The sequence of parshiyot Terumah, Tetzaveh, Ki Tisa, Vayakhel and Pekudei is puzzling in many ways. First, it outlines in exhaustive and exhausting detail the construction of the Tabernacle, the portable house of worship the Israelites built and carried with them through the desert. The narrative takes almost the whole of the last third of the book of Exodus. Why so long? Why such detail? The Tabernacle was, after all, only a temporary home for the Divine presence, eventually superseded by the Temple in Jerusalem.
Besides, why is the making of the Mishkan in the book of Exodus at all? Its natural place seems to be in the book of Leviticus, which is overwhelmingly devoted to an account of the service of the Mishkan and the sacrifices that were offered there. The book of Exodus, by contrast, could be subtitled, “the birth of a nation.” It is about the transition of the Israelites from a family to a people and their journey from slavery to freedom. It rises to a climax with the covenant made between God and the people at Mount Sinai. What has the Tabernacle to do with this? It seems an odd way to end the book.
The answer, it seems to me, is profound. First, recall the history of the Israelites until now. It has been a long series of complaints. They complained when the first intervention of Moses made their situation worse. Then, at the Red Sea, they said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert” (Exodus 14:11-12).
After crossing the sea they continued to complain, first about the lack of water, then that the water was bitter, then at the lack of food, then about the lack of water again. Then, within weeks of the revelation at Sinai – the only time in history that God appeared to an entire nation – they made a golden calf. If an unprecedented sequence of miracles cannot bring about a mature response on the part of the people, what will?
It is then that God said: Let them build something together. This simple command transformed the Israelites. During the whole construction of the Tabernacle there were no complaints. The people contributed with some gold, some silver, some bronze, some brought skins and drapes while others gave their time and skill. They gave so much that Moses had to order them to stop. A remarkable proposition is being framed: It is not what God does for us that transforms us. It is what we do for God.
So long as every crisis was dealt with by Moses and miracles, the Israelites remained in a state of dependency. Their default response was complaint. For them to grow to adulthood and responsibility, there had to be a transition from passive recipients of God’s blessings to active creators. The people had to become God’s “partners in the work of creation” (Shabbat 10a). That, I believe, is what the Sages meant when they said, “Call them not ‘your children’ but ‘your builders’ ” (Berachot 64a). People have to become builders if they are to grow from childhood to adulthood.
Judaism is God’s call to responsibility. He does not want us to rely on miracles. He does not want us to be dependent on others. He wants us to become His partners, recognizing that what we have, we have from Him, but what we make of what we have is up to us – our choices and our effort. This is not an easy balance to achieve. It is easy to live a life of dependency. It is equally easy in the opposite direction, to slip into the mistake of saying “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me” (Deuteronomy 8:17). The Jewish view of the human condition is that everything we achieve is due to our own efforts, but equally and essentially the result of God’s blessing.
About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”
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