the building of the Mishkan. Despite the importance of the work, the Jews in the desert were not permitted to desecrate Shabbat in order to complete it quicker.
What is the connection between Shabbat and the Mishkan that enables us to learn that only the activities used in its construction are prohibited? Perhaps there are other, or different, actions that we should not perform on Shabbat. Also, why does the Torah need to tell us that we may not build the Mishkan on Shabbat? Isn’t it obvious that we cannot desecrate Shabbat for any Mitzvah, regardless of its importance. What is it about the Mishkan that may have led us to believe that its construction takes precedence?
There are many parallels between the construction of the Mishkan and the creation of the universe. The Talmud (Megilla 10b) states that on the day when the Mishkan was erected, G-d showed the same happiness as the day on which the world was created. The world is a “dwelling place” for G-d, where His presence can be perceived by His creations. Likewise, the Mishkan was the focal point for G-d’s presence on earth. G-d is called Shaddai because when the world was being created it was unrolling like thread from a loom until G-d said “Dai”, enough (Talmud Chagiga). Similarly, the people brought so many donations for the Mishkan, that the workmen were forced to say “enough” (Exodus 36; 7). On a Kabbalistic level, the world was created with the three highest sefirot (spheres), chachma, bina and da’as, i.e.,wisdom, understanding and knowledge. Similarly, the Mishkan’s prime architect was Betzalel, who is described (ibid. 35; 31) as “filled with wisdom, understanding and knowledge” (which explains the meaning of his name Betzalel, in the shadow of G-d).
The Mishkan is a symbolic map of the spiritual reality of creation. It is also the ultimate fulfilment of the purpose of creation (v. Ramban’s introduction to his commentary on the book of Exodus). Therefore those activities needed for its construction are a representation of the same activities that G-d used in creating the universe. Obviously G-d doesn’t do “work” in any physical sense, in fact the creation of the world was through G-d’s “utterances” rather than through actions (v. Ethics of the Fathers, chapter 5); but the Hebrew word for “word”, davar is the same as the word for “thing”. At some level the essence of everything is G-d’s word made physical. So if we could understand the deepest meaning of words, we could understand the nature of things, and similarly if we look at the physical activities involved in creating something, we can understand its name and essence.
Shabbat is described as a testimony that G-d created the world in six days, and that on the seventh day He rested from all His Melacha (creative activity). The Melacha that G-d did in creating the world is exactly the same Melacha that was used to build the Mishkan. It is not coincidental that the prohibited activities on Shabbat are the same as those involved in building the Mishkan, because both are the activities of the creation of the world. We acknowledge G-d’s creation of the world, and His mastery over it, by abstaining from those creative activities that G-d rested from when He created the world, which are revealed to us through the building of the Mishkan.
This also explains why the Torah needs a specific instruction not to build the Mishkan on Shabbat. Since both are an acknowledgement of G-d’s creation of the world, one may have made the erroneous assumption that building the Mishkan could serve as a substitute for observing Shabbat. Therefore the Torah needs to tell us that this is not so. Shabbat is an eternal reminder, and cannot be replaced, even by another form of acknowledging G-d’s sovereignty.
Betzalel ben Uri ben Chur, of the tribe of Yehuda did all that G-d commanded Moshe” (28; 22). Rashi quotes the Talmud (Brachot 55a): The Torah does not say “That which Betzalel was commanded”, but rather “All that Hashem had commanded Moshe”. This implies that even with regard to matters which Moshe did not tell him, Betzalel’s mind was in accord with that which had been said to Moshe at Sinai. For Moshe commanded Betzalel to make the furnishings first, and afterwards the Mishkan. Betzalel said to him, “The common practice is to first make a house, and afterwards to put furnishings in it”. Moshe said to him, “Thus as you said I heard from the mouth of G-d, perhaps you were in G-d’s shadow (a play on the name Betzalel, B’tzel - El, in the shadow of G-d), for indeed that is what G-d commanded me [first the Mishkan and then the furnishings].
This raises several questions. Firstly, how could Moshe have misunderstood what G-d told him regarding the construction of the Mishkan? Was he not referred to by G-d as his “trustworthy servant” (Shabbat Mincha)? Secondly, how could Betzalel dare to question Moshe about what he heard at Mount Sinai. If Moshe said to first make the furnishings why was Betzalel so brazen as to question him? Finally, it seems so obvious that one should build a house before making the fittings and furnishings for it. Why does Moshe praise Betzalel so highly for his understanding, which seems so basic that anyone should have spotted it?
Elsewhere (Exodus 35; 30) Rashi tells us that Chur, Betzalel’s father, was the son of Miriam, Moshe’s sister. Normally the Torah only describes a person by their name and the name of their father. Perhaps the Torah is telling us here that Betzalel was following in the footsteps not only of his father, but also of his grandfather and his great grandmother, that in some way he had the same qualities that Miriam possessed.
Miriam was always the realist. It was she who persuaded her father to remarry his wife despite Pharaoh’s decree that all male children be thrown into the Nile. Miriam was able to see that Amram’s decree was harsher than that of Pharaoh, in that it would have ensured that there were no Jewish children at all, whereas Pharaoh only decreed on the males. She watched over Moshe as he was placed in the Nile to see what would become of him, and she arranged for her mother to be Moshe’s wet nurse. Miriam passed on this ‘sensible’ approach to life to her great grandson Betzalel, so that he was the one chosen by G-d to oversee the construction of the Mishkan.
Moshe was the spiritual leader of the people, and as such was continually treading a fine line between total spirituality and communication with G-d, and being the spokesperson for the nation. To Moshe there was no such thing as independent reality, only G-d’s will which was to be obeyed, and taught to the Jewish people.
The Mishkan was no ordinary building. Each part of it was imbued with spiritual qualities and metaphysical meaning. Moshe saw that the Mishkan was beyond human logic and understanding, and therefore anything that G-d told him he conveyed to the builders without question. Betzalel, however, understood that though the Mishkan was to be the dwelling place of the Divine, nevertheless it was physical and as such could not contradict human logic.
Just as Descartes could only believe in his own existence because of his belief in a good G-d who would not give people logic that had no relationship to reality, so too Betzalel knew that though the Mishkan could be beyond human comprehension it could not by illogical. For G-d to dwell within the constraints of the finite world He must limit Himself to abiding by the laws of this world.
Now we can answer the three questions with which we began. When G-d commanded Moshe about the Mishkan, He left the order in which the items were to be built open to two interpretations, in order that we should realise that the Torah does not contradict our logic, and that people are able to interpret the Torah based on the more logical option. It was this point that Betzalel was questioning, not what Moshe actually heard on Mount Sinai.
Betzalel claimed that G-d would not command us to build a Mishkan which went against our logic. He was telling Moshe that the main function of the Mishkan was to facilitate interaction between people and G-d, and as such it had to be comprehensible. Moshe immediately acknowledged that this was G-d’s purpose, and conceded that he had misinterpreted G-d’s instruction. This does not imply that Moshe misunderstood anything else that he learnt on Mount Sinai, but rather that G-d gave him the opportunity to learn from Betzalel the importance of remaining in touch with the normal way of the world.
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