When I first read the following midrash, I thought it was a straightforward endorsement of Aaron David Gordon and Labor Zionism:
When the Torah describes the construction of the Mishkan, it tells us “Hukam haMishkan, ” the Mishkan was raised. But then, in the very next pasuk, the Torah says, “VaYakem Moshe et haMishkan,” “And Moshe raised the Mishkan.” Why does the Torah mention the construction twice, and why does it mention Moshe only in the second assembly?
The Midrash explains that the mishkan was actually assembled twice, for Moshe’s sake. The midrash says, “Moshe was upset that he had not personally taken part in actually building the Mishkan, since the materials had been brought by the Jews and the work had been performed by Betzalel, Ahaliav and the craftsmen. Because Moshe was upset, Gd hid information from the people and they could not make the Mishkan stand…”
It sounds like Moshe, Gd’s Best Friend Forever, wanted to move the two-by-fours and apply the drywall because he believed in the redemptive power of physical labor. As Gordon said 150 years ago regarding establishing pioneer villages in Israel, “We must do with our own hands all the things that make up the sum total of life. We must ourselves do all the work, from the least strenuous, cleanest, and most sophisticated, to the dirtiest and most difficult.”
But late Thursday night Caren pointed out to me that this is not an honest read – after all, where else do we find Moshe going out of his way to look for physical work?
• While the Jews are slaves in Egypt, Moshe is in the palace.
• Moshe does become a shepherd after he runs away from Egypt, but everyone did that.
• Moshe returns to Egypt and he doesn’t pick up straw to make bricks; rather, he spends his time shuttling back and forth between Gd and Paroh.
• The Jews come out into the wilderness, and we never find Moshe looking for menial tasks.
• The Jews defend themselves against Amalek and Moshe davens while Yehoshua leads the army.
If Moshe were truly committed to labor as an ideal, wouldn’t we have found one additional example, somewhere?
So on Friday morning I had to drop the explanation of physical-exertion-makes-us-holy, but that left me without a derashah and with an open question: What is Moshe trying to do here, by insisting on taking over construction of the Mishkan?
I think the key is to see this event in its greater context. Last week we read about Moshe’s return to the Jews, after they built the Golden Calf. We saw Moshe as Punisher, ordering the execution of thousands of people who had worshipped the Calf as an idol. We saw Moshe turn to Gd as supplicant on behalf of the Jewish people. And, most crucially, we saw Moshe fail to re-integrate into the nation. Moshe must remain outside the camp, a leper of sorts, in order to communicate with Gd. As the midrash explains, he separated from Tziporah. He had to wear a veil when teaching, obscuring the radiance of his face. Moshe has become a pariah among the people he led out of Egypt and saved from Divine wrath!
Moshe understands this need to be apart, to be spiritually elevated and close to Gd, and he complies with the demands of this lifestyle – but he also insists on being part of the tzibbur, the community.
We have already seen Moshe’s insistence on joining the community:
• When Moshe could have escaped to Paroh’s palace, he instead went out to see his brethren, and he endangered his own life in saving the life of another Jew.
• When Gd wanted to destroy the Jews after the Eigel, Moshe said, “You’ll have to kill me first.”
• When Moshe offered his description of the ideal Jewish leader, he described someone who would go out to war as part of the nation and come back from battle with the nation, who would lead as part of am yisrael.
Moshe wishes to be part of the nation – and this is particularly relevant in performing mitzvos. As the Rambam writes, one must always perform his mitzvos along with the community, not on his own. So when the Jews are engaged in the great communal mitzvah of building the Mishkan, Moshe longs to be a part of the process.
Later Jewish leaders would do the same. Dovid haMelech, King David, stood apart from the people as monarch. For all his humble beginnings, he was a fearsome king, executing and exiling those who rebelled against his throne. And yet, when the Aron of HaShem was returned, he came out to celebrate and danced with complete abandon, earning him the scorn of his wife Michal – but Dovid, like Moshe, sought to fulfill the nation’s mitzvos along with the nation.
If we move ahead in Jewish history, we find the Prushim, the Pharisees. “Prushim” means “separatists,” and this is what they were – a group of Jews who adhered to laws of purity in their contact and in their food, and who were therefore forced to remain separate, to an extent, from the rest of the Jewish people.
The Talmud Yerushalmi records several leniencies the Prushim observed, such as around the times of Yamim Tovim as well as on Shabbat, in order to be able to function as part of the nation, along with everyone else.
Moshe’s message, Dovid haMelech’s message, and the message of the Prushim, should resonate for us today. Our practices as Torah-observant Jews necessarily set us apart from others. We only eat in kosher restaurants and kosher homes. We only enjoy certain kinds of entertainment. Friday night is a night to celebrate Shabbos, not to go bowling or take in a movie. We dance differently, we sing differently, we learn differently.
At the same time, we must work as Moshe, Dovid haMelech and the Prushim did, and find ways to be משתתף, to partner with, the world around us. Not as people who are “better than,” not as holy people coming to mix with the rabble, but rather as people just like everyone else, whose religious beliefs and practices force us to be separate, but who also belong to the כלל.
Two such opportunities are coming up in the next several months:
On Sunday April 6, we will participate in a Community Service Day along with the greater Jewish and Lehigh Valley communities. Our shul will be involved specifically in a project with the Holocaust Resource Center as well as a pre-Pesach Chametz-collection drive, but there will be many other opportunities to partner with others, too. Even those going with the Youth trip to the Iron Pigs game will still have time in the morning to participate.
And then, in November, the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley will lead a mission to Israel in honor of Israel’s 60th birthday. This, too, is a chance to partner with the broader community. I’ll have to work in times to daven, etc, but I still feel it’s worthwhile, which is why I signed up this past week. I hope others will do so, too.
In last week’s parshah, after the חטא העגל, HaShem performed the ultimate act of separating Moshe from the rest of the nation: HaShem said, “I’m going to destroy the rest of them, and start a new nation with you.” This is it, Moshe – you are going to be the new Avraham, and your descendants will start over and do this right. Just stand back while I eradicate the current version.
But Moshe dramatically rejected this Divine offer, standing his ground and insisting that his fate would lie with the nation.
Moshe performed his mitzvos along with Bnei Yisrael, in building the Mishkan. Dovid did the same, in welcoming the Aron. And we, on April 6 and in the Federation mission to Israel, will do the same.
Note: There are many ways to take the midrash on Moshe's interest in building the mishkan. I highly recommend reading the whole text, in the Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei 11.