By Rabbi Dr. Sigalit Ur
The VaYakhel Torah reading describes the initiation of the process of building the tabernacle – the portable holy temple that will accompany the people of Israel during their journey in the desert and in preparation for their entry into the Land of Israel. The people of Israel had a lot of building experience. After all, they were thus employed in Egypt: “and they built store cities for Pharaoh” (Exodus, 1,11). But, just because of this, conscripting them for another building project would appear to be challenging and problematic. A formerly enslaved people whose overseers worked them harshly would not be attracted to such work, which for them arouses difficult memories of suffering, humiliation and abuse. People who were used to working only because of external “encouragements” from threats and blows are suddenly requested to contribute materials and work from the generosity of their hearts. How does Moses succeed to spur them into action?
Already at the outset Moses frames the project as a community initiative: the Torah reading opens with a rare expression “Moses called the whole community of the children of Israel to assemble…”, (Exodus, 35, 1, “Vayakhel”). Only after the community gathers does he begin to describe the next steps. The work is not organized hierarchically in a stringent fashion as it had been organized in Egypt, there Pharoah employed policemen and overseers that translated his architectural vision into building details and then realized it through the labour of slaves who only perceived the immediate tasks before them. In this case the tabernacle is described to the people, in direct speech by Moses (based on the divine commandments). The complete envisioned building is told to everyone in detail, so thus they may understand the overall goal.
However, before presenting the details of the work, Moses surprisingly opens his speech by reminding them about the prohibition of work on the Sabbath. Just before he mobilizes the people to work, he reinstates the commandment to abstain from productive work for one day each week. In contrast to the labour of the slave that has no end and from which there is no rest, the children of Israel are promised that during this project the National Day of Rest will continue to exist, a day in which the hammers will be laid down, and the labourers will cease their work.
Moses continues then by emphasizing the voluntary aspect of acquiring materials for the building project: a mobilization of materials not through taxation but rather through donations and generosity. The list of the needed materials that Moses spells out hints at the beauty and glory of the tabernacle that will be built; it arouses in the hearts of the people a desire to be partners in the enterprise and to take part in it. Every time they will encamp at one of the stops on their journey and the Levites will set up the tabernacle anew, they will be able to remember and feel again their pride in having contributed their part in creating the aesthetic and glorious building that will stand in the heart of the camp.
And, indeed, the people mobilize quite willingly; a flow of donations come into Moses’ hands. A communal effort, decent work conditions, an emphasis on voluntary effort and giving, a goal that is exciting and aesthetic – all these elements lead to the people enthusiastically participating in the building of the tabernacle. But another aspect of the project was no less essential: the management of the work Moses places in the hands of Betzalel Ben Uri, who is gifted with both artistic and management skills. These are, of course, important, nevertheless the midrash (Exodus Raba, 48) accounts for Betzalel’s appointment to ancestral merit (“Zechut Avot”): his grandfather Hur, and his grandfather’s mother Miriam (the sister of Aaron and Moses). They, each of them in his/her day, stood up courageously, with willingness to endanger their own lives, in order to act and follow the road of integrity and morality. According to the midrash, when Moses took his time to come down from the Mount Sinai, to which he went up to bring the tablets of the Covenant, the people demanded of Hur that he make them a golden calf. Hur refused adamantly, and in response was murdered by the enraged mob.
The midrash identifies Miriam as one of the Hebrew midwives that defied the Pharoah’s order to murder the Hebrew babies. The courage of Hur and of Miriam are two sides of the same coin: whereas Hur stood steadfast when faced with the demand of the leaderless rabble – immoral pressure from “below”, Miriam stood up to all-powerful Pharoah’s immoral order from “above”. Whereas Miriam rebels against injustice on the part of the foreign ruler, Hur stands up to most of his own people.
Betzalel was educated in a home that held on to a tradition of standing up - to the tyranny of a single ruler and to that of a majority of the people. He continues the chain of a woman and a man who stood by their principles, both regarding the relationship between the individual and God and between one person and another. (“Adam leHavero” and “Adam LeMakom). Perhaps, after all, it was due to this special quality, the most important of all, that Betzalel was appointed to orchestrate the creation of the tabernacle. This teaches us that in the process of nation building the public needs a leadership of integrity, that is incorruptible and of civil courage, a leadership that will struggle against injustice and stand by the side of those whom the regime abuses.
Rabbi Dr. Sigalit Ur co-leads the Israeli Rabbis Network, a pluralistic network of rabbis from all denominations. Sigalit is a David Hartman Center Fellow and was a fellow of the third cohort of Maskilot. She is a graduate of the Institute and Ha’Midrasha Be’Oranim’s Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis, where she received ordination in 2018. She received her PhD in Talmud from Tel Aviv University. She lives in Shorashim, in the Galilee where she is active.
Translated from the Hebrew by Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann