Chapter 35

[1] The differences between the first and second tablets: As was seen above,1 when the people received the Torah at Mount Sinai, they were cleansed of the effects of any previous wrongdoings and restored to the spiritual status of Adam and Eve before they ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. They lost this status when they committed the sin of the Golden Calf. Thus, when God first gave the Torah, He gave the people the opportunity to live life in the way wholly righteous individuals live it; afterwards, their approach to life became that of penitents.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both states of being, and, as was noted above, it was because of the opportunities available only to penitents that God orchestrated the sins involving the Tree of Knowledge and the Golden Calf in the first place. Righteous people do not have to contend with the challenges of temptation; they can perform their Divine mission naturally, without impediments. Their lives are an ongoing process of realizing their own God-given potential and transforming the world around them into God’s home.

Penitents, however, have to exert themselves and tap reservoirs of inspiration and self-discipline that the righteous have no need of. Their lives are a process of striving beyond themselves; by rectifying their previous wrongdoings, they transform realms of reality that the righteous never touch.

Essentially, then, the difference between righteous people and penitents is that the former work with their God-given gifts and with those aspects of reality that are a priori fit to become God’s home, while the latter work with their own powers and with realms of reality that are initially antithetical to Divinity.

This difference was reflected in the two sets of tablets. According to the sages, if the first tablets had not been broken, the people would have never forgotten any part of the Torah they learned.2 The second tablets did not affect reality this way. Thus, the people would now have to exert themselves in order to retain the Torah they learned.

Although this clearly puts us at a disadvantage vis-à-vis how broad our knowledge of the Torah can be, it nonetheless affords us the opportunity to delve deeper into the Torah than we could have otherwise. As in other contexts, the depths we can reach when we exert ourselves and muster our own hidden potentials are greater than those we can reach when we receive God’s revelation as a gift.3

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God both hewed the first tablets and inscribed them. Moses hewed the second tablets himself, but God again inscribed them. Nonetheless, while God’s writing on both tablets was miraculous,4 the miraculous nature of the writing on the second tablets did not affect the rest of the Torah.

Because of this difference, the extent of the “freedom” effected by the two sets of tablets5 was also different: the first tablets granted all the people absolute freedom from the forces of evil, even rendering them immune to forgetting anything they learned, while the second tablets afforded only relative freedom from evil, and even this not to the whole people, but only to those who actively study the Torah.

Furthermore, because the purpose of the Torah is to refine us (as can be seen from how Moses countered the arguments of the angels when they protested God’s intention to give the Torah to mortal humans6), the fact that we are no longer in the pristine state to which we were elevated when the Torah was first given means that we need the Torah much more now than we did then. Thus, the sages tell us7 that were it not for the incident of the Golden Calf, the Torah would have been limited to the Five Books of Moses and the Book of Joshua (which describes the conquest and division of the Land of Israel) and their oral explanation. Together with the second tablets, God gave us the opportunity and obligation to refine ourselves by plumbing the Torah’s depths and revealing its implicit meanings. The dialectic and homiletic exegesis of the Written Torah has produced the great corpus of the Oral Torah that has developed since then, which was first recorded in the two Talmuds and the halachic and aggadic Midrashim and has been continuously elaborated upon ever since.8

These things are what God has commanded to do: Constructing the Tabernacle was a microcosm of life in general: the purpose of the Tabernacle was to provide an earthly “dwelling” for God’s presence; the purpose of life in general is to transform the world into an earthly dwelling for God. Thus, the 39 categories of work required to construct the Tabernacle are the archetypes for all the work we do in the physical world in order to refine and elevate it.

Taking this analogy one step further, it follows that the fact that the people were required to stop working on the Tabernacle on the Sabbath means that we, too, are required to stop working on refining the world on the Sabbath.

The reason for this is because every week is a repetition of the week of creation; just as God “rested” on the first Sabbath, so does He “rest” every Sabbath. In other words, the six workdays are created by and imbued with God’s “creative” energy, while the Sabbath is created by and imbued with God’s “resting” energy.

As was explained above,9 God’s “resting” is His re-experience, so to speak, of the original thought of creation that gave rise to the whole process of creating the world. During the week of creation, God attended to the details of executing His designs; after the master architect completed His masterpiece, He surveyed it and reviewed it as the fulfillment of His plan. Inasmuch as everything is continuously being brought into being by the energy God infuses into the world, on the Sabbath, everything is being brought into being by God’s “reviewing” mentality rather than by His “executing” mentality.

