Vayakhel-Pekudei | The Mishkan of Repair and Repentance

  • Rav Itiel Gold
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.
This week's shiur is dedicated to Rachel Roytberg, z"l,
whose yahrzeit falls on the first of Nissan,
by Family Rueff.
*Whenever we reach Parashot Vayakhel-Pekudei in the yearly Torah reading cycle, I feel uncomfortable. Tradition tells us that every word in the Torah has meaning and that there are no unnecessary repetitions. It seems, however, that these parashot challenge this assumption. We read at length about the execution of the building of the Mishkan, precisely in accordance with the commands given in Parashot Teruma-Tetzaveh. Ostensibly, it would have been possible to summarize the two parashot in a single verse, something like: "And Moshe and the children of Israel made the Mishkan, as the Lord had commanded." What is the point of detailing the execution of the command? What do these parashot teach us, apart from the fact that the Mishkan was built in the proper manner?
It seems that the need for this lengthy description is connected to the distance between the command concerning the Mishkan (Teruma-Tetzaveh) and the actual execution of the building process (Vayakhel-Pekudei). If the Mishkan had been built immediately after the command, it might not have been necessary to provide a lengthy account of the construction. However, a significant story takes place between the command and the execution, namely, the sin involving the Golden Calf. This sin is not just another event interrupting the continuity of the story but is essentially a spiritual earthquake – and it brings the very building of the Mishkan into doubt.
After the sin, God answers Moshe’s prayer and retracts His will to destroy the people of Israel. At the same time, however, He clarifies that things will not go back to how they were before:
And the Lord spoke to Moshe: Depart, go up hence, you and the people that you have brought up out of the land of Egypt… for I will not go up in the midst of you; for you are a stiff-necked people; lest I consume you on the way. (Shemot 33:1-3)
The sin involving the Golden Calf caused God to take a step backward, as it were, and stay away from the people. The sin demonstrated that the people of Israel are a stiff-necked people, and therefore it would be better for them that God not walk in their midst and destroy them. Moshe, however, refuses to accept the decree, and he pleads with God that He should come back and go with the people:
And he said: If now I have found grace in Your sight, O Lord, let the Lord, I pray You, go in the midst of us; for it is a stiff-necked people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Your inheritance. (34:9)
God's answer to Moshe's request is complicated:
And He said: Behold, I make a covenant; before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been wrought in all the earth, nor in any nation; and all the people among which you are shall see the work of the Lord that I am about to do with you, that it is tremendous. (34:10)
On the one hand, it seems that God has granted Moshe's request and will do wonders for the people of Israel. On the other hand, He emphasizes that it is Moshe, not God, who will now go among the people – "among which you are" (and not I). Wonders will be performed, but through Moshe and not directly from God – "that I am about to do with you." God agrees to care for Israel on their travels, but refrains from resting His Shekhina among them. Therefore, an intermediate solution is created: the people will be granted the wonders of God, not by way of a direct resting of the Shekhina but by way of Moshe. Moshe's status rises and he becomes a kind of angel, who performs wonders for Israel by the power of God.[1]
The clearest expression of this new status appears at the end of Parashat Ki-Tisa, when the skin of Moshe's face sends forth rays (34:29-35). Moshe had already been very close to God, but had always remained an ordinary person. Now, however, after the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe changes. Moshe's body is no longer like that of an ordinary human, but it acquires a different quality. Ordinary people are unable to look at him and he must cover his face in order to be in normal contact with them (ibid.).
This compromise situation can help the people continue on their way to the Promised Land, but what will happen to the Mishkan? The command in its regard was given before the sin, when God Himself was supposed to rest among Israel – "And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them" (25:8). Is it still relevant to build the Mishkan even after the sin, when God is no longer among them in accordance with the original plan? This question remains open at the end of Parashat Ki-Tisa.
A Mishkan Without Creativity
At the beginning of our parasha, Moshe faces a strange situation. On the one hand, he has in his pocket a detailed plan for the construction of the Mishkan. On the other hand, it is not clear whether there is any point in building the Mishkan, in light of God’s decision to take a step back with respect to the resting of His Shekhina. As stated, Moshe now becomes the focus of the resting of God's Shekhina, instead of it resting directly among the people. Therefore, it is possible to imagine that Moshe, in his new rank, might suffice. The shining skin of the face of Moshe could be a substitute, though lesser, for the original plan of the Mishkan.
