Vayakheyl - Building with Our Lives

by Rabbi Alexis Roberts

An old story is told about a medieval architect traveling to a city where a great cathedral is under construction, in order to study it’s design. He arrives as the day’s work is done. He meets a craftsman on his way home and asks about his work.

“What is it you are doing?”

“I am carving an ornate pair of doors, covered with figures representing Biblical stories.”

Next he meets a stone mason and asks about his work.

“What is it you are doing?”

“I am putting up walls that will last a thousand years.”

Finally he arrives at the cathedral and finds an old woman, sweeping up the work site.

“What is it you are doing?”

“I’m building a cathedral to the glory of Almighty God!”

This week’s double portion, VaYakhel and Pekudei, invites us to ask what it is we are building with our lives, and whose plans we are following. It forms the end of the book of Exodus. It details the making of the desert tabernacle, the traveling Temple, that stood in the center of the Israelites’ camp throughout their desert sojourn, and which later forms the basis for the construction of a permanent Temple. It’s dimensions and contents are detailed down to the last cubit, loop, and tent peg. Many skilled craftspeople are called upon to build it, and so much raw material is given by the people that they have to be told to stop giving. Finally, Moses takes all the prepared pieces and assembles and dedicates the tabernacle. The very Presence of God then settles down over and into it, visible as cloud by day and fire by night.

In the previous episode of the Golden Calf, Aaron uses his own plan to take the people’s gifts and fashion a figure that the people then worship as the “god…who brought you out of Egypt.” (Ex 32:4) What was wrong with that kind of worship? Wasn’t it creative? Wasn’t it what the people needed at the time? The voice of the Torah strongly condemns it, and clearly praises the making of the Tabernacle, done in slavish compliance to all of God’s detailed directions.

The problem with the Golden Calf is that it was not created according to God’s will. It was not made from a deep commitment to humbly serve God. It did not represent the people’s faith or reliance on the Power that had just saved them miraculously. Instead, it was a monument to faithlessness. It was created out of fear and panic. Worse, it resembled the worship of Egypt , which had just been shown to be empty of real power. A terrible purging of this sin is required before Moses feels the people are fit to receive the law.

The Golden Calf seems to have only required the exertions of Aaron. The Tabernacle requires a whole coordinated effort by many hands. The building of the Tabernacle is complex. Many special artists and skilled workers are required. Moses and Aaron are not the foremen on this, but rather Bezalel and Oholiab, because of their being, “endowed…with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge of every kind of craft.” (Ex 35:31) The task requires weavers, jewelers, stonecutters, woodcarvers, and more. One message in this is that there is a necessary place for everyone in God’s plans, no matter how impressive or humble their gifts.

Although the pattern is given by God, the skill to fashion what has been described requires the very best that human beings can achieve. There is a marvelous coming together in this; there is wonderful interdependence of God and the people. Each needs what the other provides in order to make a fit place for God’s presence to dwell; a place where human beings can come into the divine Presence. This is not a paint-by-the-numbers unchallenging uncreative work of drudgery. This is pure creativity at it’s best; an act of extraordinary artistry that makes a divine inspiration tangible to all. The greatest artists talk of feeling that their ideas are inspired rather than “made up”; that the statue was somehow in the slab all along, just needing to be “released”, as Michelangelo would say.

So is it freedom or slavery to build to God’s specifications? Is it freedom or slavery to live according to God’s specifications? Since God is the very source of all life, goodness, and wisdom, complying with God’s plans leads to salvation. Building according to one’s own whims or cravings will never produce anything better than a Golden Calf; a false god with no power to save. This is true on many levels. Like fulfilling other mitzvot, divine commandments, following these directions for creating the Tabernacle allows the people to transcend themselves and make something much greater than they could have done otherwise; and make something of themselves much greater than they would have been otherwise. I imagine they had a sense of soaring freedom, profound gratitude, and true awe upon its completion.