Finishing the Mishkan

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February 04 2009

Thus was completed all the work of the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting. The Israelites did so; just as the L-RD had commanded Moses, so they did (Exodus 39:32).

R. Moses Alshikh (1508 Adrianopolis- 1600 Damascus, but spent most of his life in Tzefat, Israel) raised the following question: Shouldn’t the order of the verse have been reversed? One would expect that the words “The Israelites did so” would be written first, and only subsequently “Thus was completed all the work.” In other words, why first the passive voice and only subsequently the active voice?

His answer is as follows:

The following lesson is indicated: Even when the Holy One, Blessed be He assists those who execute His commands, he attributes their execution only to the person engaged in it. In the case of the construction of the Tabernacle the Israelites were not even expert in the work, which was executed miraculously on its own accord through Divine Providence. Despite this, the text attributes the execution of the work wholly to the Israelites.

But as Nechama Leibowitz (Studies in Shemot, pp. 696ff. who cites this Alshikh ) notes, this principle can apply to every human performance mentioned in the Torah. Man can accomplish nothing by himself. Everything that a human being accomplishes comes from the grace of God. The verses in Deuteronomy (8:11, 17-18) are well known: 

Take care lest you forget the L-RD your God and fail to keep His commandments, His norms and His laws, which I enjoin upon you today…And you say to yourselves, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” Remember that it is the L-RD your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers, as well as is still the case.

The reference is this passage is not to the construction of a Mishkan, but to the everyday tasks of the field and the vineyard. Can we find a specifically Mishkan-connected reason for the order of the verses at the end of Parashat Pekudei?

Nechama Leibowitz suggested the following: We possess a human obligation of Imitatio Dei. Just as God created the world and crowned him king over it, man was called upon to take all the earth’s bounty and prepare a dwelling place on earth for God: the Mishkan. This particular parallel might be another reason for the sequence of verbs. The verses of the Torah as the end of the penultimate chapter of Parashat Pekudei correspond to the verses at the beginning of the 2nd chapter of Parashat Bereshit, the “Va-Yekhulu” section (Genesis 2:1-3). In both contexts, there is first an allusion to the completion of the work in the passive voice. Subsequently, there is a reference in the active voice to the author of the work. There is one difference, however, between the Sefer Bereshit account of the world’s creation and the Sefer Shemot account of the construction of the Mishkan. In Bereshit, the world is designated as God’s: The earth is the L-RD’s (Psalms 24:1). In Pekudei, however, as distinct from Bereshit, the human participants of the work, Moshe and the children of Israel are mentioned.

Moreover, the entire nation of Israel, the children of Israel, is mentioned. But from the previous verses, one would assume that the verbs refer to Bezalel, and not to the nation itself. How can the Torah write that all the children of Israel built the Mishkan? Don Isaac Abravanel suggests that the acts of contributing the materials and bringing offerings were included in the category of “making.” R. Hayyim ibn Attar (the Talmudist and cabalist; born in Morocco, in 1696; died at Jerusalem July 31, 1743, known by the name of his work Or Ha-Hayyim ad loc.), writes that as Bezalel was the agent of the children of Israel, and in light of the  halakhic principle of sheluho shel adam ke-moto, (a man’s agent is legally considered to be equivalent of the sender himself), the Torah could indeed legitimately ascribe the construction of the Mishkan to the entire Israelite nation. But the Or Ha-Hayyim continues with the following observation:

The text wished to indicate the mutual, interlocking character of Torah observance, by means of which the children of Israel brought reciprocal benefits on each other. The torah was given to be collectively observed by Israel as a whole. Each individual would contribute his best to their mutual benefit. Perhaps an allusion to this can be found in the Scriptural admonition: “And thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself,” implying “who is as thyself.” Your neighbor’s welfare will contribute to yours and though him you complement your own perfection, so that he is not someone else, but you and like a part of you….

Nechama Leibowitz comments as follows: (Studies in Shemot, p. 700):  “Our Torah is a social code designed for observance in the communal context, and not for a solitary Crusoe on his desert island. The Jewish people as a whole; all classes, great and small were entrusted with the Divine law and His covenant was made with the entire nation…. The Torah can only be realized in practice by the people as a whole. Similarly, the Tabernacle was constructed through the participation of the nation as a whole. This is why the verse emphasizes the contribution of the entire nation of Israel.”

Thus, the human subject of Parashat Pekudei is not any individual, not Bezalel, not even Moshe Rabbenu. It is the community of the people of Israel.


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