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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat Va-yak·hel—P'kudey
Shabbat Parah
Exodus 35:1 - 40:38, 12:1-20
March 21, 1998    23 Adar 5758

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

The final two readings this week, which close the book of Exodus, tell of the actual construction of the Tabernacle. In a leap year, with its additional month, we would have devoted one Shabbat to each parasha and read for the haftara a selection pertaining to Solomon's construction of the First Temple. In fact, the two haftarot are sequential: I Kings 7:40-50 for Vayakhel and I Kings 7:51-8:21 for Pekuday. Thus the synagogue naturally associated the completion of Moses's mobile sanctuary with the completion of Solomon's permanent Temple in Jerusalem. This year, however, the connection is obscured by Shabbat Parah, which brings with it its own special haftara.

Still, I wish to pursue the comparison. The synagogue joined the two events because it regarded the Temple as the natural culmination of the Tabernacle. At last, God's name would find a permanent dwelling. When David had transferred the Ark of the Lord to his new capital in Jerusalem, he said to his court prophet Nathan: "Here I am dwelling in a house of cedar, while the Ark of the Lord abides in a tent (II Samuel 7:2)!" Yet the disparity in residences would not be eliminated till the reign of Solomon, though the fixtures of holiness remained the same: two cherubim facing each other with wings spread over the Ark of the Lord that held nothing more than the tablets of stone received by Moses at Sinai. In every aspect the continuity between the two institutions was striking.

Nevertheless, the national impact of each sanctuary was different. Moses's Tabernacle served to unite unruly former slaves around a common sacred space; Solomon's Temple failed miserably to preserve the unity and grandeur of David's kingdom. Under Solomon's son Rehoboam, the state forged by his grandfather split into two independent and often warring realms called Israel and Judah, despite the existence of a new political and religious center in the city of Jerusalem. Clearly, bigger is not always better.

What might account for the success of the Tabernacle and the failure of the Temple? Part of the answer, I shall argue, was cost or more precisely the fact that the expenses for the Tabernacle were borne by the people voluntarily and those for the Temple were exacted from the people by force. The biblical evidence suggests that Moses worked with the benefit of a national consensus and Solomon did not. The two sanctuaries did not spring from the same social matrix.

God had originally instructed Moses that materials required for the Tabernacle were to be donated "from every person whose heart so moves him (Exodus 25:2)." This week's parasha goes out of its way to stress that no one held back. Every member of the camp, women as well as men, hastened to contribute of their possessions and expertise. Indeed, they gave so lavishly and selflessly, that the artisans on the project soon turned to Moses in exasperation: "The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Lord has commanded to be done (Exodus 36:5)." Moses ordered the campaign to be ended and the narrative reports approvingly: "So the people stopped bringing: their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done (Exodus 36:6-7)." The point is unmistakable: the building of the Tabernacle was done in a blaze of spontaneous popular support. There was no need for taxation in any form. How different the circumstances attending Solomon's Temple, begun in the fourth year of his reign, exactly 480 years after the exodus from Egypt! What is worth pondering is not that the project was conceived on a scale far grander than the Tabernacle, but that forced labor was required to carry it out. The author of the book of Kings gives us a sober picture of the work force Solomon mobilized to bring cedar and cypress wood from Lebanon and quarried stone from the mountains:

King Solomon imposed forced labor on all Israel; the levy came to 30,000 men. He sent them to the Lebanon in shifts of 10,000 a month; they would spend one month in the Lebanon and two months at home. Adoniram was in charge of the forced labor. Solomon also had 70,000 porters and 80,000 quarriers in the hills, apart from Solomon's 3,300 officials who were in charge of the work and supervised the gangs doing the work (I Kings 5:27-30)."

In addition to this army of unpaid laborers, Solomon had to remit annually to Hiram, the King of Lebanon, for use of his natural resources some "20,000 kors of wheat as provisions for his household and 20,000 baths of beaten oil (I Kings 5:25)." Hence, the construction of the Temple surely affected everyone in Solomon's realm, though without prior consent. The moral foundations of the two sanctuaries thus starkly differed. Unlike the Tabernacle in the wilderness, the Jerusalem Temple rose on a bedrock strewn with coercion, deprivation and impoverishment.

As soon as Solomon died, Rehoboam reaped what his father had sown. At Shechem a disgruntled nation confronted the new king: "Your father made our yoke heavy. Now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke which your father laid on us, and we will serve you (I Kings 12:4)." Rehoboam sought counsel before he responded. He turned first to the elders who had served his father, and they recognized a nation on the verge of rebellion: "If you will be a servant to those people today and serve them, and if you respond to them with kind words they will be your servants always (I Kings 12:7)."

But Rehoboam lacked the "wisdom" of his father and spurned their advice. Instead, he asked the young men with whom he had grown up and got what he wanted to hear, a counsel to hang tough: "Say to them: 'My little finger is thicker than my father's loins. My father imposed a heavy yoke on you, and I will add to your yoke; my father flogged you with whips, but I will flog you with scorpions (I Kings 12:10-11).'"

When Rehoboam delivered that savage message to the nation, it promptly bolted with only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remaining loyal to the House of David. Nor would the break ever be healed. Yet Rehoboam was only the proximate cause for the division. The long term cause was the Temple itself and the human degradation required to create it. Solomon had overreached by ignoring an alternate voice out of the past which urged wedding sanctity to simplicity.

An earthen altar would suffice, according to the book of Exodus (20:21-22) to reach God through sacrifices. And if a stone altar is what you want, them let it be without artifice, untouched by human tools. Had not Saul, the nation's first king, lost title to the throne because he placed offering sacrifices above obeying God's word? The later prophets of Israel and Judah would never tire of telling their discomforted listeners that God sought a society inspired by moral passion and not cultic extravagance.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch



The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch's commentary on Parashat Vayakhel-P'kudei are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.