SALT - Parashiyot Vayakhel-Pekudei 5781 / 2021

  • Rav David Silverberg
We mourn the sudden passing of our dear friend and supporter
Mr. Joshua Mermelstein z"l
and extend our deepest sympathies to his mother,
his wife Beth, and his children Avi, Jesse and Jonah.
May the family know no more sorrow.

Motzaei Shabbat
            The Torah in Parashat Vayakhel tells of Benei Yisrael’s enthusiastic response to God’s command that they donate materials for the construction of the Mishkan and its various furnishings.  In describing the outpouring of generosity, the Torah specifies that the nesi’im – the leaders of the tribes – donated the precious stones that were needed for the kohen gadol’s apron and breastplate, the olive oil needed for the menorah and anointing oil, and the spices for the incense (35:27-8). 
Rashi famously cites the Sifrei (Parashat Naso, 45) as commenting that the nesi’im initially did not participate in the donation of materials for the Mishkan.  Expecting a languid response by the nation to the call for donations of materials, the nesi’im decided to wait and see what the people would bring, figuring they would then donate the rest.  In the end, the people responded generously, and all that was left for the nesi’im was the stones, oil and spices.  Rashi concludes that the nesi’im were wrong for delaying their donation, and the letter yod was thus dropped from the word “nesi’im” in this verse to signify their failed leadership in this regard.
            The Ketav Sofer comments that propriety of the nesi’im’s decision to delay their donation depends on the debate among the halakhic authorities as to whether one should delay a mitzva for the sake of performing it at a higher standard.  There are situations in which one faces the choice of whether to perform a mitzva promptly on the basic, satisfactory level, or later, at a higher level.  In such a case, two important halakhic values – zerizim makdimin la-mitzvot (the importance of prompt mitzva performance), and hiddur mitzva (performing mitzvot at the highest standard) – clash, and the question arises as to which of these two values takes precedence.  For example, the Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 426:2) follows the ruling of the Terumat Ha-deshen (35) that at the beginning of each month, one should delay the recitation of kiddush levana (the blessing over the new moon) until Motza’ei Shabbat.  Rather than recite the berakha at the earliest possible time, one should wait until Motza’ei Shabbat, when it can be recited in a more respectful manner, as everyone is in their fine clothing and in good spirits.  However, the Vilna Gaon, cited by the Mishna Berura, disagreed, and maintained that one should recite kiddush levana on the earliest possible occasion, without delaying the recitation to Motzaei Shabbat.  Similarly, the Chayei Adam (in Nishmat Adam, 68:1) cites the Sefer Chassidim as asserting that one should perform a mitzva as soon as the opportunity arises, even if it can be performed at a higher standard later.  The Ketav Sofer suggests that the nesi’im were criticized precisely because Halakha (in the view of the Ketav Sofer) follows this latter position – that the value of promptness overrides the value of hiddur mitzva.  The nesi’im figured – perhaps correctly – that they could contribute at the highest level by waiting to see what nobody else brings, and then donating what was missing.  But they were wrong, the Ketav Sofer explains, because mitzva performance should not be delayed even for the sake of achieving a higher standard.
            However, Rav Tzvi Krizer (in Aspaklaria, Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei, 5780, pp. 12-15) notes several points of distinction between the nesi’im’s situation and other instances of delaying a mitzva for the sake of enhancing its quality.  For one thing, the nesi’im could have upheld both values – zerizim makdimin le-mitzvot and hiddur mitzva – by making a donation immediately, together with the rest of the nation, and then providing whatever was needed after everybody donated.  This situation was not, in fact, one where a decision needed to be made to prioritize one value over the other, as it was possible to achieve both.  Thus, Chazal’s criticism of the nesi’im does not prove that Halakha requires prompt performance at the expense of high standards.
Secondly, it is likely that even the Terumat Ha-deshen would agree that one should compromise quality for the sake of promptness when there is reason to fear that the mitzva opportunity might otherwise be squandered.  For example, the Sefer Chassidim writes that a person who has the opportunity to acquire a tallit should do so, even if a higher quality tallit will become available at a later time.  Rav Krizer reasons that the Terumat Ha-deshen would concur, because if one delays the purchase, in the meantime, he will be unable to fulfill the mitzva.  Similarly, even according to the Terumat Ha-deshen, the nesi’im acted incorrectly, because they should have considered the possibility that the others would supply all the materials, and they, the nesi’im, would thus forfeit the mitzva as a result of their delaying their donation. 
