Parshat Vayakhel: Transitioning from Individuals to a Whole
Rabbanit Devorah Evron is the Director of the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL)
In this week’s Parsha, Vayakhel, Moshe and the nation who had been sojourning in the desert begin to build the Mishkan, in accordance with the instructions set out in the previous weekly portions. The Mishkan, which was a tent of sorts, was made of panels, rings, hooks and beams. Upon reviewing the instructions for the construction of the Mishkan in Parshat Terumah, we discover that the expression isha el achota, literally meaning, “a woman to her sister,” recurs five times. The first four instances appear at the beginning of the chapter, and the last instance appears later in the text:
“Five panels shall be attached one to each other, and five panels attached, a woman to her sister, and five panels attached, a woman to her sister. You shall make loops of turquoise wool at the edge of one panel at the end of one grouping, and so shall you make at the edge of the outermost panel on the second grouping. Fifty loops shall you make on one panel and fifty loops shall you make on the end of the panel that is on the second groping; the loops shall be a woman to her sister. You shall make fifty golden hooks, and you shall attach the panels a woman to her sister, with the hooks, so that the Mishkan-spread shall become one…Two tenons for each beam, rung-like, a woman to her sister, so shall you do for all the beams of the Mishkan.” (Exodus 26: 3-6, 17)
Biblical commentators have grappled with the expression “a woman to her sister” and how it is used in the text. It appears once more in the Torah, in Leviticus, in connection with the prohibition against a man marrying his wife’s sister while his wife is still alive. This case, though, concerns a flesh-and-blood woman and her real-life sister, while in our case, regarding the Mishkan, the expression is metaphorical.
Moreover, in this week’s Torah portion, another expression is used in the description of the links between the components of the Mishkan:
“He attached five panels one to the other, and five curtains he attached one to the other. He made loops of turquoise wool on the edge of one panel at the end of one grouping, so did he at the edge of the outermost panel on the second grouping. He made fifty loops on the one panel and fifty loops he made at the end of the panel that was on the second grouping, the loops opposite each other. He made fifty golden hooks and attached the panels on to the other with the hooks – so the Mishkan-spread became one.” (Exodus 36:10-13)
What do each of these expressions mean; and why is each one used specifically in that particular context?
The text in the Torah commentary written by Ovadiah Seforno, a 16th-century Italian sage, reads as follows: “The five panels shall be connected: the decorative weaving patterns of these curtains should match each curtain to its counterpart.”
What R. Seforno meant was that there were cherubs or other angels drawn on these curtains, and parts of these drawings would align with corresponding parts in the other panels, forming one contiguous pattern.
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv), one of the greatest 19th-century Eastern European Torah scholars who wrote a Torah commentary called Haamek Davar, writes the following: “…A woman to her sister: the use of the language ‘her sister’ in reference to objects is only done where the objects must be facing each other, as in the case of the cherubs or the boards, specifying that they must face each other like two sisters. The Netziv continues: “A woman to her sister – one minimized itself to accept the other, like two sisters.”
In other words, the expression “a woman to her sister” is a metaphor for a pair of sisters that are positioned so that they face each other. The two are even prepared to minimize themselves on behalf of each other. Thus, the panels of the Mishkan were set up so that they faced each other, and together, they created one contiguous work of art. Even the loops had effectively “made room” for each other, so that they could fit together.
The use of the expression a woman to her sister amplifies the dimension of connectivity. The Mishkan is where connections occur. It represents the connection between God and the People of Israel, and connection between the different Israelite tribes, even as each tribe was performing its designated role. We could also say that once it enters the Promised Land, the Mishkan connects the entire area that was to be settled, because it was located at one spot that people would come to, as pilgrims, from all over the country.
If so, why not use the same expression of connection in the actual construction of the Mishkan? Instead of the metaphor, the text uses another expression – achat el achat – literally meaning “one against the other.” Why was the metaphor replaced?
Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah on the book of Numbers asks why the verses describing the construction of the Mishkan end with the words “and the Mishkan was one.” It suggests the following answer: “… since it would connect each and every one… it would connect them, making them as one.” It would seem that according to the Midrash, all of the loops were connected at the exact same time, such that the Mishkan was constructed all at once, as a complete structure.
This Midrash can also help us understand the use of the expression “a woman to her sister” when describing the planning of the Mishkan, and the use of the expression “one against the other” when describing the actual construction.
The path to building the Mishkan requires us to focus, and requires various artisans – each with various artistic approaches and methods of execution – to join forces. Listening to each other is a vital condition we must meet as we work towards building the Mishkan. This is the stage when we realize that there are many people working together to achieve a common goal. The activity requires direction and minimization, and providing space for both men and women. Just like sisters. Once the Mishkan is assembled – once the loops have been linked – the Mishkan becomes one unit. That is what we must focus on. The actual construction of the Mishkan emphasizes the fact that we are one nation, using one Mishkan, built as per the instructions of God, who is one.
This shift from the recognition that we are all individuals striving to create bonds of camaraderie between us, to the understanding that we are a whole and unified nation, is a transition that has been with us from the time we were wandering in the desert and until today.