Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei: The Message of the Calendar
Rabbi Eliran and Ayala Shabo are Straus-Amiel shlichim serving as the rabbinic chaplaincy couple at the University of Edinburgh and on campuses along the east coast of Scotland
The portions of Vayakhel and Pekudei are read this year on Shabbat Mevarchim which precedes Rosh Chodesh Nissan. Although it is hardly uncommon in most non-leap years that the reading of these two portions coincides with the Shabbat on which we bless the upcoming month of Nissan, the perfect alignment of the Jewish Calendar with the content of the Torah reading is considered a rarity: just before the month of Redemption is proclaimed during the Shabbat prayers, we read in Shemot chapter 40 – which concludes the four portions that make reference to the Mishkan as well as the entire Book of Shemot – the following verses (40:2,17)): “On the first day of the first month shalt thou rear up the Tabernacle of the tent of meeting… And it came to pass in the first month in the second year, on the first day of the month, that the Tabernacle was reared up.”
These two verses echo a verse we read a few weeks ago in the portion of Bo, which also talks of the importance of the month of Nissan, stating that it is “the first month of all the months of the year shall it be to you” (Shemot 12:2). This rare (albeit not exceptional) combination, comes to teach us an important lesson that is also reflected in the details of the building of the Mishkan and in the fact that all the People of Israel were involved therein.
But before attempting to uncover the message, I wish to raise a question concerning the words of Rabbeinu Nissim of Girona relating to the uniqueness of this month. In the third essay of his book [Drashot HaRan], Rabbeinu Nissim explains that the month of Nissan “is not worthy, in its own right, to be the first of all months… but it all came about because of reward and punishment.” In other words, Rabbeinu Nissim contends that the month of Nissan was not in essence supposed to be the first of all months, but became so a result of changes that were made to the natural order of things. If so, besides the erection of the Mishkan which took place in Nissan, what was the change that transpired that transformed Nissan into a unique month forevermore?
Let us begin by trying to understand why we needed a Mishkan in the first place, and what gave it its sanctity. There are two main approaches:
- The gold used for the building of the Mishkan came to atone for the Sin of the Golden Calf (Midrash Tanchuma on the portion of Terumah).
- The Mishkan was not a reaction to a sin, but was built with the purpose of spreading holiness among the People of Israel.
However, the second reason need not contradict the first, because even if the initial reason was that the People of Israel get atonement for the Sin of the Calf, the Mishkan still served as a dwelling place for the Divine Providence, from which sanctity can spread forth to the entire camp of Israel. Let us then focus on the second reason, with the hope of understanding how the Mishkan was able to infuse sanctity into the entire People of Israel.
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in an attempt to answer this very question, says the following about our parsha: “The physical reality of earthly human existence is a prerequisite for the Mishkan.” What this means to say is that in order to build a Mishkan which would be able to spread sanctity among the People of Israel, one first needs human beings that are grounded and connected to reality. “Attaining that higher level of sanctity,” says Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, “is the ultimate purpose and calling for which Man, as a very physical and mundane being, was created” (Rabbi Hirsch on Shemot 35:32). Only an earthling can create sanctity through his physical actions.
In a more modern commentary, which also supports this notion, Rabbi Prof. Yehuda Brandes points out the following in his book titled Torat Imecha: Essays on the weekly portion: The portion of Vayakhel and Pekudei present a duality of time, of man, of his actions and his vessels. On the one hand, the Torah tells us – “Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a Sabbath of solemn rest to God; whosoever doeth any work therein shall be put to death” (Shemot 32:2). On the other hand, it is this work precisely that makes the Mishkan and the Temple holy. Similarly, the service in the Temple requires one to distance oneself from all forms of impurity; however, every Jew is commanded to become impure at specific times (following intercourse, attending funerals etc.). Furthermore, vessels of gold can be used to create calves for idol worship; however, they may also be used to plate the holy altar and the vessels in the Holy of Holies. To take this a step further – the Land of Israel, where the ultimate Temple will one day be built, is also the Land of Canaan which was filled with Canaanite abominations against which we have been profusely warned. “The actions of man instigate sanctity,” says Rabbi Brandes, “but it is man’s actions that also have the power to profane this sanctity.” Man is capable of creating a time which is holy by saying the Kiddush on Shabbat, or creating a place which is holy by performing the work necessary for building the Mishkan.