            Thirdly, Rav Krizer suggests distinguishing between a personal mitzva and a mitzva assigned collectively to the community.  When a community – or, as in the case of the Mishkan, the entire nation – bears a collective responsibility, then each member is expected to participate together with everyone else.  In this instance, delaying is inappropriate irrespective of the rule of zerizim makdimin le-mitzvot, because a communal mitzva requires all members of the community to join and work together hand-in-hand.  Hence, Chazal’s comments regarding the nesi’im’s donation is not relevant at all to situations where one must choose between promptness and high quality.
            Parashat Vayakhel tells of the construction of the Mishkan and its furnishings by the team of artisans under the leadership of the chief artisan, Betzalel.  In reference to the construction of the ark, the most sacred article in the Mishkan, the Torah specifies that it was made by Betzalel himself (37:1).  Rashi, citing the Midrash Tanchuma, comments, “Because he devoted himself to the work more than the other wise men, it is called by his name.”  According to Rashi, then, the ark – like all the rest of the work done for the Mishkan – was performed by all the artisans as a group, but Betzalel devoted himself to the ark with special intensity, and so the Torah writes that he built it.
            The plain reading of the text, however, gives the impression that the ark was constructed solely by Betzalel, as opposed to other aspects of the project, which were handled by the entire group of artisans.  Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, in his Oznayim La-Torah, suggests a possible reason for why Betzalel might have made a point of personally tending to the construction of the aron (ark).  The Gemara in Masekhet Berakhot (55a) relates that when Moshe conveyed to Betzalel God’s instructions for building the Mishkan, he presented first the instructions regarding the keilim (furnishings), and then the instructions regarding the structure itself.  Betzalel replied by posing the question of why he would build the keilim before the building.  After all, it would seem far more reasonable to first build the structure so there is a place to bring the keilim after there are built.  Moshe marveled at Betzalel’s intuition, as indeed, God had, in fact, commanded that the structure be erected first, before the furnishings. 
On this basis, Rav Sorotzkin writes, we can perhaps understand why Betzalel decided to personally build the ark.  His decision to first construct the building of the Mishkan could have been misinterpreted by some as an affront to the honor of the aron, the most sacred article in the Mishkan.  Some might have criticized Betzalel and his team for granting precedence to the building over the ark, and thereby disrespecting the ark.  In order to prevent this accusation, Betzalel made a point of personally tending to the construction of the aron, to show that he had great affection for this central feature of the Mishkan.  He set out to demonstrate that the precedence granted to the structure of the Mishkan was necessitated by pragmatic concerns, and did not at all indicate the structure’s superior level of sanctity. 
            We read in Parashat Vayakhel of Moshe assembling Benei Yisrael and conveying to them God’s commands regarding the construction of the Mishkan.  He informed them of the designation of Betzalel and Ahaliav as the chief artisans who would oversee the project, and who would work together with all those “asher natan Hashem chokhma u-tvuna baheima” – “in whom the Lord placed wisdom and understanding” (36:1).
            The Midrash (Shemot Rabba 45:3) makes a surprising remark about this verse, suggesting that the word “baheima” be read as “beheima” – “animal,” indicating that God granted wisdom even to the animals needed for the Mishkan’s construction.  Special wisdom and knowledge were granted not only to the people who performed the work, but also to the animals.
            How might we understand the Midrash’s reference to God’s having granted wisdom to animals?
            Rav Menachem Kasher, in Torah Sheleima (note 2*), suggests an explanation based on Targum Onkelos’ translation of Benei Yisrael’s description of the miraculous splitting of the sea – “ne’ermu mayim” (Shemot 15:8).  Whereas most commentators interpret this phrase to mean that the waters of the sea formed a “pile,” Onkelos translates the word “ne’ermu” as a reference to “wisdom,” such that Benei Yisrael speak here of the unique “intelligence” displayed by the sea.  This translation shows that when God performs a miracle whereby an inanimate object acts supernaturally, it can be metaphorically described as having received “wisdom.”  Rav Kasher suggests explaining along similar lines the Midrash’s comment regarding the animals used for the Mishkan.  He points to a number of sources that speak of how these animals became available through supernatural means.  For example, the Gemara (Shabbat 28b) says that the tachash, the creature whose skins were used to form the external covering over the Mishkan, existed only at that time – when Benei Yisrael constructed the Mishkan – and came to Sinai miraculously for this purpose.  Likewise, Derashot Ibn Shuib cites a Midrashic tradition that the goats came on their own to have their wool taken for the Mishkan.  It is thus perhaps to this miraculous feature of the Mishkan’s construction that the Midrash refers when it speaks of God granting wisdom to the animals – their having made themselves available for this project.
