In this week’s parsha, we note a curious choice of words at the end of the process of putting together the Tabernacle (39:42-43). Whereas the first verse tells us that the Jews completed all of the avodah (work), the second verse has Moshe seeing that they had finished the melakhah (a different word for work). Moreover, the latter verse seems lengthy and awkward, telling us he “saw the work, that they had indeed done it, like the Lord commanded them, so did they do.” And then after all this, we have an extremely rare report of Moshe blessing them, presumably as a response to their completion of the work.
So what is melakhah, and how is it different than avodah? And why is that only Moshe sees it that way. Finally, why is blessing something that seems to flow directly out of it?
A good way to start answering this is by going all the way back to the beginning of the Torah: Starting with the Midrash, many have detected the parallels between the making of the Mishkan and the creation of the world. In this particular case, the similarity is rather marked – work (or its result) known as melakhah comes to an end and is capped off by a blessing. There is a slight variation, however, in that in the case of the Mishkan, that very melakhah is first described as avodah. Still, once it is seen that way, it too is followed by a blessing.
Noticing the slight variation above helps us to see that whereas human creation can be described as both avodah and melakha, God’s creation can only described as melakhah. If so, we could not be far off when we look for significance in that the noun that comes out of avodah is eved or slave (while one also finds the word, oved – which today means worker – it is not used as a simple noun in classical Hebrew). This is presumably what leads Kli Yakar to suggest that avodah is work done for others, whereas melakhah is work done for oneself. Since God is never dependent on anyone else, his work is always melakhah.
A related way to look at this is via R. S. R Hirsch’s theory that the word melakhah is actually the feminine of malakh, an emissary, often used for the Divine emissaries we call angels. R. Hirsch sees work, emissaries and angels as all being expressions of will – either human or divine. This too fits well with our observation about the relationship between avodah and eved –an eved does avodah, as his work is never an expression of his own will.
Equipped with the above insights, we are in a better position to understand the verses with which we began. Viewed from the outside, avodah can sometimes appear exactly the same as melakhah. In such a case, the only one who knows the worker’s motivation is the worker himself. Yet, as in other matters, a person can be the victim of false consciousness – one may think that one wants to do the work for personal satisfaction when the true reason is simply for the paycheck.
Of course when it comes to doing God’s work, being the agent of His will is certainly not a bad thing. On the contrary, to be described as God’s eved is an accolade saved only for our very greatest. So when the Jews built the Mishkan, this is what they aimed for. Accordingly, the Torah describes it as avodah.
But there is something even higher than this, and that would be in line with the statement in Avot (2:4), “Make [God’s] will to be like your will.” Though such a person is also doing God’s will, he identifies with it so much that it fully becomes his will as well. And whereas the Jews did not know that they had reached this level – or that it was even possible – Moshe could recognize it more easily, since he already knew about it from the inside.
Had the Jews not reached such a level, it is questionable whether the Mishkan would have fully fulfilled its purpose. For just as God had willed the world into being to create a home for man, man was now called upon to will a home for God. Obviously, they could not do this without God’s command. Nevertheless, it could only properly parallel His own actions if it did not remain on the level of avodah, but actually also reached the level of melakhah.
Once Moshe saw what they had been able to accomplish, he immediately understood that the Mishkan had become a vessel paralleling God’s creation. And once that was the case, it was truly worthy of blessing!