Friday, March 8, 2013

The Noble National Endeavor (Derashah, Vayyakhel-Pekudei 5773)

Here is the derashah I plan to deliver this Shabbos; if you have any he'arot, please send them before Shabbos!

Few people in Tanach are more isolated than Moshe:
  • In his youth, Moshe dwells in Pharaoh's palace.
  • As an adolescent, Moshe is forced to flee to Midian – where he marries Tzipporah, a woman from a pariah family.
  • Moshe returns from Midian to a nation that possesses neither the strength nor the patience for his religious mission; they wished he would return to Midian and leave them in their slavery.

Perhaps the presentation of the Torah gave Moshe his long-awaited chance to join the nation, to be a teacher and grow to know his people – but then Moshe descends from Har Sinai and discovers the Golden Calf, and he becomes an outsider yet again:
  • He is a wrathful judge, ordering the execution of thousands of people who had worshipped the Calf.
  • He is a spiritual outsider, a pious third party pleading with G-d on behalf of the sinful Jews.
  • He is a physical outsider, moving his tent beyond the tribal perimeter, a leper of sorts.
  • He is distanced from his students, wearing a veil to obscure his radiance when teaching them.
  • He is even distanced from family; as the midrash explains, he separates from his wife, Tzipporah.

Moshe is the Loneliest Man of Faith, and in this light, his actions in the following midrash make sense:

After listing the items created for the Mishkan, the Torah tells us “הוקם המשכן,” the Mishkan was raised. But then, in the very next sentence, the Torah says, “ויקם משה את המשכן,” “And Moshe raised the Mishkan.” Why does the Torah mention the act of construction twice, but include Moshe only in the second assembly? Our midrash[1] explains:

היה משה מיצר על שלא נשתתף הוא עמהן במלאכת המשכן... ולפי שהיה משה מיצר העלים הקב"ה מהם ולא היו יכולין להעמידו... עד שאמר לו הקב"ה למשה לפי שהיית מיצר שלא היה לך עשייה ולא חלק במלאכת המשכן לפיכך לא יכלו אותן חכמים להעמידו בשבילך
Moshe was upset that he had not personally taken part in actually building the Mishkan… Because Moshe was upset, Gd hid information from the people and they could not make the Mishkan stand… until Gd told Moshe, "Because you were upset about not having an active role in the work of the mishkan, therefore, those craftsmen could not assemble it in your place."

Like Yonah camped outside of Nineveh, like Eliyahu living in the wilderness, Moshe had been excluded from the people he had led out of Egypt and had saved from Divine wrath. Perhaps Moshe now wishes to re-join the nation, via the symbolic act of participating in the construction of the Mishkan.

However, this midrash requires deeper examination, for that cannot be the whole picture of Moshe's intent.

The midrashic image of Gd watching the Jews blunder about clumsily like the Three Stooges, putting up walls and having them collapse, is amusing (if theologically disturbing). But the idea that spiritual Moshe, who just spent many weeks atop Sinai without eating or drinking, now wanted to engage in physical construction, is intriguing. Is he a forerunner of A.D. Gordon and Labour Zionism, insisting upon working with his hands? If not, why is this, the act of building the mishkan, the moment that Moshe seizes to re-join the community?

Let's make the question stronger – Why does Gd permit Moshe to join the Jews who had worshipped the Calf?
  • Moshe is meant to be apart, veiled, separate even from his wife!
  • Recall that G-d did not speak to Avraham as long as he lived with Lot,[2] or to Moshe as long as he was in idolatrous Egypt[3] - why would Gd now want him to be with idolaters?
Why does Moshe belong at the site of the Mishkan, at all?

The answer may lie in the two Ohel Moed structures the Jews had in the wilderness.

The first אהל מועד was Moshe's tent, and it was for כל מבקש ד', for any individual who sought to meet Gd. After the sin of the Golden Calf, as we read last week, Moshe moved that tent outside of the camp.[4]

With the construction of the Mishkan, though, there was a second, communal אוהל מועד. As described in our parshah,[5] the new tent of meeting with Gd was part of the mishkan – in the middle of the camp.

