This week's Torah reading — the joined parshahs of Vayak'hel and Pekudei (Exodus 35:1-38:20 and Exodus 38:21-40:38 respectively) — is replete with questions and contradictions. The first enigma is the question of why these parshahs exist at all. Most of their content seems completely superfluous.

The Torah is very mincing with words: laws whose details cover many pages in the Talmud are expressed by the Torah in a single sentence or word, or even by means of a single extra letter. But when it comes to the Mishkan, the sanctuary made by the people of Israel in the Sinai Desert, the Torah does a very unusual thing: it elaborates. And then it elaborates some more.

First (in the parshahs of Terumah and Tetzaveh) we get a description of every one of the Sanctuary's dozens of components as spelled out in G‑d's instructions to Moses. And then we get all the details a second time, in the account of the Sanctuary's actual construction in Vayak'hel and Pekudei. The most amazing thing is that these two descriptions are virtually identical! The only real difference is that in the first account, the description of each item begins, "And they shall make...," and in the second account it begins, "And they made..."

The Sanctuary is the prototype of the "dwelling for G‑d in the physical world" whose construction constitutes our mission in life. That's why the details are so important. But why do they have to be related twice? Couldn't the Torah simply say, "And the Children of Israel built it exactly as G‑d had commanded"?

Why It's Frustrating Having a Brain

Having a brain means that you not only know how things are, but you also understand how things ought to be. Which means that you're constantly being made aware that things are not as they ought to be.

Human beings (most of whom have brains) deal with this frustration in a variety of ways. Some become "academics," which means that they concentrate on the way things ought to be and make believe that that's the way things are. Those who for some reason (usually job-related) are compelled to deal with the way things are, try not to think about the way things ought to be. Since neither approach can be maintained 100% of the time, human beings enjoy a higher stress level than cows, for example.

This has led humans to invent all sorts of salves and balms for stress, on the one hand, and all sorts of devices to do away with (or at least numb) the brain, on the other. Which is a shame, since it's great having a brain, and it's healthy to experience stress.

That's the lesson implicit in the "superfluous" chapters of Vayak'hel and Pekudei.

The Rebbe explains that the Torah wants to emphasize that there will always be two versions of G‑d's home on earth: the ideal version, as G‑d envisions it and describes it to Moses, and the real version, as it is actually built in and out of our physical lives.

Does this means that G‑d is making allowances? That His vision can be compromised by "the way things are" down here? But both versions are exactly the same in the Torah's account! In other words, we are empowered — and expected — to recreate the divine ideal in its entirety, down to every last peg, clasp and carrying pole, within the material world.

Recreate — not duplicate. G‑d does not want us to transform physical matter into substanceless spirit; He wants us to make the physical world hospitable to His presence.

Being human means never ceasing the effort to translate the ideal into the real. Not that we can eliminate the gap between matter and spirit. We can do better: we can make our lives a physical version of the divine vision. Human life is an attempt to achieve the impossible — an attempt that fails, and in failing, achieves something even greater.

If you're experiencing stress, you're doing something right.

The Second Enigma: Transposed Headings

The second enigma of the parshahs of Vayak'hel and Pekudei concerns the names by which they are called, and an apparent contradiction between each parashah's name and its content.

To the casual reader, the names by which the 54 sections of the annual Torah-reading cycle are called seem quite incidental: a parshah is almost always named after the first distinctive word to appear in its text. Chassidic teaching, however, which sees every event and phenomenon as specifically determined by Divine Providence, rejects the very concept of "incidence." Furthermore, says the Rebbe, Chassidism teaches that the name of an object in the Holy Tongue constitutes its soul and essence; the Rebbe also points out that the word torah means "instruction," implying that there is nothing in Torah that is not instructive. Hence, the Rebbe concludes, there certainly cannot be anything "incidental" about the name of a section in Torah.

At his weekly Shabbat farbrengens the Rebbe would often dwell on the name of the parshah read that week, demonstrating how this single word or phrase indeed enfolds within it the entire breadth and variety of the parshah's contents, and how this Parshah's name, when its nuances are analyzed and set against the other components of the Jewish calendar with which it intersects, carries a wealth of information and instruction to our daily lives (for two examples, see Life after Death and Learning to Laugh)

Vayak'hel means "assembly" and "community," while the word Pekudei connotes itemization and individuality. So these two parshahs, which follow each other in the Torah and on certain years are even joined together to form a single reading, express the conflict, interaction and paradox of these two components of the human soul: a) our need and desire to bond together in a communal identity; b) our need and desire for an individual identity distinct and unique from our fellows.

But the most amazing thing about Vayak'hel and Pekudei is not that both are given equal prominence in the Torah; nor that they appear in the Torah in such proximity to each other; and not even that these seemingly dichotomous concepts are often fused to form a single reading called Vayak'hel-Pekudei. The most amazing thing about these two Parshah names is that they seem to have switched places.

If we look beyond these names to the actual content of their respective parshahs, we discover that the content of the parshah that carries the name Vayak'hel would seem to be most appropriately named Pekudei, while the content of the parshah of Pekudei begs the name Vayak'hel!

