Parashat Vayakhel begins by telling of Moshe assembling Benei Yisrael for the purpose of conveying to them God’s instructions to build the Mishkan, which he introduces with the command to observe Shabbat. Rashi, commenting on the first word of the parasha – “va-yakhel” (“[Moshe] assembled”) – explains that this word means “not that one gathers people with his hands, but rather that they are gathered by his word.” It appears that Rashi here distinguishes between the verb a.s.f., which denotes the physical act of collecting, and the verb k.h.l., which is used in the hif’il form (implying causing others to perform an action), and thus denotes instructing people to assemble. Whereas a.s.f. means to assemble directly, k.h.l. means to cause people to assemble.
At first glance, it appears that Rashi here simply clarifies the different meanings of these two verbs, explaining why the Torah uses here the term “va-yakhel” instead of “va-ye’esof.” Since the latter is used only in reference to the physical act of gathering, the Torah employs here the former, which means “cause to assemble,” and not the act of assembling.
Rav Moshe Taragin suggested an additional reading of Rashi’s comments. When Rashi emphasizes that “va-yakhel” does not refer to gathering people “with one’s hands,” he does not necessarily mean that Moshe did not assemble Benei Yisrael “with his hands,” which is plainly obvious. Rather, he perhaps means that Moshe did not assemble the people simply by force of his authority. He did not command or instruct the people to assemble, but rather facilitated the assembly by informing the people that he wished to address them. The people gathered “by his word” not in the sense of obedience to his authority, but through his encouragement, influence and guidance.
The significance of this point lies in the fact that this assembly took place following the sin of the golden calf. Whether God’s command that Benei Yisrael build the Mishkan came in response to the sin of the golden calf, or was issued before the golden calf (a matter that is subject to debate), it is clear that the assembly in which Moshe instructed the people to build a Mishkan occurred after the golden calf. Benei Yisrael created and worshipped a golden calf in reaction to Moshe’s extended stay atop Mount Sinai, which led them to mistakenly conclude that he would not be returning (“…for this man, Moshe, who took us from the land of Egypt, we do not know what happened to him” – 32:1). Thus, the sin of the golden calf was the result of the people’s overdependence on Moshe. The moment it appeared that he was gone, they rejected all that he had taught them, and resorted to pagan worship. The people’s commitment to God was fully dependent on Moshe, to the point where the prospect of his death led them to completely reverse their course. Part of the process of rectifying this mistake, therefore, was breaking this dependence, decentralizing Moshe’s role in the people’s commitment to God. It is for this reason, perhaps, that Rashi emphasizes that Moshe did assemble the people “with his hands” – by force, through the power of his authority, but rather through his guidance and influence. In the wake of the tragedy of the golden calf, it became necessary to diminish, however slightly, Moshe’s leadership role, to make it clear to the people that they needed to act and perform out of their own volition and independent decision, and not merely respond robotically to Moshe’s instruction.