First, make the tent
Vayahel-Pekudei — Exodus 35:1-38:20, 38:21-40:38
Every year, when we get to the last two parshiot of Shemot, we ask the same question — why do we need them? After all, these parshiot essentially repeat what we just finished reading — the detailed instructions for the construction of the Mishkan — and for the ark, the menora, the altars, and its other furnishings — and for making the ritual garments to be worn by the kohen gadol. Vayahel and Pekudei tell us — in almost identical language — that all these instructions were carried out.
Certainly the Torah might have told us this in just a few verses — something like, “The Israelites made the Mishkan and all its furnishings and the ceremonial garments just as God had commanded Moses.” But instead, we read again the description of each item and that it was made according to instructions.
Still, the Torah doesn’t waste words, so we have to read these parshiot with an eye to the additional lessons they contain. And when we do, it becomes clear that we do not, in fact, have an exact repetition of what we so recently read. There’s a difference between imagining how you will do something and actually doing it, even when you follow the directions precisely.
Here’s what I mean. I’m a huge fan of figure skating. I love watching the unbelievable things that the top skaters do. I was glued to the coverage of the Vancouver Olympics, and I know that hundreds of boys and girls watched and imagined themselves gliding gracefully over the ice like Kim Yu-Na or doing explosive footwork like Evan Lysacek, so they sign up for skating lessons.
However, they won’t start out doing anything like the moves that attracted them to the sport. These beginners will spend a lot more time falling on the ice than gliding, spinning, and jumping. But if they keep at it, if they practice and work hard and master the fundamentals, then in time, they have a chance to achieve their dreams. They may not make the Olympics or the upper levels of competitive skating, but they will certainly have the ability to perform a program they can be proud of.
When you set out to accomplish something, you imagine scaling the highest heights, but turning the dream into reality requires a lot of hard work to build a foundation. And that’s one of the lessons we learn from our parshiot.
A few weeks ago, in Teruma, when God begins to give Moses the instructions for making the Mishkan, He begins with the aron, the ark that will hold the tablets of the Ten Commandments, and the kaporet, the ark cover, about which God says to Moses, “There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you…all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.”
God begins with the ark because it is the most important element of the Mishkan. It is the aron and the tablets within it that symbolize the covenant between God and Israel and give meaning to the Mishkan. It is the aron alone that is placed in the Holy of Holies, the most sacred part of the Mishkan (and later the Temple).
Certainly, when Moses and the Israelites set out to make the Mishkan, it was the aron and the tablets that were foremost in their minds. But in this week’s reading we learn that when the work actually begins, it doesn’t start with the aron. After the materials are collected, the construction begins with the cloth that will form the tent of the Mishkan, the goats’-hair cloth that will provide a protective covering, and the planks and bars that will form the structure supporting the tent.
It was only after the tent was in place that Betzalel began to make the aron. Achieving the ultimate goal depended on having the foundation, the fundamentals, already in place.
When someone sets out to learn a sport or to play an instrument, to speak a new language or master a profession, even to deepen their religious practice, they imagine themselves performing brilliantly, with ease and confidence. But with rare exceptions, the path to any achievement begins with hours, weeks, sometimes months or years of learning and practicing, mastering the fundamentals — hardly the things that populate our daydreams.
And so the Torah teaches us, you can have the aron and the tablets — but first you have to make the tent.