This scenario may seem imaginary, but to our great surprise, it did occur, immediately after the sin of the Golden Calf:
Now Moshe used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, afar off from the camp; and he called it the tent of meeting. And it came to pass, that everyone who sought the Lord went out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp… And it came to pass, when Moshe entered into the tent, the pillar of cloud descended, and stood at the door of the tent; and [the Lord] spoke with Moshe. (33:7-9)
It would appear from these verses that Moshe took his private tent and turned it into a tent of meeting! He understood that the Shekhina would not rest among the people after the sin, and therefore he had to establish a kind of private Mishkan outside the camp.
Moshe, however, chooses to gamble and still build the Mishkan,[2] hoping that God will relent and once again rest His Shekhina on the people. The uncertainty during the construction of the Mishkan can be seen by comparing the beginning of Parashat Vayakhel and the beginning of Parashat Teruma:
Parashat Teruma – the command regarding the Mishkan
Parashat Vayakhel – the construction of the Mishkan
Speak to the children of Israel, that they take for Me an offering; of every man whose heart makes him willing, you shall take My offering. And this is the offering which you shall take of them: gold, and silver, and brass… onyx stones, and stones to be set, for the efod, and for the breastplate. And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. (25:2-8) 
Take you from among you an offering to the Lord, whoever is of a willing heart, let him bring it, the Lord's offering: gold, and silver, and brass… and onyx stones, and stones to be set, for the efod, and for the breastplate. (35:4-9) 
It is easy to see that the commandment directed to the people to bring an offering (Parashat Vayakhel) repeats exactly the commandment that Moshe heard from God (Parashat Teruma). However, the most important verse that appears in the command to Moshe – "Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them" – is missing in the account of the construction of the Mishkan! The Mishkan is built in our parasha in a state of uncertainty whether or not God will in fact dwell in it. Moshe hopes that through the building of the Mishkan, the people will demonstrate to God that they have repaired the sin of the Golden Calf, and God will then agree to rest His Shekhina among them. But at the moment, unfortunately, this cannot be guaranteed.
This state of affairs shows the greatness of Israel. It is easy to put in effort when the result is clear and guaranteed. However, it is much harder to bother and invest when there is no promise of what will happen in the end. Through construction of the Mishkan, the people rectify the sin of the Golden Calf on a deep level. With the calf, they had tried to create a tangible figure to control the Shekhina.[3] They now try to bring the Shekhina to rest in their camp, with no advance promise that they will succeed. They understand that God's decision depends on their actions but is not under their control.
Over the course of our parasha, we can see further signs of the people's efforts to repair the sin of the Golden Calf by building the Mishkan in the hope that God will want to dwell in it.
The Building of the Mishkan and the Sin of the Golden Calf
In the first stage of the construction of the Mishkan, Moshe gathers the people to command them about the project: "And Moshe assembled [vayakhel] all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said to them: These are the words which the Lord has commanded, that you should do them" (35:1). The act of "assembly" is rare in the Torah. In most instances, Moshe conveys the words of God to the people without gathering them together.[4] This term appears only one other time in the book of Shemot – in the story of the sin of the Golden Calf:
The people gathered [vayikahel] themselves together to Aharon, and said to him: Up, make us a god who shall go before us. (32:1)
The people assemble now for the building of the Mishkan, in order to atone for the assembly for the building of the Golden Calf. Just as they unified then to do evil, so they unify now to engage in repair.
At the time of the Golden Calf, after gathering around Aharon, the people went to take the gold from the ears of their wives and children (32:2-3). For this as well, there is a repair in the building of the Mishkan:
And they came, both men and women, as many as were willing-hearted, and brought nose-rings, and ear-rings, and signet-rings, and girdles, all jewels of gold. (35:22)
This description of the contribution of gold is different from other contributions. Only here does the Torah list the original objects from which they brought their offerings: nose-rings, ear-rings, signet-rings, and girdles. Regarding the offerings of silver and brass, for example, it simply says: "Every one that did set apart an offering of silver and brass brought the Lord's offering" (35:24). The offering of gold was not like the other offerings. It is a direct repair of the sin of the Golden Calf. The Torah emphasizes that just as Israel brought their gold earrings for the calf, so they bring them now for God. What is more, then they brought only their earrings, whereas now they bring all of the gold jewelry in their possession.
