Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1-38:20)

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Efrat, Israel“Take for yourselves an offering to the Lord. Let everyone whose heart moves him bring an offering to the Lord, gold and silver and copper… for the sanctuary and its tents and its coverings” (Exodus 35:5-11)

The last two portions of Exodus seem to repeat the two previous portions of Terumah and Tetzaveh, listing the precise dimensions, materials and furnishings of the desert sanctuary. Why is such a reiteration necessary?

Before responding, we must recall that the two portions which initially commanded the construction of the sanctuary are separated from Vayakhel and Pekudei, which repeat those instructions, by last week’s portion of Ki Tisa, which records the tragic incident of the Golden Calf. When we realize that according to most commentaries and midrashim, the idolatrous act with the calf occurred before the command to construct the sanctuary our problem becomes compounded. Why interrupt the story about the construction of the sanctuary with the account of the calf, and why repeat the instructions?

An analogy comes to mind: Picture an excited, engaged couple who spend the period before their wedding carefully choosing their marital home and shopping for its furnishings. Then the young groom-to-be leaves on a short business trip and is unexpectedly delayed. In his absence, his fiancée has an all-night tryst with a former boyfriend. If after the accusations, confession and breast-beating subsides, the couple resumes the search for an apartment and its accoutrements with the same enthusiasm they had before, we can feel assured that all has been forgiven and they are opening a new chapter in their relationship.

This is a metaphor for the biblical account of the Golden Calf and the construction of the sanctuary; the biblical groom is the Almighty and the bride is the People of Israel.

Our analogy may well explain the repetition as well as the placing of the calf story between the two accounts of sanctuary construction. But it leaves us with a profound religious problem. The Bible itself forbids a married (or betrothed) woman who commits adultery from returning to her betrothed/husband (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).

Why does God take Israel back after the Golden Calf? I believe it was because of Moses. In his defense of the Jewish people before God, he initially presents three arguments: First, You [God] redeemed them paternalistically with Your great power and strong hand before they were religiously capable of dealing with independence; second, Egypt will think You only took them out to kill them in the desert, and not because You wish every human being to be free; and third, You made an irrevocable covenant with the patriarchs that their seed will live in the Land of Israel (Ex. 32:11-14).

But it is only after Moses makes another, final plea; crying out, “And now if You would only forgive their sin! But if not, erase me now from this book that You have written” (Ex. 32:32) that God actually commands Israel to go up to the Land and conquer it – proving not only that He has forgiven them, but also that His covenant with them remains intact.

The great classical commentator Rashi interprets these words along the lines of Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel: “If You would forgive their sin, it would be good and I would not ask to be erased; but if You will not forgive them, then erase me from the entire Torah, that it not be said by future generations that I was not worthy to merit Divine compassion for them.” The Rashbam explains, “Erase me from the Book of Life” and the Ibn Ezra and Sforno have “Erase me from the Book of Eternal Life… and grant my merits to the Israelites so that they be forgiven.” The Ramban maintains, “…If You will forgive their sins out of Your compassion, it would be good; but if not, erase me instead of them from the Book of Life.”

For me, however, the interpretation truest to the plain meaning of the text comes from the Mateh Yosef, a disciple of the Hatam Sofer. Based on the Talmudic axiom (B.T. Shabbat 54b, 55a) that a leader must be held responsible for the transgressions of his “flock,” Moses tells the Almighty, “How is it possible that the nation could have transgressed in so egregious a manner? Clearly, I am not worthy to be their leader. Hence, whether or not You forgive their sin, You must erase me from Your book. You must remove me from leadership, because I have been proven to be ill-prepared…”

God responds that He only punishes the actual transgressors, not their “minister,” and God determines that Moses is still the best qualified to lead the nation. However, God also understands that Moses has expressed a profound truth. Perhaps Moses’ flaw was that he was too much a man of God and too little a man of the people, unable to rouse and reach the Israelites in a way that would have prevented their transgression.

Nevertheless, God forgives us, as we see from the repetition in Vayakhel and Pekudei even after our idolatry. After all, it was God Himself, apparently realizing that the highest priority for covenantal Israel was a leader who would convey His eternal Torah, who cajoled Moses into accepting the leadership of Israel in the first place.


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