Vayak'hel begins by telling how Moses assembled the people to command them on the observance of Shabbat and the making of the Sanctuary; this act of assembly gives the parshah its name (vayak'hel means "and he assembled" and is a form of the word kahal, "congregation"). But the remainder of the parshah is filled with the particulars of the Mishkan's construction. Each of the Sanctuary's dozens of components is individually listed and described: its roof coverings, wall panels, foundation sockets, pillars, braces, brackets and curtains; the Ark, the Table, the Menorah, the two Altars, even the washbasin and its pedestal. We are given the exact dimensions of these components, the materials out of which they were made, the details of their design.

Pekudei means "accounts," and the parshah begins with the statement, "These are the accounts of the Mishkan..." The etymological root of Pekudei, pakod, means to count, to remember, and to appoint — all expressing the concept of itemization, of particular attention to detail (in modern Hebrew, a pakid is a bureaucrat). But while Pekudei also includes details of the Sanctuary's construction (specifically, those of the priestly garments), a major part of the parshah is devoted to the Mishkan's assembly. In Pekudei the Torah relates how the components listed and described in Vayak'hel were fitted together to form the Sanctuary, and how the Divine Presence came to dwell in the completed structure. Indeed, the parts of the Mishkan, even as each was fashioned in perfect concurrence with its divine specifications, could not house the Divine Presence until they were assembled to collectively form the whole Mishkan.

In other words, the parshah of Vayak'hel is taken up with the individual natures of the Sanctuary's parts, while Pekudei describes how these combine to form the greater structure — the very opposite of what each Parshah's name means!

Five Lessons

To summarize:

1) The Torah includes a parshah called Vayak'hel, and a parshah called Pekudei.

2) On certain years they are joined as a single reading, called "Vayak'hel-Pekudei."

3) On other years, these two parshahs form two separate Torah-readings, read on separate weeks.

4) Vayak'hel means "community," but the content of this parshah is the value of individuality. Pekudei means "individuality," but its content is the advantage in union and integration.

5) Vayak'hel comes first in the Torah, followed by Pekudei.

Each of these nuances, says the Rebbe, is significant. Each illuminates the relationship between our individual and communal identities:

The First Lesson: We have and need them both. The fact that the Torah contains two parshahs, one called Vayak'hel and the other called Pekudei, means that our need for communality and our striving for individual distinction are both important and desirable components of the human soul.

The Second Lesson: We can, and should, achieve a synthesis of the two. If Vayak'hel and Pekudei were only to appear in the Torah as two separate parshahs, this would imply that while both are necessary, each has its time and place: that there are times when our communality must be emphasized (to the negation of our individuality), and there are times when an assertion of individuality is called for (albeit disruptive to our communality). We would not know that the two could be integrated.

The fact that, on certain years, Vayak'hel and Pekudei are joined to form a single reading, teaches us that we can, and should, achieve a synthesis of the two: a community that is not a faceless mass but a community of individuals, each contributing his or her distinct personality and capabilities toward the communal goal, with the community, in turn, providing the framework within which each can strive for his or her personal best.

The Third Lesson: We must also nurture each of the two as a thing of value in and of itself. On the other hand, if Vayak'hel and Pekudei were to appear only in their joint form, this would imply that the only desirable objective is the achievement of some sort of balance between these contrasting drives—a balance that may well entail a compromise of one or the other (or of both). Perhaps our individuality has value only in that it contributes in some way to the community; or perhaps the sole function of the community is to provide a framework for the development of the individual. We would not know that each is also an end unto itself.

The fact that Vayak'hel and Pekudei also appear in the Torah as two separate readings teaches us that — in addition to the objective of integrating the two — individuality and community are viable objectives in their own right as well. Individual perfection has value independently of how this contributes to the communal good; and the creation of a community is likewise an end unto itself, for it represents a state of being that is greater than the sum of its individual parts.

The Fourth Lesson:  Each consists of the other. We have seen how community ("Vayak'hel") and individuality ("Pekudei") each represent a desirable goal, and how they can be integrated to form a third model, a community of individuals ("Vayak'hel-Pekudei"). But the Torah goes even further. It tells us that even when each is considered as an end unto itself, the two are inexorably bound with each other.

This is the lesson to be derived from the fact that the content of "Vayak'hel" is the nature of individual things, while "Pekudei" contains the description of how diverse parts are joined into a greater whole. The Torah is telling us that even when the objective is solely the creation of a perfect community, the most perfect community is a community comprised of individuals who are fully in touch with and exercising their individuality (as Vayak'hel, even as a parshah on its own, is comprised of manifestly individual parts). And the Torah is also telling us that even when the objective is exclusively the realization of individual potential, an individual can optimally actualize his uniqueness only as a member of a community (as the parshah of Pekudei includes the creation of community).

The Fifth Lesson: Imperfect individuals make a perfect community. The question remaining is: Which should come first?

Logic would seem to dictate that individual development ("Pekudei") should come before community building ("Vayak'hel"): first one needs the parts, and then one can assemble these parts into the greater organism. So the initial emphasis, it would seem, should be on the perfection of the individual, after which these perfected individuals could be knit into the ideal community.

The Torah, however, places Vayak'hel before Pekudei, teaching us that the very opposite is the case: our very first objective, concludes the Rebbe, must be to bring people together, regardless of their individual state. Personal perfection will follow, fostered by the love and fellowship we show towards each other.