The people's desire to repair is also evident in the rest of the offerings for the Mishkan. They are exceedingly eager to bring offerings, above and beyond what was necessary:
And they spoke to Moshe, saying: The people bring much more than enough for the service of the work, which the Lord commanded to make. And Moshe commanded, and they caused it to be proclaimed throughout the camp, saying: Let neither man nor woman do any more work for the offering of the sanctuary. So the people were restrained from bringing. (36:5-6)
The people try to show God through their deeds that they regret their involvement in the sin of the Golden Calf. Then, they quickly brought gold for the construction of the calf. Now, they quickly and eagerly bring much more gold than is necessary for the construction of the Mishkan. All this, in order to try to bring the Shekhina back to dwell among them.
The Half Shekel
Another act of repair for the sin of the Golden Calf over the course of the construction of the Mishkan is found at the beginning of Parashat Pekudei:
A beka a head, that is, half a shekel, after the shekel of the sanctuary, for every one that passed over to them that are numbered, from twenty years old and upward, for six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty men. (38:26)
During the construction of the Mishkan, half a shekel was collected from the people of Israel. This collection is connected to the commandment at the beginning of Parashat Ki-Tisa, shortly before the sin of the Golden Calf:
And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: When you take the sum of the children of Israel, according to their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul to the Lord, when you number them; that there be no plague among them, when you number them. This they shall give, every one that passes among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary… And you shall take the atonement money from the children of Israel, and shall appoint it for the service of the tent of meeting, that it may be a memorial for the children of Israel before the Lord, to make atonement for your souls. (30:11-16)
A precise reading of the passage indicates that the obligation to collect half a shekel only applies when they want to count the people of Israel. Counting them stirs up the attribute of justice and gives rise to the danger of plague among the people. Giving half a shekel atones for them and prevents plague during the count.
However, the command regarding the Mishkan does not include any requirement to count the people and to collect half a shekel for this purpose! If so, why did the people bring half a shekel in Parashat Pekudei? It does not seem at all that a count was taken of the people of Israel at this time, which would have required the collection of half a shekel. Such a count appears only at the beginning of the book of Bemidbar. The Ramban, at the beginning of Parashat Ki-Tisa (30:12), raises this difficulty. According to him, at the time of the construction of the Mishkan, the people offered the half shekel on their own, unrelated to any count. But why did they do this?
With the understanding that the building of the Mishkan was Israel’s attempt to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf, the reason becomes clear. The half a shekel is, at its essence, a way to atone for Israel and protect them from plague. The fear of plague can arise when counting the people, but it can also arise because of other factors – such as a grievous sin. Indeed, there are many parallels between the description of the half shekel and Moshe’s attempt to address the consequences after the sin of the Golden Calf:
Half a shekel (30:12-15)
After the sin of the Golden Calf (32:30-35)
When you take [tisa] the sum of the children of Israel, according to their number, then shall they give every man a ransom [kofer] for his soul… that there be no plague [negef] among them, when you number [bi-fekod] them… to make atonement [le-khaper] for your souls.
And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moshe said to the people… and now I will go up to the Lord, perhaps I shall make atonement [akhapera} for your sin. And Moshe returned to the Lord… Yet now, if You will forgive [tisa] their sin… And the Lord said to Moshe… nevertheless in the day when I visit [pokdi], I will visit [u-fakadeti] their sin upon them. And the Lord smote [vayigof] the people, because they made the calf…
Such a large number of parallels indicates the relationship between the texts. Similar to the count in which Israel is numbered (p/k/d/), after the sin they are found in a state in which God visits (p/k/d) their sin upon them. Plague begins to strike and they need forgiveness for their sin as well as atonement, just as when they are being counted, by means of half a shekel.
Moshe tried to atone for their sin through his prayer, but did not succeed completely. God still struck them and threatened to visit their sin upon them at some point in the future. It is possible that at this point, the people intervened and offered on their own to give the half a shekel, to help atone. From this silver were cast the sockets of the Mishkan and the hooks for the pillars (38:27-28). These are the basic elements that support the entire Mishkan. There is great symbolism in this - the entire Mishkan is built on Israel’s act of repair and atonement.
