D’var Torah, Vayak’heil/P’kudei: Becoming a Civilization

by Lucy H.F. Dinner

This year, I have the pleasure of studying the Book of Exodus together with the lay-led Hebrew Bible study group at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I serve as senior rabbi.

Temple Beth Or’s lay-led Torah study group has been studying Torah together religiously for the better part of two decades. This fall, they graciously invited me into their fold to study the Book of Exodus. They allowed me to gently direct them through the book, parashah byparashah (an experience more like herding cats for me and a bull stepping in their finely tooled china shop for them). A fine thread wove the ancient Torah through Rabbinic, medieval, and modern commentary, and the sparks of wisdom that flow from torah lishmah—the mutual desire to study Torah for its own sake. Together, we found new light shining from timeless verses illuminating our ever emerging lives.

As we come to the end of the Book of Exodus, the conclusion of the final portion offers a fitting close to our studies together. It brings God’s Presence into the community, relaying: “When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Eternal filled the Tabernacle. . . . For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Eternal rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys” (Exodus 40:33–34, 38).

We began our discussion by focusing on the Israelites’ gathering for this final effort of finishing the Tabernacle. The double portion Vayak’heil-P’kudei receives part of its name from the verbvayakheil (from the root kuf-hei-lamed, meaning “to convoke”), the first significant word in the portion. Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut points out that this verb, which tells us that Moses “convoked” the Israelites, shares a root with vayikaheil, the word used to describe the Israelites “assembling” to build the Golden Calf and rebel against God.1 The Israelites coalesce around the Tabernacle, building it with their own hands and transforming the listless, terrifying yearning they felt when they built the Golden Calf into purposeful intention to sanctify God. Ed offers the insight that this portion is a bridge between the Israelites being a related band of recently freed slaves to a civilization convoked together in creation of holy community.

Maxine S. builds on Ed’s idea about the Israelites maturation, delineating the factors that mark the evolution of the wandering multitude into the Israelite civilization. Civilizations are characterized by: a central vision, religion, or faith; shared laws; appreciation for the arts; and leisure. The Book of Exodus reveals the development of each of these characteristics in the Israelites as they clamor their way into freedom and service of God. In the study of Exodus we have seen the Israelites: receive the Ten Commandments, bring forth their artisans to build the Tabernacle, and integrate the Sabbath day into the rhythm of their week. And now, at last, they realize the reward of God’s Presence dwelling among them.

In these culminating portions of Exodus the Israelites demonstrate their growth as a people with their solid commitment to completing the Tabernacle. Their devotion pulses so deep that they bring gifts that are “more than is needed for the tasks” (Exodus 36:5). Why more than needed? The instructions are precise and exacting as to what is needed. First and foremost, their generosity in giving demonstrates their commitment. They are instructed to give as their hearts so move them. The abundance is a sign of the healing of their hearts, now open and ready to give after the years of oppression. Additionally, because more than enough was given, nobody could claim that the building of this part or that part of the Tabernacle came from his or her specific gift. The building of God’s dwelling place hinges on the people offering the best of their individual gifts in one communal effort.

The Israelites maturation as a civilization also unfolds in the interconnection with fire that appears in these last two parashiyot and is interspersed throughout the Book of Exodus. The Israelites’ journey to freedom begins with fire—the bush that burned unconsumed—and now the Tabernacle is complete and God dwells within it in a cloud by day and a fire by night (Exodus 3:2, 40:34–38). When the Israelites stand at the foot of Mount Sinai poised to receive the Ten Commandments God descends in a fire (Exodus 19:18); yet, God’s fiery Presence proves to be more than the Israelites could abide (Exodus 20:15–18). In these last two portions of Exodus, the Israelites have learned to tame the fire and light for building the Tabernacle, resting on Shabbat, and feeling the comfort of God’s Presence dwelling in the Tabernacle.

The interplay of fire in these last parashiyot piqued the interest at our Torah study discussion. Cindy describes the fire as a creative force, melding the bronze, silver, and gold of the Tabernacle. Another student pointed out the ironic nature of fire, which destroys one state and opens the door to creating another. Forest fires, so feared in times of drought, clear out the overgrowth so the forest can flourish. Maxine C. focuses on fire as generative energy, comparing it to the neurotransmitters that connect the synapses of the brain. The energy that connects those synapses is like the spark that is transmitted through studying Torah in partnership with one another. It is pure blessing.

The Book of Exodus comes to an end with the celebration of God’s Presence in the fire over the Tabernacle (Exodus 40:38). Whereas the Israelites tremble in fear at God’s fiery show at Mount Sinai, God’s indwelling over the Tabernacle brings them a sense of protection and comfort. Its constancy becomes the focal point uniting the emerging Israelite civilization.

As our study group completed Exodus and recited the traditional chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik, “from strength to strength may we be strengthened,” Bee reminded us of the light that dwells between us when we study Torah. Reminiscent of the teaching of Ben Bag Bag, “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it” (Pirke Avot 5:22), she shared how each time we return to the same book we find fresh insight, we uncover new light hidden within the ancient teaching.2 Thus the study of Torah plants God’s pillar of fire in our midst from generation to generation.

1. W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition (New York: URJ Press, 2005), p. 611
2. Leonard Kravitz and Kerry M. Olitzky, ed. and trans., Pirke Avot (New York: UAHC Press, 1993), p. 89

Rabbi Lucy H. F. Dinner is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina. Rabbi Dinner is studying the Book of Exodus with her congregation’s lay-led, Hebrew Bible Study Group, which has been studying together for over twenty years.

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