            Rav Kasher cites the Yefei Toar commentary to the Midrash as offering a different explanation, suggesting that the Midrash speaks not of actual animals, but rather of people with limited intelligence.  Even the unwise and unlearned were endowed with the knowledge and sophistication needed to perform the various tasks involved in the Mishkan’s construction.  According to the Yefei Toar, this is the meaning of the Midrash’s comment that God granted wisdom to the animals – that He enabled even those who seemed incapable of building the Mishkan to take part of this lofty project.
            If so, then the Midrash seeks to dispel a misconception that we might occasionally have – that we are unworthy or incapable of participating in the “Mishkan,” in Torah and sanctity.  At times we might feel lowly as an “animal,” bereft of the intelligence, self-discipline, or other qualities needed to live a religious life.  The Midrash assures us that God will grant all who wish the wisdom to participate in the “Mishkan.”  Despite our limitations, and despite our “animalistic” tendencies and characteristics, we are invited and encouraged to take part in the great project of creating a “Mishkan” and bringing God’s presence into our world.
            One of the special garments worn by the kohen gadol was the me’il (robe).  As we read in Parashat Pekudei (39:24-26), the bottom hem of the me’il was lined with pa’amonim – bells – and rimonim – decorations in the shape of pomegranates.  The Torah (39:25) commands placing the bells “be-tokh ha-rimonim” – literally, “inside the pomegranates.”  Rashi (28:34) explains this to mean that the bells and pomegranates were placed in alternating fashion, such that each bell was “inside” – meaning, in between – two pomegranates.  The Ramban (28:31), however, disagrees, and maintains that the bells were actually embedded within the material of the pomegranates. 
            The Chatam Sofer, in his Torah commentary, boldly suggests that perhaps both interpretations are correct.  Possibly, some bells were attached to the hem of the me’il independently, and others were embedded within the rimonim.
            The Chatam Sofer proceeds to explain the rationale for this arrangement.  The Gemara in Masekhet Arakhin (16a-b) comments that the bells on the bottom of the kohen gadol’s robe served to atone for the sin of lashon ha-ra – spreading negative information about one’s fellow.  The sound created by these bells earned forgiveness for this offense, which is committed through sound – specifically, by using the faculty of speech.  The Chatam Sofer posited that one commits a form of lashon ha-ra by inappropriately publicizing or speaking about his own qualities and accomplishments.  Disseminating flattering information about oneself generally is done for the same purpose as disseminating unflattering information about one’s fellow – to condescend and to assert superiority.  These two forms of forbidden speech, the Chatam Sofer suggests, are atoned through the two types of bells lining the hem of the me’ilChazal in other contexts speak of the pomegranate as a metaphor for spiritual success; the large number of seeds inside a pomegranate symbolize the large number of mitzvot performed by even average, ordinary people.  Accordingly, the Chatam Sofer writes, the bells embedded within the rimonim at the bottom of the me’il symbolize those who publicize their “pomegranates” – their good deeds and their accomplishments.  The other bells, which hung separate from the rimonim, atoned for the more familiar type of lashon ha-ra – negative speech about other people.
            The bells of the me’il rang whenever the kohen gadol walked, as he moved about doing his work in the Beit Ha-mikdash.  He did not need to call attention to himself; his work was “heard” naturally, on its own, without him having to speak or intentionally make any noise.  The ill of lashon ha-ra is rectified by ensuring that the only “sound” we produce that draws attention to ourselves is the sound of the kohen gadol – the natural result of our devoted work and efforts to serve God and do His bidding.  We should not try to be noticed by promoting ourselves or by denigrating others; instead, we should be like the kohen gadol, tending to our obligations and accomplishing to the best of our ability, thereby allowing our “bells” to “ring” naturally, on their own, through the success of our hard work.
