Torah Ecology: Vayakhel-Pekudei 2017 (Ex 35:1-40:38)

Sometimes it’s more about what’s not said than what is. That is the case in the coming week’s Torah portion, a double, Vayahkel-Pekudei.


If the first half of Tetzaveh represented the apex of Aaron’s power and authority as high priest, and the second half represented his foolishness and weakness as a leader, Vayahkel-Pekudei represents the nadir of his power.  Aaron’s dramatic fall from grace shows up in what’s not said.

In Tetzaveh, in Ex 28:35-29:44, the sacral vestments are made for Aaron. Aaron carries the names of the twelve sons of Jacob on his person, and Aaron enters the sanctuary. The frontlet of gold that says “Holy to the Lord” is for Aaron’s forehead. Aaron and his sons go to the entrance of the Ohel Moed and are washed and anointed there. Aaron and his sons conduct the sacrifices and prepare and eat their share at the entrance to the Ohel. Only Aaron and his sons are consecrated to service.

In Vayahkel-Pekudei, we have what seems at first glance to be an instant replay of those passages from Tetzaveh, except this week’s portion focuses on the time after the Golden Calf episode and after Moses removed the Ohel Moed from the Tabernacle precinct to meet with G-d alone, only Joshua sharing his encampment. Aaron is mentioned only seven times during this double portion, in Ex 35:19, 38:23, 39:1, 33:42, 40:12, 40:13 and 40:31.  One of those seven mentions is of Aaron’s sons, not Aaron himself.

More startling is that Aaron is not included with the community in bringing offerings for the tabernacle or in preparing any part of this home for G-d. Contrast this with the fact that the participation of the women, otherwise not cultic leaders, is mentioned in relation to the offerings, in making parts of the tabernacle and in service “at the door of the tent.”

Finally, when the tabernacle is raised, in the 1st month, the second year, the first day of the month, Moses is the one who raises it, who lays the sockets, sets up boards, puts in bars, rears up pillars, and spreads a tent over the Tabernacle. It is Moses who puts a table in the Tent of Meeting and sets a row of bread, places the candlestick and lights the lamps before the Lord “as commanded by the Lord.” Wait, wasn’t Aaron supposed to do that, also by command of the Lord? And didn’t he in fact do it in an earlier process?

There’s more yet. Moses puts the golden altar of incense in the Tent of Meeting and burns incense, also “as the Lord commanded Moses.” He puts up the screen door of the tent to the Tabernacle, the altar of burnt offering at the door of the Tabernacle — and offers the burnt offering and meal offering, “as the Lord commanded Moses.” He set the laver between the Tent of Meeting and the altar for water to wash — so Moses and Aaron and his sons could wash their hands and feet, “when they went into the tent of meeting, and when they came near unto the altar, they should wash; as the LORD commanded Moses” (בְּבֹאָם אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, וּבְקָרְבָתָם אֶל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ–יִרְחָצוּ:  כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה, אֶת-מֹשֶׁה),

Aaron’s demotion from leadership and meeting with G-d, even through the sacrificial worship which is his area of responsibility, is signified by the silence of the text in regard to him. He simply disappears while Moses takes over all functions, judge, prophet, priest and master builder.

Certainly Moses could never have raised the giant structure by himself — but the text means to tell us that Moses, and Moses alone, is responsible for raising and overseeing the desert Tabernacle, G-d’s home among the Israelites, “as the Lord commanded Moses” (כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה, אֶת-מֹשֶׁה). Leadership of the community cannot again be entrusted to Aaron, even in Aaron’s own realm of responsibility.


As Aaron recedes from view while Moses grows bigger than life, making everything happen just as G-d requires, we see a more inclusive community emerging.  Moses assembles and speaks to “all the congregation of the Children of Israel” (וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה, אֶת-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם).

And all the congregation of the Children of Israel is involved in the great work of building the desert tabernacle, from the offerings of the raw materials that make it up to the hand work required. As we have seen, Aaron and his sons are mentioned in this process only in the most peripheral, passive way, in relation to their garments, serving as an envelope around the story of the Israelites work:

Ex 35:19 – “the plaited garments, for ministering in the holy place, the holy garments for Aaron the priest, and the garments of his sons, to minister in the priest’s office” (אֶת-בִּגְדֵי הַשְּׂרָד, לְשָׁרֵת בַּקֹּדֶשׁ:  אֶת-בִּגְדֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, וְאֶת-בִּגְדֵי בָנָיו לְכַהֵן).

Ex 39:1- 31 – “And of the blue, and purple, and scarlet, they made plaited garments, for ministering in the holy place, and made the holy garments for Aaron, as the LORD commanded Moses” (וּמִן-הַתְּכֵלֶת וְהָאַרְגָּמָן וְתוֹלַעַת הַשָּׁנִי, עָשׂוּ בִגְדֵי-שְׂרָד לְשָׁרֵת בַּקֹּדֶשׁ; וַיַּעֲשׂוּ אֶת-בִּגְדֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ, אֲשֶׁר לְאַהֲרֹן, כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה, אֶת-מֹשֶׁה)…”And they made the plate of the holy crown of pure gold, and wrote upon it a writing, like the engravings of a signet: HOLY TO THE LORD. And they tied unto it a thread of blue, to fasten it upon the mitre above; as the LORD commanded Moses. Thus was finished all the work…” (וַיַּעֲשׂוּ אֶת-צִיץ נֵזֶר-הַקֹּדֶשׁ, זָהָב טָהוֹר; וַיִּכְתְּבוּ עָלָיו, מִכְתַּב פִּתּוּחֵי חוֹתָם–קֹדֶשׁ, לַיהוָה. וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלָיו פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת, לָתֵת עַל-הַמִּצְנֶפֶת מִלְמָעְלָה, כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה, אֶת-מֹשֶׁה. וַתֵּכֶל–כָּל-עֲבֹדַת, מִשְׁכַּן אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד).

Within that envelope, we see the Israelites industriously engaged both in contributing and in working, all the Israelites, those who are “wise-hearted” (חֲכַם-לֵב), who have a “willing heart” (נְדִיב לֵב), who “devise skillful works” (לַחְשֹׁב, מַחֲשָׁבֹת), whose “heart stirred them with wisdom” ( נְשָׂאוֹ לִבּוֹ בְּחָכְמָה), who are filled with the spirit of G-d in “wisdom, knowledge and understanding” (בְּחָכְמָה בִּתְבוּנָה וּבְדַעַת).  In a text that can often be so sparse as to be cryptic, these phrases occur at least 22 times, serving as a refrain.

The Israelites come and they come, bringing their gifts and their skills, pouring out their great love for G-d.  They bring so much that Bezalel and Oholiab, the chief artisans, must finally speak to Moses, telling him the people have brought much more than enough: “The people bring much more than enough for the service of the work, which the LORD commanded to make” (וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר, מַרְבִּים הָעָם לְהָבִיא, מִדֵּי הָעֲבֹדָה לַמְּלָאכָה, אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה יְהוָה לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָהּ).

In case we miss the point that every Israelite is involved, that every Israelite’s heart is stirred to this great task, that every Israelite is filled with wisdom and has skills to offer, and that every Israelite is asked to stop bringing, the text details it for us:

Ex 35:22 – “And they came, both men and women” (וַיָּבֹאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים, עַל-הַנָּשִׁים)

Ex 35:25-26 – “And all the women that were wise-hearted did spin with their hands, and brought that which they had spun, the blue, and the purple, the scarlet, and the fine linen. And all the women whose heart stirred them up in wisdom spun the goats’ hair” (וְכָל-אִשָּׁה חַכְמַת-לֵב, בְּיָדֶיהָ טָווּ; וַיָּבִיאוּ מַטְוֶה, אֶת-הַתְּכֵלֶת וְאֶת-הָאַרְגָּמָן, אֶת-תּוֹלַעַת הַשָּׁנִי, וְאֶת-הַשֵּׁשׁ. וְכָל-הַנָּשִׁים–אֲשֶׁר נָשָׂא לִבָּן אֹתָנָה, בְּחָכְמָה:  טָווּ, אֶת-הָעִזִּים).

Ex 35:27 – “And the rulers brought the onyx stones, and the stones to be set, for the ephod, and for the breastplate; and the spice, and the oil, for the light, and for the anointing oil, and for the sweet incense” (וְהַנְּשִׂאִם הֵבִיאוּ–אֵת אַבְנֵי הַשֹּׁהַם, וְאֵת אַבְנֵי הַמִּלֻּאִים:  לָאֵפוֹד, וְלַחֹשֶׁן. וְאֶת-הַבֹּשֶׂם, וְאֶת-הַשָּׁמֶן:  לְמָאוֹר–וּלְשֶׁמֶן הַמִּשְׁחָה, וְלִקְטֹרֶת הַסַּמִּים).

Ex 35:29 – “The children of Israel brought a freewill-offering unto the LORD; every man and woman, whose heart made them willing to bring for all the work, which the LORD had commanded by the hand of Moses to be made” (כָּל-אִישׁ וְאִשָּׁה, אֲשֶׁר נָדַב לִבָּם אֹתָם, לְהָבִיא לְכָל-הַמְּלָאכָה, אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה לַעֲשׂוֹת בְּיַד-מֹשֶׁה–הֵבִיאוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל נְדָבָה, לַיהוָה),

Ex 35:30-34 – “the LORD hath called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah…both he, and Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan” (קָרָא יְהוָה בְּשֵׁם, בְּצַלְאֵל בֶּן-אוּרִי בֶן-חוּר, לְמַטֵּה יְהוּדָה…הוּא, וְאָהֳלִיאָב בֶּן-אֲחִיסָמָךְ לְמַטֵּה-דָן). – the artisans

Ex 36:6 – “‘Let neither man nor woman make any more work for the offering of the sanctuary.’ So the people were restrained from bringing” (אִישׁ וְאִשָּׁה אַל-יַעֲשׂוּ-עוֹד מְלָאכָה, לִתְרוּמַת הַקֹּדֶשׁ; וַיִּכָּלֵא הָעָם, מֵהָבִיא).

When the people complete their joy-filled work, inspired by love and devotion, and before Moses begins his work of erecting the tabernacle, Moses blesses them: “And Moses saw all the work, and, behold, they had done it; as the LORD had commanded, even so had they done it. And Moses blessed them” (וַיַּרְא מֹשֶׁה אֶת-כָּל-הַמְּלָאכָה, וְהִנֵּה עָשׂוּ אֹתָהּ–כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה, כֵּן עָשׂוּ; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, מֹשֶׁה).

The sacrificial cult, so prominent in the first story of the building of the Tabernacle, recedes along with Aaron and his sons, the priests — and the people, in such a poignant and heartfelt way, under the leadership of Moses, express their profound and overflowing love through the gifts they bring, both goods and skills.

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