It follows then that the Mishkan instills sanctity because the calling of the People of Israel, comprised of all its individuals, is to do the will of God by fulfilling each their part and, in so doing, elevating the mundane to a level of sanctity. In turn, the sanctified mundane restores the sanctity to the People of Israel. How does all this connect to the month of Nissan?
Midrash Lekach Tov (Peskita Zutra on Shemot, portion of Pekudei, Chapter 40) teaches us that the first of the month of Nissan “was crowned with ten different crowns”. Of these:
“The first for Kehuna,
The first for the sacred service of the Mishkan [Avoda].
The first for a fire descending from Heaven.
The first for the Divine Providence dwelling upon Israel.
The first for the blessing of the People….” (The Midrash is not quoted in full because of its length.)
It appears that according to the Midrash, Nissan was initially the first of all months, and only afterwards did it also become the first for the offering of sacrifices. But can the order be reversed? Is it possible that Nissan received its status of “first of all months” because the sacred work of the Mishkan began in this month?
Our Sages (in the tractate of Shekalim and Yoma) teach us that the Children of Israel were commanded to bring the half-Shekel to the Mishkan/Mikdash starting from the first of Adar, so that the money could be used for the offering of sacrifices on the first of Nissan. However, the Torah Temima on our parsha says that the above is a technical matter only, since the Israelites were commanded to inaugurate the Mishkan on the first of Nissan, and so the Shekels that had been collected earlier could only be used from this date onwards. Consequently, continues the Torah Temima, the first of Nissan became the head of the year henceforth, for matters relating to the Shekels donated by the People. The Children of Israel joined forces in order to dedicate the Mishkan on that particular day. In the first year, the People’s commitment and involvement was manifest in the contributions of the artisans and craftsmen to the skilled labor required; in the years to follow, and until the end of all times, the involvement of the People was (and will be) expressed in the Shekels given each year for the upkeep of the sacred place.
Getting back to the question we had earlier on the words of Rabbeinu Nissim, it appears that what caused the month of Nissan to undergo a change of nature, as it were, was the donation given by each and every Israelite. Every year on the first day of Nissan, the sacred work of the Mikdash is renewed, and the Shechinah once again finds a dwelling place among the People of Israel. This can only happen because of man’s physical actions. Put more precisely – this is made possible due to the deeds and actions of the individuals who make up the People of Israel, people who generate holiness rather than profane it.
Hence, every year, on the first of Nissan at the start of the Spring, and right before the festival of Pesach, the fact that the portions of Vayakhel and Pekudei are synchronized with the Jewish Calendar reminds us all that each and every one of us plays an important part in turning our nation into a holy one. This is all the more true for shlichim who leave their homes to strengthen communities abroad, and exemplify through their actions what it means to live a Jewish life founded upon sanctity and purity. Each and every one of us must choose what shape and form his/her “Shekel donation” will take, and in which way s/he can best contribute this year to enhancing the sanctity of the Jewish People.
There are approximately 350-400 Jewish students currently studying in the University of Edinburgh, most of whom emanate from Great Britain, while some others come from other countries around the world. Besides the Edinburgh campus, we also work in other universities along the eastern coast of Scotland, where there are an additional 150 Jewish students in total. We try to be “their home away from home”, and provide Shabbat and holiday meals, emotional support whenever needed and also act as liaisons between the students and the university authorities in matters concerning anti-Semitism or other Jewish affairs which require our attention. We are also members of the Jewish community of Edinburgh, which comprises 400 members, all of whom are joyed by our presence and by the fact that we are drawing many students to the synagogue.