The private ohel moed, for individuals, was moved outside the camp; individuals, even Moshe, were unworthy of connecting with Gd in the domain of those who had worshipped the Calf. This Divine denial of entry was the fate of Avraham with Lot, and of Moshe in Egyot. However, the community as a whole could greet Gd in the public ohel moed, the Mishkan, even within the camp. טומאה הותרה בציבור, a community approaches Gd with a power far beyond that of the lone Jew, overriding the impurity of their recent idolatry. The moment when a nation approaches Gd, rising from the ashes of its failings to soar toward its spiritual destiny, has a power which no past calamity could undermine.

This image of the Mishkan as a site in which the community of stumbling Man could meet with sacred G-d, in which holiness could be present despite the coarseness of sin, is seen in a nuance of the law of shaatnez. As Jews, we are prohibited from wearing shaatnez, garments which mix wool and linen. Traditionally, we have considered this law a rule above rational explanation, but Rabbi Eliezer of Worms, the 13th century author of the Rokeiach, suggested in a mystical vein that wool represents the purity of the heavenly domain, and linen represents the coarseness of the earthly domain.[6] Normally, we recognize a distance between those two realms – but wool and linen meet in the אבנט, the belt worn by the kohen when working in the Mishkan and Beis haMikdash.

Moshe understood that in the Mishkan a community could bond with Gd despite their flaws and errors. Beyond wanting to simply "fit in", Moshe longed to participate in this process. To Moshe, the Mishkan presented an opportunity to join with the nation in their pursuit of national atonement, an auspicious venue in which to bend the curve of heaven a bit closer to earth and elevate the human being to the limits of his plane; this warranted cooperation with a nation that had violated its covenant with G-d mere months earlier.

The mishkan unites Jews of every level, from the purity of the heavens to the coarseness of the earth. This is where Moshe wanted  to be – not off in his tent, secluded with Gd, but part of the noble, national Jewish experience, building a home for Gd on Earth. Moshe was pained by the thought that he might be excluded from this venture.

We wear Moshe's shoes; Jews who observe halachah are compelled to stand apart from the rest of the Jewish community in so many ways. We eat in kosher restaurants and kosher homes. Our Friday night is dedicated to celebrating Shabbos. We dance differently, we sing differently, we learn differently.

At the same time, we dare not become Yonah balefully glaring at Nineveh from the distance of his hut, or Eliyahu off in the wilderness complaining to Gd of the sins of the nation. Rather, we are summoned, it is our destiny, to be like the אבנט of the kohen, to work as Moshe did, to find ways to be משתתף, to partner with, the world around us, when they unite as a community in service of Gd. To make our shul part of a Federation, a JCC, a Jewish Family Service, a Limmud. Not because this will win us adherents, but because we see our shul, our mishkan, as a place to bring stumbling man closer to sacred Gd, together.

I happen to believe in A.D. Gordon's Labour Zionism; physical work does have a redemptive character – and especially in building up our homeland. But Moshe's message here is not about the physical act of putting up a building. And Moshe is not only trying to defeat the isolation he had experienced for much of his life. Rather, Moshe is articulating a message of sublime beauty: Stand apart as you must - but in the mishkan, stand together, contribute to that noble, national enterprise.

In last week’s parshah, after the חטא העגל, HaShem performed the ultimate act of separating Moshe from the rest of the nation: Gd declared, “I shall destroy the rest of them, and inaugurate a new nation with you.” This is it, Moshe – you are going to be the new Avraham, and your descendants will begin again.

Moshe dramatically rejected this Divine offer, standing his ground and insisting that his fate would lie with the nation.
Moshe saw his spiritual identity intertwined with that of his people, his spiritual home located in the Mishkan that played host to the entire population. May we, in our own mishkan, remain committed to do the same.

[1] Tanchuma Pekudei 11 (Warsaw)
[2] Rashi Bereishis 13:14
[3] Shemos Rabbah 18:1
[4] Shemot 33:7
[5] Such as Shemos 40:35
[6] Peirush haRokeiach al haTorah


  1. Your footnotes don't work (on my computer); they redirect to a login page instead of the note.

  2. D-
    Thanks; they should work now.