Parshat Vayakhel

Torah Reading for Week of February 24 – March 2, 2019

“Thank God Almighty — Mishkan at Last!”
by Dr. Tamar Frankiel, AJRCA Professor of Comparative Religion


The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.


After all the anticipation, the instructions, and the intervening ‘golden calf incident’ with its conflict and death, now at last, the physical components of the Mishkan are fashioned and prepared for use. Often we read parshat Vayakhel with the next one, Pekudei, which addresses the making of the priestly garments and the final acts of putting everything together. But since this year has an extra month of Adar, our reading is extended over two weeks.


Nevertheless, the end is in sight. The people practically fall over themselves bringing all the materials – Moses has to tell them, “Enough!” – and everyone sets to work.


Finally, it seems, we will have a Place, a site, like a spiritual compass to orient ourselves in the unbounded desert, the Midbar that lies before us. We the Ivrim, the Hebrews, the boundary-crossers, will have a portable religious center, ensuring that God, our Redeemer and Helper, is always with us. And it is a protective structure, walled and reinforced. The Mishkan is not ephemeral like that weird cloud, nor frightening like that pillar of fire. Yes, it’s true that one has to be careful with the thing, particularly when we travel with the holy vessels; but everyone will have their instructions, so it’s all manageable. And yes, we did get a bit carried away with that calf-statue, but after all, we had lost Moses, we were a bit deranged. Now we’ll be fine. . . .


With the retrospective of more than twenty centuries of exile, we know that the longings for a permanent Center were unrealistic. Even the later Temples built of stone were not impervious to conquest and destruction. Moreover, the thought that this tamed, golden image of holiness would enable us to manage a relationship with God was naïve. Neither the people who cherished it nor its priests were able to maintain sincerity of heart and purity of practice in the Mishkan or later Temples. Was the Mishkan then just a vain external symbol of security?


I think not. There is a strange but beautiful feeling in reading about the Mishkan: a cherished place, built with heartfelt intent, to be carried and inhabited by God on all our journeys. Even after its first purpose was served, it appears to have been faithfully guarded at a few different shrines in Israel. The Mishkan may have been at Gilgal in Joshua’s time, and later at Shiloh, Nob, and Gibeon. The ark had its own travails, captured even by the Philistines for a time. The ark was brought to Jerusalem by David, and, as for the Mishkan itself, it is said that Solomon brought some remnants of the Mishkan’s furnishings for the Temple that he built.


So the Mishkan eventually aged and was dismantled, but now it survives in the Torah as an imaginal place, an image of cosmic wholeness. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch understands its materials and construction as symbolic of the nature of humanity, an integration of mineral, vegetable, and animal under the umbrella of spiritual perception. The idea of a Center has been replaced by the Torah, which like the old Mishkan is portable. But ultimately, the center is the human heart, where, as Jeremiah said, “I will put My Torah inside them, and in their heart I will write it. I will be their God, and they will be My people” (Jeremiah 31:32).