Vayakhel - More than Repetition

  • Rav Yair Kahn



This week’s shiurim are dedicated in memory of
Lillian Grossman z”l – Devorah Leah bas Shlomo Halevi
by Larry and Maureen Eisenberg



Dedicated le-zekher nishmot Amelia Ray and Morris Ray
on the occasion of their eighth yahrtzeits
by their children Patti Ray and Allen Ray



1.  Moshe and Betzalel


Parashat Vayakhel describes the actual building of the Mishkan and its vessels, and much of the sedra is therefore almost an exact repetition of parashat Teruma. What is the purpose of this repetition? After all, the Torah is sometimes so sparing that major halakhot are derived from no more than an additional word or letter! In this case, in contrast, the Torah seems unnecessarily verbose. What would have been lacking had the Torah simply written, “And Bnei Yisrael did all that Hashem commanded Moshe, so did they do” (39:32)?  


There are a number of possible approaches to answer this question.  One approach is to determine the differences between the two accounts and try to decipher what the Torah is trying to tell us through these distinctions. For instance, one major difference identified by the midrash was noted by Rashi:


“And Betzalel the son of Uri… did all that Hashem commanded Moshe:” It does not say “that Hashem commanded Moshe,” but rather, ‘all that Hashem commanded Moshe” – even things his Rebbi [Moshe] did not tell him, his mind converged with what was told to Moshe at Sinai. Moshe commanded Betzalel to first make the vessels and later the Mishkan.  Betzalel said to him, “Standard behavior is to first make a house and only afterwards to place vessels inside.”  He [Moshe] responded, “That is what I heard from Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu.” He said to him, “You were in the shadow of the Lord [“be-tzel E-l,” a play on Betzalel’s name], for this is surely what Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu commanded me.” (Rashi 38:22)


Indeed, Parashat Teruma begins with the instructions of how to build the holy ark, table, and menora, before describing how to construct the Mishkan itself, whereas Parashat Vayakhel, which describes the actual construction that was done by Betzalel and his artisans, begins with the Mishkan and follows with the various vessels. 


However, there are a number of problems with this midrash. First of all, it seems to suggest that Moshe erred and was corrected by Betzalel. This is certainly difficult, since our entire faith is based on the accurate transmission of the word of Hashem from Moshe Rabbeinu to Yisrael! The Torah describes how Moshe received the Torah directly from Hashem:  “Mouth to mouth do I speak to him and with a clear vision, not hints, and the picture of Hashem he sees [as it were]” (Bamidbar 12:8). This idea is so critical that it is repeated in the closing lines of the Torah: “And no other prophet arose in Israel that knew Hashem face to face” (Devarim 34:10). Indeed, Parashat Teruma is introduced with the verse: “And Hashem said to Moshe” (25:1). Is it possible that Moshe Rabbeinu misinterpreted the words of Hashem and was corrected by Betzalel? How, then, can we be sure about the rest of the Torah?


An additional difficulty with this midrash is that the discrepancy regarding the order of construction not only distinguishes Moshe’s account from that of Betzalel, but contradicts Moshe’s own account. When commanding Betzalel directly, the Torah says:


And they will do all that I have commanded you: The tent of meeting and the ark for testimony and the kaporet which is on it and all the vessels of the tent. And the table and its vessels and the pure menora and its vessels, and the altar of the incense …” (31:7-8)


Here, Moshe himself mentions the tent before the vessels, as opposed to Parashat Teruma, where the vessels are mentioned first. 


It is clear that we are not dealing with a correct order as opposed to an erroneous one, but rather with different ways of listing the construction, which reflect two distinct but valid perspectives. The order of Betzalel is utilitarian; the sequence of the construction of the Mishkan is based on pragmatic considerations: “Standard behavior is to first make a house and only afterwards to place the vessels inside.”  The order documented in Parashat Teruma, on the other hand, is axiological; it begins with the primary vessel of the Mishkan, which reflects the entire purpose of the Mishkan. The Torah subsequently lists the remaining vessels in descending order of importance.  Since the heart of the Mishkan is the ark, which contains the tablets, it is Moshe’s starting point in Parashat Teruma. However, when introducing the instruction manual describing how the construction is actually to be implemented, the construction of the structure of the Mishkan comes first. Betzalel, who is charged with implementing the construction, conforms to the pragmatic order. 


This was already noted by the Ramban, who wrote at the beginning of Parashat Teruma:


The main purpose of the Mishkan is to serve as the resting place of Hashem’s divine presence, which is the ark, as it says, “And I will meet you there and I will speak to you from above the kaporet.”  Therefore, here [in Parashat Teruma], the Torah introduced the ark and kaporet first, because it is first regarding status. Adjacent to the ark, the Torah mentioned the table and the menora, which are vessels like the ark, and they indicate the idea of the Mishkan that was built for this purpose.  However, in Parashat Vayakhel, Moshe introduced the Mishkan, the tent and its covering, first, and so did Betzalel, for this should come first during implementation. (Ramban 25:1) 


Both of these orders are valid descriptions of the Mishkan.


In fact, we find a similar distinction in the orders chosen by various halakhic codifiers. Before the Rambam, there were halakhic works whose order corresponded to the order of the Gemara, while other halakhic works were based on the order of the Torah. The Rambam decided to take all of Shas and present a new organic order of halakha. His monumental work, the Yad Ha-Chazaka, begins with Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah, Laws of Basic Torah Principles. In contrast, the Shulchan Arukh, following the lead of the Tur, begins with Laws of waking up in the Morning.  Similarly, the Shulchan Arukh lists the laws of festivals according to the order of the calendar, while the Rambam begins with Yom Kippur, continues with the Biblical festivals, and then presents the rabbinic festivals. Clearly, the Shulchan Arukh is presenting a practical guide to halakha, parallel to the pragmatic approach of Betzalel. The Rambam, on the other hand, is presenting the system of halakha as ideas and concepts. He therefore developed a system that parallels the axiological order found in Parashat Teruma. 


2.  The Mizbach Ha-Ketoret


Following his pragmatic agenda, in Parashat Vayakhel,Betzalel constructs the mizbach ha-ketoret (the golden incense altar) within the context of the other vessels located in the Mishkan. In the axiological order, however, the mizbach ha-ketoret only appears at the end of Parashat Tetzaveh, after the Torah lists the other vessels, the structure of the Mishkan, the priestly garments, and the sacrifices needed to sanctify the priests and the altar. Why wasn’t the mizbach Ha-Ketoret recorded at the beginning of Parashat Teruma together with the other vessels situated in the mishkan? What makes the location even more puzzling is that the mizbach ha-ketoret does not appear at the end of the “Milechet Ha-Mishkan” section, but rather after it. The Mishkan is introduced with the verse, “And you shall make for me a Mishkan and I will dwell in your midst” (25:8), and concludes with the parallel verse, “And I will dwell amidst the children of Israel and I shall be for them a God” (29:45). Why does the mizbach ha-ketoret only appear in chapter 30, following the concluding lines of the Milechet Ha-Mishkan section?


The commentators were troubled by this and offered various solutions.  The Sforno writes:


This altar was not mentioned together with the other vessels in Parashat Teruma, for its purpose was not that the glory of Hashem should dwell amongst us, as was with the other vessels, as it says, “And I will dwell in your midst with all that I show you, the form of the Mishkan and the form of its vessels.” Its purpose was also not to cause Hashem’s glory to descend upon the house, as was that of the sacrifices… Rather, the purpose of this altar was to honor the Lord, after He descends to accept with grace the worship of His nation with the morning and evening sacrifices, and to welcome His presence with the ketoret offering, along the lines of, “Give unto Hashem the glory of His name; take an offering and enter His presence.” 


The primary purpose of Milechet Ha-Mishkan’ is that the glory of Hashem should dwell amongst Yisrael. It describes the closeness, as it were, between Hashem and His people; according to the Ramban, it eternalizes Sinai, as an everlasting echo of the word of Hashem heard directly by Yisrael. The holy ark contains the luchot given to Yisrael at Sinai, and from above those luchot, Hashem continues to communicate with Moshe. The entire Mishkan and its service is designed to further this aim. According to the Sforno, the mizbach ha-ketoret is not involved in this effort. The ketoret offering brought on the mizbach ha-ketoret is a result of the glory of Hashem’s presence; it is not meant to enable Hashem’s movement towards Yisrael, as it were, but rather Yisrael’s movement towards Hashem.  Yisrael offers the ketoret to honor Hashem’s presence, which has already descended upon Yisrael. 


Similarly, we can claim that the mizbach ha-ketoret is not only uninvolved in the effort to bring the glory of Hashem’s presence closer to us, but actually symbolizes an opposite agenda. While the purpose of the Mishkan, as noted by the Sforno, is closeness between Hashem and Yisrael, the mizbach ha-ketoret establishes the separation that must exist between finite man and infinite God.  On Yom Kippur, we are told that the high priest could only enter the inner sanctum by offering ketoret, which filled the house with a cloud of smoke.  This cloud is reminiscent of the cloud that hovered on the top of Har Sinai and served as a smoke screen that allowed Hashem’s presence be felt by Yisrael.  From this perspective, the mizbach ha-ketoret complements the Mishkan; it allows for the presence of Hashem’s glory by establishing a buffer and separation. 


For this reason, Moshe, who was presenting a conceptual order, documented the command to build the mizbach ha-ketoret, whose purpose is to separate, only after concluding the Milechet Ha-Mishkan section, whose goal is to connect. Betzalel, on the other hand, true to his pragmatic agenda, constructed the mizbach ha-zahav together with the other vessels located in the Mishkan.   


3.  The Unfaithful Wife


Another approach can be suggested to explain the repetition of Vayakhel.  Perhaps the point is not the distinctions between the two accounts, but rather the similarities. What is the message of the almost verbatim repetition of Teruma and Tetzaveh?


Mori ve-Rabbi Harav Aharon Lichtenstein shlita once took this approach.  In order to illuminate the point, he used the parable of a young couple engaged to be married. Before their wedding, they dream of the future, when they can finally be together. They make all the preparations necessary for their new home, where all their aspirations and love will eventually be actualized. They buy an apartment and meticulously plan every detail so it should be the perfect context for the perfection of their love. Together, they order furniture fitting for their new home. Together, they choose sinks and cabinets for the kitchen. All the plans are completed as the wedding day approaches, and they imagine the home where they will live together, where their love will be consummated and all their hopes and dreams realized. 


After the wedding, the couple goes on a honeymoon. During the honeymoon, the husband is called away. In his absence, one thing comes to another, and the wife, in a lapse of human weakness, has an affair. The husband returns and finds out about his wife's infidelity.  He severs relations with her and the marriage is destroyed. The wife is beside herself. Filled with remorse, she pleads for forgiveness, but to no avail. A friend intervenes with the husband on her behalf, and eventually the husband relents and the wife is allowed to return. 


They go to their home and their orders begin to arrive. The furniture is put in place and the sinks and cabinets are installed. Everything appears as originally planned. But is it really the same? Is this the home of their dreams? After all that transpired, is the furniture the same furniture that was ordered before the disastrous honeymoon? Can the sinks and cabinets be the same as those chosen with such pure heart and passionate love?


According to peshuto shel mikra (the straightforward reading of scripture), the command to build the Mishkan and its vessels followed the covenant at Sinai and preceded the forty days Moshe spent on Har Sinai. The idea of building the Mishkan was to realize the dream of Hashem’s glory dwelling amidst Yisrael.  However, when Moshe went up to Har Sinai to receive the Torah, Yisrael sinned and made the Golden Calf. Hashem threatened to destroy the people, but Moshe intervened on their behalf. Eventually, Hashem agreed to forgive Yisrael, and Moshe climbed Har Sinai once again, returning on Yom Kippur with the second luchot.  After Yom Kippur, Yisrael began to build the Mishkan. They build the holy ark, the table and the menora; they meticulously follow the plans originally given to Moshe. But is it really the same ark, the same table, the same menora? Can it possibly be the same?


Perhaps this is the message of the almost verbatim repetition of Vayakhel and Pekudei. It is as if the Torah is saying: Yes, it is the same holy ark.  It is the same table and the same menora! Despite the sin of the Golden Calf, Hashem forgave His people and was willing to fully realize the covenant. Through the power of teshuva, the original intent of the Mishkan, the dream of “you shall make for me a Mishkan and I will dwell amongst you,” can be realized.