The Formation of a People
The Formation of a People
Parashat Vayak’heil/P’kudei is a double Torah portion that concludes the Book of Exodus. The paired Torah portions describe the building of the Tabernacle and the anointing of the priests. The parashiyot are primarily composed of many verses of detailed plans and descriptions of rituals, some of which are hard to visualize sitting in such a different world today.
I want to take a step back and reflect on Exodus as an entire book, with Parashat Vayak’heil/P’kudei as the penultimate culmination of a lot of action. Genesis ended long ago with the movement of Joseph’s family from Canaan to Egypt. It was the story of a single family, rapidly expanding, with many relatives and growing generations. This particular family was exceptional, because this was the family with whom God created a relationship. Abraham’s personal relationship with God is passed down to his son, grandson, and great-grandson. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph all encounter God in different ways, due to the varying trials and circumstances of their lives. But still, Genesis is the composite of stories of personal relationships between God and individual men.
Exodus begins four centuries later in a different world — one where that single family has grown into a generation of slaves. The book opens with God finding Moses in a Burning Bush, creating version 2.0 of God’s relationship with the patriarchs. Yet, via the plagues, God is revealed to both the larger community of Israelite slaves and to the Egyptians. God’s power through Moses brings the Israelites to freedom and into the wilderness.
So often when we talk about Egypt and Exodus, we concentrate on the Passover story, ending in the march through the Reed Sea, the march from slavery to freedom. It’s a striking, beautiful, and meaningful story. But it’s not the whole story. The other two thirds of the Book of Exodus become more painstaking detailed, but wandering in the wilderness, the Revelation at Sinai, the destruction of the Golden Calf, and the plans and construction of the Tabernacle are central to the story. And what story is that? The story is the biblical story of the Israelites, the development of an entire nation. The story is the move from a multigenerational family tale to the growth and adventures of a community. Exodus is the story of the creation of an entire people, and it’s still a central story of Jewish peoplehood.
One way to look at the construction of the Tabernacle in Exodus 35 is as the climax of the formation of a people. The Israelites have had one foundational experience after another, yet they still are without a land or a physical center. The Tabernacle fills a major part of this need. It gives the Israelites a place to gather and to orient their days. It gives them a place, time, and rituals to access God (albeit, for a time, through the priests).
In Numbers and Deuteronomy, we will continue to follow the Israelites through the wilderness to the edge of the Promised Land, which they will enter only at the beginning of the Book of Joshua. Yet, the Israelites are no longer a nascent band of slaves or newly liberated but lost individuals, but rather a solidified people in search of a home.
We read Exodus each year in the Torah reading cycle, and may know these stories from childhood. Yet, we learn them so often in conjunction with the Jewish calendar — a Torah study here, a holiday there — that it’s easy to forget the enormity of what takes place in Exodus as a whole. A group of slaves finds new hope, realizes liberation, experiences God in the world, accepts a covenant that will structure their future and the rules of their days and community, and then begins to build that community. Exodus is a most profound transformational journey, and that transformation continues to reverberate in Jewish theology, thought, and ritual for millennia.
Scholar and philosopher Michael Walzer summarizes the impact of the Exodus story beautifully: “pharaonic oppression, deliverance, Sinai and Canaan are still with us, powerful memories shaping our perceptions of the. . . world. The ‘door of hope’ is still open.”1 As contemporary Jews, we still tell this Exodus story not only at Passover, but also more holistically as a major story that has helped us to understand Jewish history.
The Exodus story becomes the cornerstone for Judaism’s powerful identification with oppressed peoples the world over and helps us understand how Jewish responsibility plays out through that identification and through our millennia-old covenant, which is often understood now more spiritually than legally. This relationship to our history of slavery, redemption, and finally, peoplehood informs not only how we think about the world, but also how we live in it.
The construction and use of the Tabernacle as a symbol of the realization of Israelite peoplehood is a powerful model for us today. Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Izbica, who lived in the 19th century, writes, “In the building of the Tabernacle. . . . at first, each skilled individual did his own part of the construction, and it seemed to each one that his work was extraordinary. Afterwards, once they saw how their several contributions to the ‘service’ of the Tabernacle were integrated — all the boards, the sockets, the curtains and the loops fit together as if one person had done it all. Then they realized how each one of them had depended upon the other.”2 So too, today, we each play an ongoing role in building and maintaining our own communities. That service never ends.
Parashat Vayak’heil/P’kudei and the Book of Exodus teach us about the power of community — of how important and hard community-building can be. While the patriarchs laid the foundation for Israel’s development, it isn’t until Moses and God reveal their relationship to the public that the Israelites begin to solidify as a people. Exodus follows the transformation from an individual to a communal experience of God, and the transformation from a Hebrew family to the Israelite people and nation. Exodus reminds us that for all the challenges of living as part of am Yisrael, the people of Israel, it is not static but a transformational force propelling us to the promise of a better world and of liberation for us all.
1. Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (NY: Basic Books, 1985) p. 149
2. Rabbi Mordecai Yosef of Izbica, in Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, Itturei Torah, vol. 4 Heb. ed. (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, Ltd., 1995) p. 275
Rabbi Ana Bonnheim recently moved to Charlotte, NC with her husband and two young children. She served as the associate director, and director of year-round programs, at URJ Greene Family Camp in Texas for the past 8 years.
Rabbi Bonnheim teaches how in Parashat Vayak'heil/P'kudei the process of building the Mishkan (Tabernacle) serves as a model for building Jewish community. One small part of the Mishkan suggests what kind of community we should create.
In Exodus 37:9, we learn that the cherubim on the kaporet (ark-cover) of the Mishkan “had their wings spread out above, shielding the cover [kaporet] with their wings. They faced each other ...” The Hebrew verb describing how the wings were covering the kaporet is soch’chim, suggesting that their wings joined to make a sukkah.
Jews have long speculated on the significance of the cherubims’ wings touching and faces turning toward one another, creating a wonderful variety of ideas. The cherubim represent the love of a married couple; or the friendship of two study partners who each offer Torah interpretations and are ready to learn from one another; or the relationship of peace and solidarity between religious leaders and lay leaders; or the bond between different groups within the Jewish people who turn toward one another in mutual respect and cooperation.
In each of these interpretations, the cherubim represent the peaceful relationship that we should strive for in Jewish community — a peace built not from continuous agreement, but from facing one another across differences. As any married couple knows, shalom bayit (peace within the household) results not from spouses always “seeing eye to eye” with one another, but rather from the hard work of confronting one another lovingly and peacefully resolving every disagreement. And likewise with Torah scholars, religious and lay leaders, and diverse groups, there will always be many opinions. The question is whether we will nevertheless cover ourselves with a sukkah of peace, always looking into one another’s face and seeing the common humanity, spark of divinity, and wisdom that inspire mutual respect and love.
Rabbi Linda Bertenthal serves as rabbi at Congregation Beth David in San Luis Obispo, CA.
Vayak’heil/P’kudei, Exodus 35:1–40:38
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 668–687; Revised Edition, pp. 611–636
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 521–568
Haftarah, Ezekiel 45:16-25
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,653−1,654; Revised Edition, pp. 1,457−1,458