Parashat Vayakhel

From "Other" to "Beloved"

It is easy to feel disconnected from those who are most unlike us.

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Our parashah, Vayakhel, describes not only Moses' call for donations to the construction of the Tabernacle, the mishkan, but also the community's generous response. What is the role of the mishkan in the lives of the Israelites that caused them to respond so generously?

The mishkan, literally "dwelling-place," is the place where God and Israel meet. It is here that God's divine presence, the Shekhinah (from the same root as mishkan), dwells in the midst of Israel. It is the means by which God becomes present in the very center of the Israelite community and in the hearts of the Israelites.

american jewish world serviceGod instructs (Exodus 25:8): "let them make me a mishkan and I will dwell (shakhanti) within them (betokham)." The Sefat Emet, a Polish Hasidic master, reads this as "within them truly" (betokham mamash). That is, God will dwell within the very essence of each Israelite.

Prior to the mishkan, the Israelites' relationship with the divine was with the transcendent, miraculous God of the splitting of the Red Sea and the revelation at Sinai. At Sinai, the people trembled in fear at the awesome revelation of the divine and retreated from a direct personal encounter (Exodus 19:16, 20:15-18).

Intimacy & Eroticism

It is only through the mishkan, the earthly dwelling-place of God, that a more intimate encounter becomes possible. Indeed, the mishkan is not just any meeting place, but, as both the midrash and Kabbalistic literature make clear, a place of great intimacy, the bridal chamber of God and Israel, where the truest level of intimacy can manifest after the marriage at Mount. Sinai (See the opening of Pesikta de-Rav Kahana and Zohar II 179b, I 239a).

The intimate erotic nature of the mishkan can be seen in the beautiful fabrics and the fine metals which are the adornments of the Shekhinah, the divine bride, and the hangings of Her wedding chamber (Exodus 35:5-8). Similarly, the cherubim in the mishkan, who face each other with outspread wings, are, we are told in the Talmud, in fact intertwined in an erotic embrace (Yoma 54a), and erotic significance is given to other verses and gifts.

Finally, following the midrash, we can see the similarity between the word for "completing" (vayakhel or kalot) the mishkan and the word for "bride" (kalah), an indication that the completion of the mishkan was also the consummation of this divine-human marriage. 

The Generous of Heart

In the process of constructing the mishkan, then, God is transformed from the awesome divine Other, unapproachable and incomprehensible, to the intimate divine Beloved, present in the midst of Israel. It is the act of generosity, the very process of giving, that actualizes the opening of the heart that in turn makes intimacy possible. 

Again and again in the parashah we are told of the generous of heart and noble of spirit who contributed to the mishkan. This is a generosity not only of possessions, but one that reaches even deeper, as we are told, "take from yourselves an offering to God, all the generous of heart (Exodus 35:5)."

That is, a literal taking from yourselves, your experience, your wisdom and particularity, and offering it to the Beloved. Before, alienated by God's distance at the peak of Mount Sinai, the people could only express their generosity to the illusion of divinity in the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:3). Now, inviting God into their midst, the natural generosity of intimacy is properly expressed.

To Dwell Among Us

Just as God is ultimately both foreign and intimate, both self and other, so this is true of our fellow human beings. We can experience our fellow humans as alienated, even antagonistic, others, or as intimate beloved companions.

Like the Israelites in the wilderness, alienated by God's otherness, it is often easy to feel disconnected and not responsible for those who are most other, most unlike us. This disconnection is apparent between us and our neighbors in the developing world, who are separated from us by distance, wealth, culture, and politics.

The challenge and promise of the mishkan is that we can bridge those gaps and give our fellow humans, reflections of the divine image, a place to dwell in our hearts, minds, and souls and literally 've-shakhanti betokham'--the I, the personhood of every individual, will dwell within us. 

It is this almost mystical moment of connection, the enactment of the mishkan in our own lives, that should be the foundation for our ethical responsibility and action. Through realizing our essential intimacy with all humans, our natural generosity flows forth, allowing us to give both from our possessions and from our very selves, from the depths of our being and from the skills and experiences that we have to contribute. 

Like the Israelites in the wilderness, we too can offer our sacrifices, our money, and our generosity to enable the other to dwell within us and to give the other, like the divine, a secure dwelling-place on earth.

Once we had the Tabernacle (mishkan) and the Temple (mikdash). Now we have only our hearts--hearts that can be a dwelling place for all those who are suffering, if we open them wide enough. We can build the mishkan of our hearts, making space for every human to dwell there, and so become filled with the generosity that comes from transforming the other into the beloved.

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Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels

Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels teaches Jewish thought and mysticism at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.