Tag Archives: Vayakhel

Commentary for Vayakhel-Pekudei

29 Mar

This week’s (double) parshah begins with God instructing Moses to remind the Israelites that no work is to be done on Shabbat, with the addition of the specific law that “You shall not kindle fire in any of your settlements on the Sabbath Day (Ex. 35:3).” This reminder and expansion of the rules of Shabbat comes just as the Israelites are about to begin building the tabernacle. Rashi comments that the timing of this is no coincidence, theorizing that the Israelites, swept up as they were in their enthusiasm to help build the tabernacle, might have assumed that the mitzvah of building a place to help them connect to God would override the prohibitions of Shabbat when in reality this was not the case, so God decided that this reminder was necessary.

Every time the observance of Shabbat is mentioned in the Torah, a new dimension is added to it. In this case, that new dimension is the prohibition against lighting a fire. The relationship between fire and humanity is a double-edged one. From the time humans appeared on this planet all the way up until today it has been both one of our greatest allies and one of our deadliest adversaries. It provides heat to protect us from the cold, kills off germs and parasites in our food and helps us shape metal into tools so that we can affect the world around us in ways that our human bodies are not naturally capable of doing. We have used fire for everything from staving off predators to launching astronauts into space. And yet fire is also extremely dangerous to us. The moment fire gets out of control it becomes a deadly threat to everyone and everything around it. It burns and consumes and kills and destroys.

Interestingly, fire is often used as a metaphor for passion. An inspirational speaker will be described as having “fire in his/her eyes.” Fire is drive and determination and dedication. The resolve to keep striving no matter how bleak things look is “a fire that won’t go out.”

Though usually portrayed as a positive, it is important to remember that this “fire” can also become dangerous if you lose control of it. God’s warning to the Israelites to remember to observe Shabbat right before they begin construction of the tabernacle is meant to teach them not to let their zeal for one good cause them to trample on another. Although there is no tabernacle currently under construction, this is a lesson that we can still benefit from today. It is good to have fire, but if we allow ourselves to lose control of it- if we focus so much on our fire that we begin to justify spreading it indiscriminately- then no matter how noble our intentions are, the end result will be that everything around us will burn.


Commentary for Vayakhel-Pekudei

16 Mar

This week’s parshah starts off rather strangely: “Moses assembled the entire assembly of the Children of Israel and said to them: ‘These are the things that The Lord has commanded to do them: On six days creative work may be done, but the seventh day shall be for you a holy Sabbath of complete rest for The Lord; whoever does creative work on it shall be put to death. You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day’ (Ex. 35:1-3).” Why start off telling us that these are things that God has commanded us to do, and then only go on to list things that God is specifically commanding us not to do?


The Torah contains two types of mitzvot: positive mitzvot (thou shall) and negative mitzvot (thou shall not). The general principle used by the Rabbis (as derived in Yevamot 3b-6b) is that a positive mitzvah overrides a negative one. For example, a Priest is forbidden from becoming ritually impure by coming into contact with a corpse, but if the priest is the only person around, the mitzvah of burying a corpse overrides the prohibition against the priest coming into contact with it, and the priest is required to bury it. While this is the general principle, it is often not the case because of a very important qualifying principle: A positive commandment cannot override a negative commandment with an extremely harsh penalty, such as death, exile, or careit (being spiritually cut off from the Jewish People). This is why you can’t tie the tzitzit of your talit on Shabbat; because the mitzvah of wearing tzitzit does not override the negative commandment of not doing creative work on Shabbat, which, carries a penalty of death; or in a more absurd but more philosophically important case, why you can’t murder someone so that you can use his or her lulav on Sukkot.


While some exceptions to this qualifying rule are made (most notably that one can break Shabbat in the act of saving a life), they are very few and very far between. The reason for this is that Judaism correctly sees the argument that the ends justify the means as a very slippery moral slope. Moses begins our parshah by describing these negative mitzvot as if they were positive mitzvot to teach us that what we won’t do says just as much about us as what we will do.

Commentary for Vayakhel

21 Feb

This week’s parshah continues from the last few parshahs with the building of the Tabernacle, but while the past few weeks have just been Moses relaying God’s blueprints to the people, this week, they finally start the actual construction.  Before construction can begin, though, they need to acquire the materials.  To this end, Moses instructs the Israelites to “bring from among you gifts for the Lord; everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them (Ex. 35:5).”  The Israelites respond to this call for donations in a way rarely seen in history.  They offer up anything that will be of use: precious stones, precious metals, wood, linen, cloth, dyes, and even goat’s hair.  Anything that will help build the Tabernacle, they are happy to donate.   “Morning after morning (Ex. 36:3)” at the crack of dawn they all showed up with more donations, even after more than enough material to complete the Tabernacle and all of its sacred instruments had been donated, until Moses had to flat out forbid them from donating any more.

The phrase “morning after morning” is used three other times in the Torah, all to describe actions that were repeated every morning.  First in Ex. 16:21 referring to the Israelites collecting the manna, then in Ex. 30:7 to describe Aaron’s duty to light the incense on the golden altar in the Tabernacle every morning, and finally in Lev. 6:5 to describe the duty of the priests to feed wood to the fire on the altar to ensure that it is kept burning perpetually.

All four of these cases represent facets of our relationship with God, both as individuals and as a community.  The incense was a mixture of many different ingredients, all with their own distinct smells, mixed together into one to create its own unique smell and used to serve God.  If any one of the ingredients were missing, it would not be acceptable for use because each individual plays an important role.  The manna did not just sustain the Israelite community; it sustained each individual Israelite because each individual is important.  When Moses called for donations for the construction of the Tabernacle it was not just the community as a whole making donations, but each individual Israelite donated.  Each individual has a unique relationship with God and each individual has something they can give.  So it was back then, so it is today, and so it will be in generations to come because like the flame the priests tended to each morning, our relationship with God is eternal.