The Mishkan of the People
Had the process of atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf ended in Parashat Ki-Tisa, it would have seemed that only Moshe was involved in the atonement process. He alone ascended to God and begged Him to show mercy to the people. Moshe did succeed on a certain level – God answered him and promised His providence, by way of Moshe. However, the people were not satisfied with this and wanted to bring the Shekhina back to rest among them. As stated, they offered the half a shekel, their gold jewelry, and additional offerings beyond what was needed. In addition to all that, the people of Israel occupy a very central place in the construction of the Mishkan. The end of Parashat Pekudei reveals that Moshe was not present at every moment of the construction, but only came to see it at the end:
And they brought the Mishkan to Moshe, the tent, and all its furniture… According to all that the Lord commanded Moshe, so the children of Israel did all the work. And Moshe saw all the work, and, behold, they had done it; as the Lord had commanded, even so had they done it. And Moshe blessed them. (39:33-43)
It turns out that Moshe "freed" the people to build the Mishkan on their own, and arrived only at the end to check that it was properly built. This stands in contrast to the implication in Parashat Teruma, that Moshe himself was supposed to build the Mishkan.[5] It seems that this gap between the commandment and the execution is also connected to the sin of the Golden Calf. The original, ideal Mishkan was to be built by Moshe. However, the Mishkan that was actually built is the Mishkan of repair and repentance, a Mishkan that was created by the people with the hope that it would atone for the sin of the Golden Calf.
This is not a technical atonement, but an essential process. The sin of the calf came into being because of the people's fear that Moshe had left them (32:1). Now, the people demonstrate that this was a momentary fall. When their confidence returns, they work with all their might to build the Mishkan and restore the Shekhina.
The closing verses of the book of Shemot indicate that the effort was worthwhile:
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan… For the cloud of the Lord was upon the Mishkan by day, and there was fire therein by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys. (40:34-38)
The emphasis here is on the return of the Shekhina "in the sight of all the house of Israel." God returns to rest among the people, thanks to their hard efforts to build the Mishkan. Surprisingly, it is precisely Moshe, who ended Parashat Ki-Tisa in a supernatural state, who is unable to enter the Mishkan because the Shekhina rests upon it (40:35). The Shekhina returns to focus upon the people of Israel, and not just upon Moshe.
The original question – why the Torah provides such a lengthy account of the execution of the command to build the Mishkan – can now be answered. Had the construction of the Mishkan been briefly summarized, we would have missed the significant process that was required for the construction of the Mishkan. It would have seemed as if the people were passive and only carried out the command given to Moshe regarding the Mishkan. But the construction process required activism and even heroism. There was no knowing whether the process would achieve the desired result, but nevertheless, the people invested all their energy in it. Each step in the process of execution required mental strength from Israel, who donated and built the Mishkan with the hope of success but without certainty. Therefore, the entire construction process had to be described as a process growing out of the people, who were trying with all their might to repair the sin of the Golden Calf.
Parashot Vayakhel-Pekudei teach us about human efforts to pick up the pieces and repair them. We may not know whether our efforts will succeed, but still, we must try. When we try despite the uncertainty, we can also succeed.
(Translated by David Strauss)

* Rav Gold is a psychologist and teacher of Jewish philosophy.
[1] In Parashat Mishpatim, before the sin of the golden calf, God promised that he would send an angel to go before the people (23:20). However, in the continuation, the promised angel does not appear. In light of the above, it seems that Moshe fulfills the role of that angel of God who is supposed to lead Israel.
[2] Of course, this is not a wild bet, for nowhere does God explicitly say that the plans for the Mishkan should be shelved. God seems to have deliberately chosen to leave the question open for the people. This is a test for the people of Israel: Will they despair of the resting of the Shekhina among them in the wake of their sin, or will they still try to restore the Shekhina, by building the Mishkan?
[3] See our study of Parashat Ki-Tisa.
[4] For example, when Moshe conveys to the people the many commandments in Parashat Mishpatim: "And Moshe came and told the people all the words of the Lord, and all the ordinances" (24:3).
[5]  Throughout Parashat Teruma, the description of each of the vessels (except for the ark) is prefaced by: "And you shall make," that is to say, a direct command to Moshe to build the Mishkan. Over the course of Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei, each account of construction of the vessels begins with: "And he made," and it would seem that the reference is to the wise-hearted of the people of Israel, who appear at the beginning of the description of the building of the Mishkan (36:8). The end of the parasha shows that in fact Moshe was not directly involved in the building of the vessels.