The Sabbath is therefore the time when all the work of the preceding week ascends spiritually to its source. Our task on the Sabbath is not to labor in rectifying creation, but rather to experience creation as the Divine dwelling we have worked to make it during the week. In order to enter into this state of consciousness, it is imperative that we refrain from engaging in the 39 categories of Tabernacle-work that comprise the creative work we do in our weekday lives.10

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If, as was just explained, we must not refine the world on the Sabbath, why is it permitted to eat? Eating, after all, is a process of elevating physical food into flesh, blood, and energy, and when we perform holy acts with this energy, we transform the physical food into spirituality.

It follows, therefore, that eating on the Sabbath is not the same as eating during the week. During the week, eating is indeed a process of refinement: we must focus on the Divine spark within the food that enlivens it, and reject the food’s gross sensuality. By eating with proper intention, we elevate the food; if we fail to do so, the food drags us down and reinforces our materialistic outlook on life.

But on the Sabbath, eating is not a process of refinement, of separating the good from the bad; it is a process of elevating the good to a higher level of good. The more we attuned ourselves to God’s “resting” mentality, the more refined we become; the more refined we are, the less the sensuality of the food threatens us. On the contrary, by eating the food—even if we experience its good taste—we elevate it and it elevates us to a higher level of Divine consciousness.11

[2] Work may be done for six days: The use of the passive voice (“work shall be done”) to describe weekday work teaches us that we must not invest all our energies in doing it; we should, so to speak, almost allow it to happen “by itself.”

In other words, notwithstanding the importance of our weekday work—especially if we are engaged in refining the world and making it into God’s home—we must not allow ourselves to let it inundate us and overtake our minds and hearts. Our work must not be allowed to encroach on our set times for prayer, Torah study, charitable pursuits, educating our children, and so forth.

If we devote all our energies to work, it will prove very difficult to divorce ourselves from it when the Sabbath comes—thoughts and worries of work will haunt us. But if we preserve a sense of balance throughout the week, we will be able to focus properly on the holiness of the Sabbath when it comes.

In this context, it is significant that this command was given immediately after Moses descended from Mount Sinai, after having secured God’s forgiveness for the incident of the Golden Calf. As we have seen,12 idolatry originates in the error of ascribing autonomy to the created beings God designated as the conduits for His beneficence. Work is one such conduit, which is why we are enjoined to work for our livelihood. But ascribing our sustenance solely to our own efforts is a subtle form of bowing down to an idol. It is God who blesses our efforts with success; our job is simply to make a vessel into which He can pour His blessings.

By taking care not to invest inordinate amounts of time, energy, and thought in weekday work, we ensure that we will not fall into the error of idolatry, even in a subtle form.13

[5] Let every generous-hearted person bring the contribution for God. Besides demonstrating the extent to which they regretted their involvement in the Golden Calf and their desire for God to once again dwell among them, the people’s enthusiasm in participating personally in offering the material for constructing the Tabernacle affected the very nature of the Tabernacle itself.

When God gave the Torah at Mount Sinai, it was, relatively, an act of His own initiative. As we have already seen, a revelation from above that is initiated from above has both advantages and disadvantages. The advantage of such a revelation is that it is not limited by the capacity of the recipients; since no preparatory work was done, God need not concern Himself with accommodating such preparations. The disadvantage is that since there was no preparation, the recipients have no way of retaining the revelation they receive, and therefore its effects are transitory. Thus, despite the transcendent revelations that accompanied the Giving of the Torah, its effect was only temporary. The mountain was so holy during the revelation that anyone who touched it was liable to die, but as soon as the revelation was over it reverted to its mundane state. The Jewish people achieved the exalted spiritual level of Adam before the sin, but this did not prevent them from sinning with the Golden Calf a mere forty days later.

With the construction of the Tabernacle, however, the people participated in preparing for the revelation that was to occur upon its completion. Therefore, via the Tabernacle, holiness became part and parcel of our existence. This, indeed, was its essence: God made His home among us.

