Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei / Moses as Literary Contractor

Yakov Z. Meyer
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The erection of the Tabernacle and sacred vessels, from 'Figures de la Bible' (1728).
The erection of the Tabernacle and sacred vessels, from 'Figures de la Bible' (1728).
Yakov Z. Meyer

Various passages in the Book of Exodus concern the portable tabernacle in the Sinai Desert – how it is built, and how its tools and utensils and the high priests’ garments are fashioned. Each passage is devoted to one item destined for use in the tabernacle and ends with a fixed “formula”: namely, “as the Lord commanded Moses.”

The end of Exodus marks the end of the depiction of the tabernacle’s construction. God enters his designated dwelling place, and Moses, as contractors always do after they have completed a project, stands outside: “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter into the tent of meeting, because the cloud abode thereon” (Exodus 40:34-35).

The first verse of Leviticus, the next book in the Pentateuch, opens with God speaking from within the tabernacle to Moses; the newly erected structure, meanwhile, begins to fulfill its function as a mediating space. In this week’s portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei (Exodus 35:1-40:38), however, Moses is still working on the site’s construction.

The midrash offers the following about the portion: “It is written, in the story of the tabernacle, ‘as the Lord commanded Moses.’ To what can we compare this situation? To a king who commands his servant: ‘Build me a palace.’ On everything he creates, the servant writes the king’s name. The servant erects walls and writes the king’s name upon them; he sets up pillars and writes the king’s name upon them; he constructs the ceiling and writes the king’s name on it. When the king enters the palace, no matter what he looks at, he sees his name written upon it. The king says to his other servants, ‘After the great honor my servant has accorded me, how can I sit in my palace while he is standing outside? Call upon my servant to come inside.’

“Similarly, when God commands Moses, ‘Make me a tabernacle,’ Moses writes, upon each item he constructs, the words, ‘as the Lord commanded Moses.’ God says to his angels, ‘After the great honor Moses has accorded me, how can I sit in my tabernacle while he is standing outside? Call upon him to come inside.’ As it is written, ‘And the Lord called unto Moses’ [Leviticus 1:1]” (Vayikra Rabbah 1:7).

In the parable presented in this midrash, God and Moses are compared to a king and his servant, who builds a palace for his ruler. The servant takes the initiative and goes beyond the call of duty, writing upon each and every item in the palace the king’s name. When he completes the project, the servant leaves the palace so that the owner, the king, can move in. The king, as can be understood from the parable, is surprised by the servant’s gesture and reciprocates with a gesture of his own: He invites the servant to come inside and join him in the palace.

The relationship between God and Moses as it is presented at the end of Exodus and the beginning of Leviticus is one of mutual respect. Moses does not act in a manipulative manner and does not even ask to be invited to come into the tabernacle. God honors him out of respect for the honor Moses has accorded him.

However, there is a gap between the narrative in the midrash, and the narrative that appears in the Torah. Nowhere in this week’s portion is there any reference to Moses actually inscribing God’s name on the tabernacle’s beams, or on its curtains, its tools or its utensils. Moreover, it emerges that Moses himself is not directly involved in the construction and erection of the pillars. Rather, he takes a back seat, leaving the actual work to Bezalel, son of Uri, and to Oholiab, son of Ahisamach.

The only “pillars” Moses builds and on which he writes God’s name are the passages in the Torah – that is, the text under discussion here, which describes erection of the tabernacle and the fashioning of its components, tools and utensils. On each passage written by Moses, God’s name appears thus: “as the Lord commanded Moses.”

Therefore, the parable of the construction project carried out by the king’s servant, the king’s entrance into the palace and the invitation to his servant to join him inside – refers not to the physical tabernacle erected in the wilderness, but rather to the passages in the Torah describing its construction. Specifically, it refers to the lengthy chapters appearing at the end of Exodus about the construction of the portable tabernacle.

Whereas the Torah describes how God’s glory fills the entire tabernacle, the midrash does not relate to that structure per se, but rather depicts how God’s glory fills the Torah.

Moses is writing the Torah’s text, an act of glorifying God, who, as it were, enters the passages on the tabernacle and discovers that his name has been written on each and every passage. In a reciprocal gesture, in response to the honor Moses has accorded him, God invites his servant to enter the Torah – not the tabernacle.

In this week’s reading, Moses is mentioned, but, in the beginning of Leviticus, which we will start reading next Shabbat, the Torah tells us, “And the Lord called unto Moses, and spoke unto him out of the tent of meeting” (Lev. 1:1). Here the Torah – the same Torah that Moses has written – is calling upon its author to come inside.