Building Our Mishkan: Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei (Exodus 35:1-40:38)

The ancient sages teach us that the Torah is exceedingly careful with language. No phrase is superfluous. Each word or letter is part of the intricate unfolding mysteries concentrated in the Torah.

In Parshat Terumah, a few chapters ago, we read about the entire construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which the Jewish people used as a sanctuary during their journey from Egypt. So it comes as a major surprise in this week’s double parasha of Vayakhel-Pekudei that the Torah repeats the elaborate construction of the Mishkan. If the Torah is so particular with words, how is it possible that we repeat everything again just a few chapters later? Rabbi Avraham Yaakov Hakohen Pam, the great 20th century sage, asked this question and offers a beautiful insight into human nature.

The first time that the God lays out the intricate plans for the Mishkan the Hebrew reads, “And you shall make.” In the second recounting of the construction of the Mishkan, in our parasha, the Torah says, “And he made.”

Each Rosh Hashanah, every New Year, during times of great inspiration and creativity, or periods of searching and isolation, we dream up plans. In our minds we can see how this will all work out. We are going to change our lives for the better in myriad ways. We are going to launch a new and prosperous venture. We are determined to learn, to do, or explore. But so often these dreams and grand plans never come to fruition.

What is one of the common reasons that these plans don’t come about? It is not that we are too unrealistic, or that our ideas lack merit. Rather, all too often it is because we were unable to follow through with these plans. Grand plans happen one step at a time, but it is often difficult — each step may be a hurdle to overcome.

The intricate vision of the Mishkan in Parasha Terumah inspired the Jewish people to build it. The solid metal footings of the beams formed the base of the exterior walls. Fine gold handiwork fashioned the menorah. The intricate woven patterns on the tapestries and the clothes worn by the High Priest during the service were made to exacting standards. The entire vision took many hands, many hours and likely many mishaps along the way.

The recounting of the Mishkan here in Parasha Vayakhel-Pekudei, reminds us that to get from point A to point Z there are many stops in between. It is important that we make great plans, and to follow through with these plans requires us to take small steps at times and involve many people.

When making plans that involve the future of Jewish community, we cannot hope for a quick fix, but rather addressing all needs of a disappearing generation of young people will require a concentrated effort of many hands, many hours and a vision of what can be achieved. It will require the construction of a contemporary Mishkan that binds young Jewish people together and to the Jewish future.

Yonah Bookstein is the executive rabbi of JConnect and founded Jewlicious Festivals ( in 2005 as a gathering place for young Jews of Southern California. Jewlicious Festival 9 takes place this weekend at the Queen Mary in Long Beach. Rabbi Bookstein is also the author of “Prayers for Israel” and conducts seminars internationally about solving the problems affecting young Jewish adults.

Work of Your Hands

When every last acacia-wood board had been fashioned, every last curtain woven and every single vessel of gold or copper produced, Moshe stood in awe of the people’s accomplishment. “And Moshe saw all the work, and, behold, they had done it! As the Lord had commanded, even so had they done it” (Exodus 39:43). After so many months of effort, the components of the Tabernacle were now complete. It was time for celebration.

Or was it? The people all actually knew in their hearts that in an essential way, the Tabernacle was still very far from being complete. Thus far, they had merely completed the items that would form the shell of a Tabernacle. The essence of it, the component that would render their project a success, was not only still absent, but was outside of their ability to produce. The skeptics and the scoffers among the people were still confident in their opinion. For weeks they had been challenging their fellow Israelites saying, “Do you seriously think that the Divine Presence will rest on the work of [Moshe] the son of Amram?” (Exodus Rabba 52:2). Whether or not the Divine Presence would indeed manifest upon and within the objects they had fashioned was still an open question. It was also the only question that really mattered.

To fully appreciate how high the stakes were, it’s necessary to realize that the scoffers were not merely challenging Moshe’s particular abilities as a spiritual architect. They were challenging the very premise of the entire religious endeavor, namely that human beings can produce works that matter to God. They were ultimately ridiculing the whole notion that the institutions we build, the deeds we perform or the families we raise can serve as toeholds for the Divine Presence in this world. Anything created by human hands, the scoffers believed, was too fleeting, too momentary, just plain too small to capture the interest of God. And any human belief to the contrary was the product of the most grandiose of self-delusions.

Firm in his faith, Moshe now blessed the people. According to the Midrash, he said to them, “May it be God’s will that He rest His presence on the works of your hands. May the grace of God be upon us, and may He establish the work of our hands.”

Moshe engaged his critics’ argument directly. Soon, when the component pieces of the Tabernacle would be put together and the Tablets of the Law would lie in the ark in the Holy of Holies, the dispute would be settled. Soon, the cloud of God’s glory would descend, and His voice would be heard. Meanwhile though, Moshe prayed, and the nation waited and hoped.

Against the backdrop of the skepticism that attended that building of the Tabernacle, we can appreciate in a new light God’s command that we build it. “They shall make for me a holy place, and I will dwell in their midst” was not merely a directive to that one particular generation that was journeying through the Sinai Desert. It was God’s fundamental and timeless assertion that things like this are indeed possible. That despite the vastness that separates God and humankind, the works of mortals can serve as a fitting throne for the presence of God. And not only that, but it is God himself who desires to be thus enthroned. “And they shall know that I am the Lord their God who took them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them.” As Nachmanidies comments on this verse, the dwelling of the Divine Presence among Israel is not only the response to our need; it is the response to God’s need, as well.

Our Sages held up the building of the Tabernacle as the paradigm for all human labor. It is the metaphor that we are to bring to all of our creative endeavors, and most specifically, to the places where we do our work. Each time we make a workplace decision to value integrity over the bottom line, we build a tabernacle for God. Whenever, through our work, we extend the kind of love we wish for ourselves to a client, or an employee, or a co-worker, we cause God’s presence to become manifest. When in the course of our work we grant the benefit of the doubt, vanquish anger and strive to speak the whole truth, we satisfy God’s need to dwell among His creations.

Moshe’s prayer was, as we know, soon answered. And the Children of Israel learned a lesson for the ages. It is of course not coincidental that our very first prayer of the workweek — the one we recite even before Havdalah — is the very same: “May the grace of God be upon us, and may He establish the work of our hands.” May our workplace be a dwelling place for God. l

Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (, a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.