In this context, the enthusiasm with which the people donated materials toward the Tabernacle’s construction expressed their willingness to have God dwell among them permanently. Their generosity and alacrity were what infused the Tabernacle with this quality, and by extension, what enabled the people themselves to be fit for the ongoing revelation of God’s presence in their own lives.14

[22] Bracelets, nose-rings, finger-rings, and chastity belts: Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra translates this list of items slightly differently, as “earrings, nose-rings, finger-rings, and bracelets.”

Allegorically, this list of items the women donated toward the construction of the Tabernacle alludes to the four ingredients of proper child-rearing that all parents must contribute in their efforts to raise Jewish children who will transform the world into God’s home:

Earrings: Parents must hearken to the Torah’s instructions as well as those of their generation’s Torah sages in all aspects of educating their children. Also, they must listen carefully to their children’s conversations with their peers and among themselves, for children learn how to talk from their elder’s example; if something is amiss in how they speak, it means something is amiss in how their role-models speak.

Nose-rings: Parents must develop a keen sense of “smell” to determine if their children’s friendships with other children are beneficial.

Finger-rings: Parents must point their children to the proper path, by explaining to them gently and convincingly how worthwhile it is to adhere to the Torah’s teachings and how detrimental it is to follow improper paths.

Bracelets: At the same time, parents must be strong-armed and strict. Even if the children are well-behaved, the parents must be strict with them in order to foster their enthusiasm for their studies.15

[27] It still smacked of laziness: This hint of laziness resulted from a lack of selflessness on the part of the princes. They were a bit too impressed with their position, and this led them to focus exaggeratedly on their princely responsibilities and neglect their own personal responsibilities.

We all must learn from the princes’ error in judgment. We are all “princes” in one sense or another: we all have charges for which we are responsible, beginning with our own body, which God has entrusted to our care, and extending to our family members, our environment, and our sphere of influence.

In our zealousness to assume responsibility for our charges, we must not think that whatever positive influence we can or do have over them is our own accomplishment. Rather, we are merely the channels through which God accomplishes His purposes in creation.

Having removed our own ego from the equation, we can rest assured that we will not fall into the trap of thinking that we fulfill our obligation to God by only influencing others. We will take care not to neglect our own obligations to study God’s Torah and fulfill His commandments punctiliously. In this way we will do our full part in making both our own lives and the lives of others into God’s earthly sanctuary, thereby hastening the restoration of God’s Temple and the advent of the messianic future, when all the world will again be God’s true home.16

[27] It still smacked of laziness: The selflessness the princes lacked is the inner dimension of chochmah, which is indicated in God’s Name Havayah by the letter yud. The word for “prince” in this verse is thus written with one yud missing, to indicate this deficiency on their part.17


Chapter 38

[21] The Tabernacle was a Testimony: The word for “testimony” (עדות) is related to the word for “jewelry” (עדי) the Torah uses to refer to the crowns the people received at the Giving of the Torah and had to remove after the incident of the Golden Calf.18 This alludes to the fact that the Tabernacle was the means God provided us to regain the spiritual heights and Divine consciousness He gave us when He gave us the Torah.19

Chapter 39

[2] He made the Ephod: Most of this parashah deals with the Tabernacle as a whole, and specifically, how it was erected, anointed, and began to function as an earthly abode for the Divine presence. In this context, the description of how the priestly vestments were made would seem to belong in the previous parashah, Vayakheil, which describes how the individual components of the Tabernacle were made.

The reason the description of how the priestly vestments were made is nonetheless included in this parashah is that they are not technically accoutrements of the Tabernacle per se; rather, they are the means by which the priests are imbued with the holiness required to perform their tasks. Inasmuch as it is these tasks, the priestly rites, that cause God’s presence to be continuously revealed in the Tabernacle, the description of the priestly vestments is included here, rather than together with the descriptions of how the Tabernacle and its furnishings were made.20

[33] They brought the Tabernacle to Moses: The people knew that Moses had to erect the Tabernacle, even though they had done all the work of constructing and preparing its components themselves.

The same applies to the spiritual Tabernacle we each construct within ourselves. We must do all we can on our own to form and prepare all its component parts, but after that we must be sure to enlist the aid of the “Moses” of our generation, whose task it is to actualize our connection with God. Then we can be assured that all the pieces of our inner Tabernacle will unite seamlessly to perform their function in the fullest way.21