Dear friends, since we have already paused our Acts series, I decided to extend this pause to have a look at the current Torah portions. There are several reasons for that: First, the chapters we are now reading discuss the building of the Tabernacle, and the importance of the tabernacle in Scripture is made clear by the comparison noted by both Jewish and Christian commentators: little over one chapter was needed to describe how God created the world, but six chapters describe the building of the tabernacle. Second, I have never commented on these Torah Portions on this blog, and in this sense, it is a good and fresh opportunity for us to read these chapters together. Finally, the reason that was decisive for me was about Special Shabbatot: since we are approaching the holiday of Purim, we will have two special Shabbatot within three weeks, and I will use this opportunity to explain what these special Shabbatot are, as I doubt many of my readers know about them.
Special Shabbatot, are Shabbat days on which special events are observed or commemorated. Each Special Shabbat is referred to by a special name. For example, Shabbat Mevarchim precedes a new month and can occur several times during the year. This coming Shabbat – February 26th – is Shabbat Mevarchim, since this is the last Shabbat before the beginning of a new month. However, since this is a special month – Adar, the month of Purim – the Shabbat before has a special name: Shabbat Shekalim (“Sabbath [of] shekels” שבת שקלים). Shabbat Shekalim takes place on the Shabbat before the 1st of the Hebrew calendar month of Adar (or on the 1st of Adar if it is Shabbat). In leap years on the Hebrew calendar, when there are two months of Adar, Shabbat Shekalim is observed on the Shabbat before the 1st of Adar II – like this year, Hebrew Year 5782, it begins at sundown on Friday, 25 February 2022 and ends at nightfall on Saturday, 26 February 2022, before the Rosh Chodesh Adar II.
On Shabbat Shekalim, Exodus 30:11-16 is read. These verses speak about a census, or more specifically, about a ransom each adult must contribute during the census—half a Biblical shekel! You may ask how this request is relevant to our lives today. There are several different explanations, but the best answer I have heard so far was given by the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, may his memory be blessed. Yes, he says, it is very dangerous to count the Jews, to count God’s people, because it would mean we believe that strength is in numbers. This is the reason why countries take censuses: they do believe that their strength is in their numbers. However, we know that our strength has never been in our numbers. How then do you estimate the strength of God’s people? The Torah is very clear: don’t count, just let them give – and don’t count the people, count the contribution! Not only monetary donations, of course but the contribution to society, into the culture, into science; the contribution of time while helping those in need, etc. He was speaking about the Jewish people, but I think it is always true in God’s eyes: God does not want us to count our numbers; our strength is expressed in our contributions and input.
First, however, we read Torah Portion Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1-38:20). Here we watch Moses assembling the people of Israel and reminding them of the commandment to observe the Shabbat, and then conveying God’s instructions regarding the making of the Tabernacle. The people are willing to donate the required materials, and they donate so much that Moses has to stop them. Then a team of artisans, led by Bezalel and Oholiab, make the Mishkan and its furnishings (as instructed by God in the previous Torah portions).
Actually, starting from Vayakhel, we see the implementation of God’s instructions on how to build the Mishkan (Tabernacle) given in the previous Portions, especially in the Parashat Terumah. In this sense, much of Vayakhel is almost an exact repetition of Terumah, except the words “they shall make” are replaced by the words “they made”. At first glance, it doesn’t surprise us: Okay, in Terumah God shows Moses how to build the Tabernacle – and then in Vayakhel Moses, along with all the people of Israel, indeed build it. However, if we remember what happened between these portions, we would be stunned by what we see in Vayakhel. Between these two portions, there is a portion called Ki Tissa, where the story of the Golden Calf happens. A very brutal story: the complete lack of faith, the major break of trust, happened there, just a few chapters (and forty days) earlier. So how can we explain that now, just a few chapters later, we see the people of Israel crowding before Moses and bringing excessively bountiful donations? The Hebrew here is very expressive when describing the people’s eagerness to donate. Instead of ha-anashim ve-hanashim (“men and women”), the Hebrew says: ha-anashim al hanashim: In some Midrashim, the word al is understood to be like the English expression, “being on top of each other”: “they came both men and women; that is to say, in their eagerness they pressed against each other. The men and women came as a huge throng when they brought their gifts…”
These are the same very people who had recently expressed a terrible lack of faith, whom God was so angry with, whom he called stiff-necked – but now they seem to be completely renewed; now their hearts are soft, open and tender; now they want to donate and sacrifice. Now, it seems, they know the difference between a Mishkan and a Golden Calf; they know the difference between God and an idol; they know the difference between heaven and earth. What happened? What had changed their hearts?
Next time, we will try to answer this question – and I believe, we will touch one of Israel’s greatest mysteries here. Stay Tuned!
The insights you read on these pages, are typical of what we share with our students during DHB (Discovering the Hebrew Bible) or WTP (Weekly Torah Portion) classes. If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible or studying in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insights, I would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding eTeacher’s wonderful courses: (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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