            The Torah in Parashat Pekudei (39:1) tells that among the items made as part of the construction of the Mishkan and its furnishings were garments called “bigdei serad,” which were used “le-shareit ba-kodesh” – literally, “to serve the sacred,” or, “to serve in the Sanctuary.”  These garments are mentioned in addition to the special garments made for the kohanim.  Most commentators (Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, and Chizkuni to 31:10) explain that the bigdei serad were the garments used to cover the sacred articles during travel, as the Torah discusses later, in Parashat Bamidbar (chapter 4).  The Ramban (31:10), based on a comment in the Gemara (Yoma 72a-b), asserts that “bigdei serad” is simply another term for the bigdei kehuna, the priestly garments worn by the kohanim (specifically, the special garments worn by the kohen gadol).
            Both interpretations, however, raise questions.  Rashi’s approach does not account for the fact that in all contexts in which the Torah mentions the bigdei serad (31:10, 35:19, 39:1, 39:41), it mentions them together with the bigdei kehuna.  According to Rashi’s understanding, the bigdei serad were used during travel, and thus have nothing at all to do with the garments worn by the kohanim while performing the rituals in the Mishkan.  The Ramban’s explanation, on the other hand, seems difficult because – as Rashi notes – the Torah specifies both the bigdei serad and the bigdei kehuna, clearly implying that these are two different kinds of garments.
            A novel approach to this term is taken by Rav Yitzchak Yehuda Trunk, in his Mikra Mefurash (Parashat Pekudei).  He notes the Gemara’s comment in Masekhet Ta’anit (11b) that during the seven-day miluim period, when the kohanim were formally consecrated for their role, and Moshe officiated as kohen, he wore a special garment.  He could not wear the standard bigdei kehuna, as they were reserved for Aharon and his sons, and their future descendants.  At the same time, however, as Moshe was performing the service in the Mishkan, he could not wear his usual clothing, and needed a special garment befitting the sacred role he was filling.  Rav Trunk understands the Gemara as establishing a rule that anytime a non-kohen is permitted to perform one of the rituals associated with the Beit Ha-mikdash, he must wear a special garment.  This is relevant to the small handful rituals which do not require a kohen – such as shechita (slaughtering the animal sacrifices), and mixing the meal offerings with oil – as well as in bamot, private altars.  There were periods before the construction of the Beit Ha-mikdash when sacrificing was permitted on private altars, and during these periods, the sacrificial rituals could be performed even by non-kohanim.  From the Gemara’s discussion about Moshe’s special garment during the miluim period, we might conclude that when bamot were allowed, the sacrifices were performed while wearing a spcial garment designated for this purpose. 
            If so, Rav Trunk reasons, then it could be suggested that the bigdei serad were the special garments used by non-kohanim when they were permitted to perform Mikdash-related rituals, such as when Moshe functioned as a kohen during the week of the miluim.  This explains why the bigdei serad are mentioned together with the bigdei kehuna, even though they were a different kind of garment – because they, like the bigdei kehuna, were garments designated to be worn when performing the service in the Mikdash.
            Yesterday, we noted the Torah’s reference to a set of garments called “bigdei serad,” which were made as part of the project of constructing the Mishkan and its various furnishings and accessories.  The Torah makes mention of the bigdei serad on four occasions in Sefer Shemot (31:10, 35:19, 39:1, 39:41), all in conjunction with the bigdei kehuna – the special garments worn by the kohanim while performing the service in the Beit Ha-mikdash.  Most commentators understood that the bigdei serad were the cloth materials used to cover the sacred articles of the Mishkan when Benei Yisrael traveled through the wilderness, materials mentioned later in the Torah, in Sefer Bamidbar (chapter 4).
            A novel theory to explain the meaning of “bigdei serad” is advanced by Rav Yisrael Ariel, in a lengthy article in the journal Ma’alin Ba-kodesh (vol. 5, Av, 5762).  Rav Ariel suggests that the bigdei serad were special garments worn by the Leviyim while they performed their service in the Mikdash.  The Torah makes no explicit reference to special garments worn by the Leviyim, but, Rav Ariel writes, it certainly stands to reason that they would not perform their roles in the Mikdash – singing during the offering of sacrifices, standing guard, and transporting the Mishkan and its furnishings through the wilderness – in their regular clothing.  Rav Ariel notes that in Sefer Devarim (14:29 and elsewhere), the Leviyim are listed among the groups of people who needed charitable assistance.  As the Leviyim were not allotted agricultural lands as were the other tribes, they were generally poor and in need of charity.  We may presume that many Leviyim wore tattered – or at least very simple and austere – clothing, and it would be disrespectful for them to perform their duties in the Mikdash with such attire.  Moreover, we would certainly expect that some “uniform” would be worn while the Leviyim worked in the Mikdash.
            Rav Ariel suggests drawing proof to his theory from the description of the prophet Shmuel, a Levi, wearing a special apron as he tended to his duties in the Mishkan (“eifod bad” – Shmuel I 2:18).  The Rambam, in Hilkhot Kelei Ha-mikdash (10:13), writes that this apron was worn by the Leviyim, and also by other people of special distinction.  Thus, for example, in Sefer Shemuel II (22:18), we find that the kohanim who resided in the city of Nov were all dressed in this type of apron.  Rav Ariel reasons that just as the kohanim wore special garments when they served in the Mikdash, they had a different set of distinguished – though less elaborate – garments which they wore at other times as befitting their position of stature.  Quite possibly, these were worn also by the Leviyim during their service.
            As for the word “serad,” Rav Ariel draws our attention to Rav Saadia Gaon’s commentary, translating this term to mean “colorful.”  Indeed, as we read in Parashat Vayakhel (39:1), the bigdei serad were dyed tekheilet (royal blue), purple and crimson.  Rav Ariel notes also the prophet Yeshayahu’s description (44:13) of the creation of an idol, in which he speaks of the idol being adorned with “sered.”  Several commentators, including the Radak and Malbim, explain this word as a reference to dye.  Conceivably, then, the term “bigdei serad” was chosen for these garments because of their colorful appearance.
            Alternatively, Rav Ariel writes, the word “serad” might be understood as a reference to people of distinction.  The prophet Yoel (3:5) speaks of the righteous who will be spared from the punishment that God will deliver upon the earth, referring to them with the term “seridim asher Hashem korei.”  The word “seridim” is commonly understood to mean “survivors,” but Metzudat David explains this term to mean “mevurarim” – “distinguished ones.”  Quite possibly, then, the bigdei serad were so named because they were worn as a sign of special distinction.
            We read in Parashat Pekudei that after all the various components of the Mishkan were built, God commanded Moshe to erect the Mishkan, put all the furnishings in their places, and to anoint them all with the special anointing oil.  Rashi (39:33), citing the Midrash Tanchuma, gives the reason why specifically Moshe was charged with the task of erecting the Mishkan, explaining that Moshe had not taken any part in the construction.  He did not perform any work preparing the beams, cloths, or sacred articles.  Therefore, God saw to it that the final stage of the process – putting the Mishkan together – would be assigned specifically to him.  The Midrash then adds that nobody, including Moshe, was capable of erecting the Mishkan because of the heavy weight of the wooden planks.  God said to Moshe, in Rashi’s words, “You do the work with your hands, and you will appear as erecting it, but it will be erected and stand on its own.”  Moshe did what he could, and gave the appearance of setting up the Mishkan, but in truth, the Mishkan stood miraculously, on its own.  The Midrash concludes that this explains why the Torah tells (40:17), “hukam ha-Mishkan” – “the Mishkan was erected,” implying that it happened on its own, without anybody actually erecting it.
            Some have noted that the two segments of this Midrashic passage appear contradictory.  First, the Midrash tells that God specifically wanted to grant Moshe the distinction of erecting the Mishkan because he was not privileged to participate in the construction.  But then the Midrash relates that in truth, the Mishkan stood miraculously, on its own, and Moshe merely gave the appearance of erecting the structure.  If Moshe could not be credited with the Mishkan’s assembly, which occurred supernaturally without him, then how did this serve as “compensation” for his not having performed any work for the Mishkan?  He only appeared to erect the Mishkan, but did not actually do so.
            The answer, perhaps, is that the Midrash precisely seeks to teach that in religious life, the effort matters far more than the final product.  God instructed Moshe, “You do the work with your hands” – meaning, that he must exert maximum effort, trying his best to lift the heavy planks and put them into place.  Although these efforts succeeded only through God’s supernatural effort, nevertheless, they fully qualified as participation in the Mishkan’s construction.  Our responsibility is to make a genuine effort, and so we should feel gratified knowing that we truly strove to achieve even if our work does not yield the desired outcome.  When it comes to building our “Mishkan,” a life of sanctity worthy of God’s presence, all that is expected is that we each work to the best of his or her ability, and try to “build” the most he or she can.  In the end, the success of our efforts will always depend on the Almighty’s help, just as the Mishkan stood only through God’s supernatural intervention.  Therefore, we should not feel disappointed if our work does not produce the desired result, because our responsibility is simply to try our best, recognizing our limitations and our dependence on God’s help.