From Mishkan to Mitzvah: Vayakhel-Pekudei 5778

There are many shiny objects in the double reading which draws the book of Exodus to its dramatic conclusion. Ancient images of silver, gold and copper flash in the mind’s eye, gemstones sparkle in the breastplate of the high priest, and fine fabrics of blue, purple, crimson and linen adorn the coverings of the tabernacle and the vestments of its priests. More brilliant than all of these riotous colors is the divine glory, which in the final verses enters the tabernacle and is so overwhelming that even Moses can no longer withstand its radiance. Color and light symbolize human devotion and divine response—this parashah is made for the movies.

And yet, all of the visual cues are only indications of something deeper and more subtle. They point to an internal alignment between the people and their God. It is not just a matter of the people’s generosity that impresses this reader. It is something more fundamental, more daunting but also more accessible. The people obey the Lord’s command. Over and over, Parashat Pekudei includes the phrase , “as the Lord commanded Moses” (כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה יְקֹוָ֖ק אֶת־מֹשֶֽׁה). The sages counted 18 instances of this phrase in our portion alone. This phrase appears 60 times in the Torah, so common that it is easy to ignore. But the claim that God issues commands which the people fulfill is the essential architecture of Jewish spiritual life.

As beautiful as the structure of the Mishkan must have been, there is a more enduring and significant structure being created before our eyes: Mitzvah. Yes, the commandments had a more dramatic introduction at Sinai, but it is here in the desert that the Torah emphasizes something more glorious than even that theophany—the people did what God commanded of Moses. Midrash Mekhilta states that this phrase, “tells the praise of Israel—for whatever Moses and Aaron told them, they did.” The Torah uses the tabernacle narrative to emphasize the compliance of Israel with the divine command. We like to emphasize the voluntary nature of their generosity, and I don’t deny generosity its due. But even greater than generosity is respect—the people, at this time at least, respect the divine command and fulfill it fully and without delay.

It is not only obedience that is being chronicled and celebrated in this portion. The repetition of this phrase forms a structure of connection between the people and God. In Yerushalmi Brakhot and Midrash VaYikra Rabba the number 18 is associated first with the building of the tabernacle, then with the vertebrae of the spine, and finally with the blessings of the weekday prayer. In other words, there is a link between the structure of the tabernacle, the structure of the human body, and the structure of the liturgy—all three structures exist for the same purpose—to create a container that can be inhabited by the divine glory. Perhaps this is an explanation for Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh—God’s holiness fills the entire world, from our bodies to our sacred buildings and on to our prayers.

The Torah tells us at the end of Exodus 39 that when the tabernacle was completed, Moses blessed the people. The rabbis want to know the nature of this blessing. In Tosefta Menahot they give their answer—may God’s presence dwell upon the work of your hands. It is not only the artistry or the generosity of the people that invites the divine blessing; it is their acceptance of the divine command that makes the Commander welcome and the covenant come to life.

Rabbi Tamar Elad Appelbaum speaks very movingly of mitzvot as moments of constraint, of holding, even embrace, which indicate one’s readiness to receive the divine spirit. Tefillin, for example, bind the arm and direct the mind at the start of the day, as if to announce, “let my actions be directed to do Your will.” When a person commits to obey the divine command, to accept the yoke of commandments, they are not giving up agency. Rather, they are using their agency more fully. They are, she says, asking the question of “why do I exist?” and are answering that terrifying challenge with an assertion of meaning and purpose. The mitzvot allow us to expand our sense of self, to connect to community, to ancestors and descendants—and ultimately to God.

Each day we have the opportunity to fulfill many mitzvot—saying that mysterious blessing, asher kidshanu bimitzvotav, that our lives are sanctified by the commandments. As we complete each mitzvah let us be grateful for this gift, this opportunity to pause in our hurried routine, and invite the divine presence to dwell in our midst. Let the mitzvot be our Mishkan, and then the divine glory will remain bright within us, filling our lives with purpose, holiness and joy.


מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בא – מסכתא דפסחא פרשה יב

כאשר צוה ה’ את משה ואהרן כן עשו להודיעך שבחן של ישראל שכשם שאמרו להם משה ואהרן כן עשו.

תלמוד ירושלמי (וילנא) מסכת ברכות פרק ד

רבי שמואל בר נחמני בשם ר’ יוחנן כנגד י”ח ציוויין שכתוב בפרשת משכן שני

ויקרא רבה (וילנא) פרשת ויקרא פרשה א

א”ר שמואל בר נחמן בשם רבי נתן שמונה עשר צוויים כתוב בפרשת משכן כנגד י”ח חוליות שבשדרה וכנגדן קבעו חכמים י”ח ברכות שבתפלה כנגד י”ח הזכרות שבקריאת שמע וכנגד י”ח הזכרות (תהלים כט) שבהבו לה’ בני אלים,

מחזור ויטרי סימן קמ

אבל בחול מתפללין י”ח. כנגד י”ח ציווים שצוה הק’ במשכן למשה. כאשר צוה י”י את משה:

תוספתא מסכת מנחות (צוקרמאנדל) פרק ז

דבר אחר וירא משה את המלאכה והנה עשו אותה ויברך אותם משה מה היה ברכה שברכן אומר להם תשרה שכינה על מעשה ידיכם ר’ מאיר אומר כך ברכן י”י אלהי אבותיכם יוסף עליכם ככם אלף פעמים אמר להם כשם שנתעסקתם במלאכת משכן ושרת שכינה על מעשה ידיכם כך תזכו ותבנו לפניו בית הבחירה ותשרה שכינה על מעשה ידיכם והן אומרים ויהי נועם י”י אלהינו עלינו וגו’: