Building a Tabernacle for the Public Good Starts with a Donation...
Rabbi Daniel Burstyn
It used to be that when I would open the parashot at the end of the book of Exodus, I would think that all these lists of materials for constructing the tabernacle were superfluous. The Torah uses more words to describe the construction of the tabernacle than to describe the creation of the whole world. Why? Recently, my wife and I have begun a new adventure – we're building a house. We worked hard for many years, raised a family in fairly modest conditions, and now we can finally afford to expand our home. And I suddenly understand. Four and a half parashot – Terumah, Tetzaveh, part of Ki Tissa, Vayakhel and this weeks parsha, Pekudei, all these repetitions of the materials and the measurements and the quantities – it's very clear – only the sketches are missing.
When you work on a project like this, you understand better why the process starts with Terumah – with donations. Because without the money, it's impossible to begin construction, it's impossible even to dream. If you can't afford to build, the possibilities will be much more limited. There is social pressure to build a home from the ground up.
And here we introduce the Architect, Betzalel. The Torah says: "I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft; to make designs for work in gold, silver, and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood—to work in every kind of craft." (Ex. 31) So that he will know how to translate the vision that Moses saw on Mt Sinai from the imagination into practice. Moses had to appoint Betzalel at this point – Moses didn't know how to do the work. And a person who is unable to do the building work must appoint the appropriate contractors. One Midrash focuses on the point that Moses was unable to imagine the Menorah among all the other tools:
Another interpretation (of Numb. 8:2), “Speak unto Aaron [and say unto him], ‘When you set up the lamps.’” You find that Moses experienced more difficulty in making the menorah then for all the [other] vessels of the tabernacle; until the Holy One, blessed be He, showed him with [His] finger. Moshe experienced difficulty with three things.... What is the meaning of hammered work (mqshh)? It is meaning to say, how difficult (mh qshh) it is to make. For Moses spent a lot of effort before the menorah was made; as it says (in Exod. 25:31), “with difficulty (mqshh, revoweled as miqqashah) shall the menorah be made.” When it became difficult for him, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “Moses, take a talent of gold and cast it into the fire. Then take it out, and it will have been made automatically.” (Ibid. cont.:)
The kind of miracle that Moses experienced according to this midrash doesn't usually happen with building projects these days. So how do we move from the desire to build, from the dream of a house, to the actual process? In the words of the piyyut, think before you act (sof maaseh bemahshava tehila). The image of the completed project must be clear to the builder. And the planning process must be exhaustive. One of the primary parts of the engineer's work is translating designs into lists of materials. Because only when the lists are complete and exact, can the builders give comparable estimates. The Children of Israel didn't go shopping for the best contractor, but they certainly wanted to know that Betzalel and Oholiav were keeping track of every ounce of gold and silver and other materials they used in the construction. Indeed we learn that the people were so excited about the project, that they donated more than the builders needed. Moses announced that they must stop. If the builders hadn't known how much materials were needed, how would they have known how much was too much?
It’s not like this today. People don't rush to give away their money for the public good. But the Jewish tradition is a tradition of generosity and donations, of Revach (profit) and Tzedaka. Our tradition encourages anyone who has enough, anyone who profits, to donate from their money for the good of the community and for the service of the Holy One. People donate when they feel like their donation will be useful to the community, or to the service of the Holy One.