This week’s Torah reading of Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1 – 38:20) competes for the title of the most boring parashah of the year. Not only does it record, in painstaking detail, the making of the tabernacle in the desert, its accoutrements, and the priestly vestments, it does so for the second time. Almost all of the information can be found in the prior readings of T’rumah and T’tsaveh. And yet, when you think about it, the parashah fits beautifully into the narrative arc of the whole second half of Exodus.
That arc, to be sure, is itself maddeningly difficult to follow. From Mishpatim (Exodus 21:21 – 25:18) forward, Exodus vacillates between presenting catalogues of laws and regulations and continuing the story of the Israelites’ eventful visit to Mount Sinai. Thus, the story of the golden calf is pivotally located between the initial lengthy description of the tabernacle and the subsequent recap that occupies our parashah and next week’s, P’kudey. Rather than getting into the debates among medieval commentators over the actual chronology of events, I’ve put the entire narrative together as a sort of screenplay. Looking at it that way, we might better be able to discern the meaning of the whole business of the tabernacle and the role of the priestly caste within it.
It all starts innocently enough back in Mishpatim. God has already appeared on Mount Sinai, conveyed the Ten Commandments to the Israelites, and given them a bunch of other laws. Then He invites Moses to bring a few of the boys along the next time he visits:
But to Moses he said, Go up to the Lord
You and Aaron, and [Aaron’s sons] Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel
And worship from afar.
And Moses approached alone toward the Lord but they would not approach.
And the people would not go up with them. (24:1-2)
This passage highlights the problem that the text will return to again and again. The Lord wants to dwell among His people; He wants to be there; He wants to interact. But the people are too scared, and with good reason. They’ve already seen God reveal Himself amid thunder and lightning, and they know how fearsome it is to behold. It’s like having a very ferocious mountain lion, or a neutron bomb, wanting to cuddle up to you like a pussycat. The people aren’t playing.
But Moses came and recounted to the people all the Lord had said and all the laws.
And the people answered unanimously and said, All the things the Lord has spoken we’ll do.
And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord.
And he rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mount
And twelve stones for the twelve tribes of Israel
And he sent boys representing the children of Israel to raise offerings and sacrifice sacrifices,
Peace offerings for the Lord, bulls.
Moses took half the blood and put it in beakers
And half the blood he threw on the altar.
And he took the book of the pact and he read it aloud to the people
And they said, All the Lord has said we’ll do and we’ll obey.
And Moses took the blood and threw it over the people
And said, Here is the blood of the pact the Lord has cut with you today
Concerning all these matters.
And Moses and Aaron and Nadav and Avihu and seventy elders of Israel went up. . . .
And to the elect of Israel He did no mischief
And they envisioned God and ate and drank. (24:3-12)
This passage, often overlooked save for a few tidbits, actually marks a dramatic transition. Up until now, the Lord has been dealing with outstandingly righteous men—people with whom He could conclude a deal on a handshake. Although there was that episode when Abraham sealed such a deal by slicing some animals in two, and His interlocutor might set up an altar and make an offering of oil, as Jacob does, generally speaking the Lord has just shown up for a chat and promised one thing or another. On the whole it was man to man—or, rather, infinite-and-all-powerful-being to man—without much fanfare.
Here we have something new: not “I and Thou,” but “I, thou, and them.” Moses understands that the people’s relationship with God won’t be like his own; they’ll need concrete demonstrations of the contract they’re entering into. Moses is perfectly equipped to put on this kind of show, and he does. The trouble is that after they’ve beheld a vision of the Almighty, even the best of the people—Aaron, his sons, and the “elect”—aren’t on a high enough spiritual level to do more than eat and drink. The Lord has to come up with something to bring these very simple people into a relationship with Him.
But Moses went up to the mountain of God and to the elders he said, Sit in our place till we return to you.
And here’s Aaron and Hur among you; whoever has something to say should approach them.
And Moses went up the mountain and the cloud covered the mountain. (24:14-15)
So Moses goes up the mountain leaving Aaron, Hur (whom we never hear of again), and the elders to mind the store, and the Lord lays His big new idea on him. Which is?
And have them make a cabinet of acacia wood, and plate it with pure gold within and without . . .
And you shall put the contract I shall give you in the cabinet. . . .
And I will meet you by appointment there and speak to you from over the cover,
From between the two cherubim on the cabinet of the contract,
All that I’ll command you for the children of Israel. (25:10-22)
I’m skipping the reams of architectural detail that follow. What they boil down to is that the Lord wants Moses to make Him a really splendid legal office: the kind where the client comes in and takes a seat, feeling overawed, and then when the lawyer is ready to see him, somebody whose job it is appears to show him in. And who is that?
But now gather to you Aaron your brother and his sons with him from among the children of Israel
To make him a priest for me,
Aaron, Nadav, and Avihu, Elazar and Itamar—Aaron’s sons.
And you’ll make holy garments for Aaron your brother to be honored and admired.
And you shall speak to all the crafty-hearted whom I shall fill with a wise spirit
And they’ll make the garments for Aaron
To set him apart, to make him into a priest for me.
. . . and you’ll make a pure gold tiara
And impress on it impressions of the Lord’s sacred seal.
And it will be on Aaron’s brow and Aaron will bear the sin of the holy things
Which the children of Israel will offer up as all their sacred gifts.
And it will be on his brow constantly to ensure good will for them before the Lord. (28:1-39)
Two vital ingredients are introduced in this section. First are the expert craftsmen (or craftswomen) who will fashion this splendid edifice, although the Lord isn’t yet saying who they are. Second, the Lord indicates that He’s already chosen the receptionist and office staff for His splendid new legal practice. It’s the same guys who were sitting around eating and drinking the last time He and Moses were holding a meditation session up on the mountain. Obviously they don’t really know anything, but if anyone messes things up in this holy space, they’re the ones who will have to take responsibility and atone by bringing the requisite offerings. You’ve taught them the laws, the Lord says to Moses, but they have no real sense of guilt and they need to develop the underlying moral sense behind this business of chosenness. So, for starters, we’d better have them killing animals for Me, until everyone gets the idea.
And you’ll put [the robes] on Aaron your brother and his sons and anoint them
And put their hands to use
And set them apart to serve as My priests. . . .
And I’ll set apart the meeting tent and altar, and Aaron and his sons
I’ll set apart to serve in my office.
And I’ll reside within the children of Israel and be their God
And they’ll know I am the Lord their God who took them out of the land of Egypt
To reside within them, I am the Lord their God. (28:41 and 30:44-46)
I’ll come back to that phrase, “put their hands to use.” But if this were film school, I’d say we’ve now reached the end of the movie’s first act (and third parashah). The Lord has laid out what He’d like to happen, who should serve Him and how, and what He’s after. The second act begins in the parashah of Ki Tisa—it’s the one with the golden calf—but for now let’s just note that it’s precisely while Moses is up on the mountain (and the boys down below have begun messing around with a golden calf) that the Lord finally lets him in on who is going to do all that soldering of gold:
But the Lord spoke to Moses saying,
Look, I’ve called the name of Bezalel son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah
And I will fill him with the breath of God
With wisdom and perception and knowledge of every kind of craft
To conceive conceptions, to work gold and silver and copper
And serrate stones to serve, and serrate wood, and work any handicraft. (31:1-5)
So the person the Lord nominates to make all these things is none other than the grandson of Hur, whom Moses left with Aaron to help answer the questions of the restless Israelites. Hur has vanished from the narrative completely, but the Lord does like to deal in dynasties, and He chooses the grandson of a righteous man to construct His makeshift Temple. He promises to infuse this grandson Bezalel with ruaḥ, which you could translate as “spirit” or “breath.” I’ve opted for the latter because the Lord gives something very special to Bezalel that isn’t in his hands, and will become apparent only later on.
And with that we come to the main event of the second act: the unfolding of the episode of the golden calf. I’ll restrict myself to one scene: the moment when Moses confronts Aaron about his own leading role in that tremendous sin:
But Moses said to Aaron, What did this people do to you that you brought this great sin on it?
And Aaron said, Please don’t be angry, milord. You know the people, and how wrong they are. . . .
But Moses saw that the people had been exposed, and that Aaron had exposed them,
To the slander of those who rose against them. (32:21 and 25)
Many commentators have tied themselves in knots to lessen Aaron’s culpability in the larger sin of the golden calf. But no one tries to exculpate Aaron for his part in this exchange even though, by my lights, it’s much more damning than a million golden idols. With these words, Aaron defines for all time how limited the role of High Priest actually is and how unfit he himself is to lead. It is not the role of a leader to acquiesce in the worst qualities of his flock. The Torah posits a model of leadership that involves dragging the people up to where they ought to be. Aaron is not the man for that.
Still, Moses needs help. Since Aaron, normally his go-to guy, is not up to the job, he calls upon anyone who is “for the Lord” to rally around. This turns out to be the members of his and Aaron’s own tribe, the tribe of Levi, whom he commands to grab their swords and go from one end of the camp to the other slaughtering—well, it’s not entirely clear whom they’re supposed to slaughter, but presumably the most zealous calf-worshippers. After that, he tells them:
Put your hands to use today for the Lord,
For each man did for his son and brother and to give on you this day a blessing. (32:29)
Note: here the Torah uses the same phrase—“put your hands to use” (literally, “fill your hands”)—about the Levites that it has earlier used about Aaron and the other priests. The commentator Yehuda Kiel suggests that the phrase means “to install someone in his office,” speculating that in those times a token of office was put into a person’s hand to symbolize acceptance of the job. To my ear, the phrase conjures up the priestly privileges and the portions of food and tithes that the Lord will guarantee to this caste for generations.
Whatever the expression’s origins, by repeating the phrase, the Torah is saying something deeply bleak about the Temple sacrifice and about sin. The priests were chosen to atone for the people, and Aaron was chosen to carry out the greatest atonement ritual of all—the Yom Kippur service, which only the high priest can perform. But Aaron, the person entrusted to facilitate the forgiveness of sins, has ended up facilitating the greatest sin of all.
The first thing Moses has to do in this moment of crisis, then, is to choose his own elite. Later the Levites will be assigned a special role in the administration of the Temple, but here they are asked to perform a blood sacrifice of the most brutal sort. Judaism starts with the Lord’s asking Abraham if he will sacrifice his son, then switching the sacrifice at the last minute. There’s no switch here. The true elite who serve the Lord go through the camp killing their own relatives in order to cull the idolaters from within their ranks.
And when all that’s done, we learn that the Temple sacrifice was never meant to be a replacement for the basic transaction between man and God. When the children of Israel commit an unpardonable sin, the Lord doesn’t say, “Give me 300 bulls and we’ll forget all about it.” No, Moses, a single righteous man (like Abraham before him) has to go up on the mountain, argue with God, and pray that the people be forgiven (like Abraham for Sodom). When push comes to shove, sacrifice is an entirely dispensable rigmarole.
Then something funny happens. As we see in Vayakhel, once Moses secures the Lord’s forgiveness, the Lord goes back to the Temple idea and Moses goes back down to give the people the good news. He repeats word for word the description of Bezalel that the Lord gave him earlier, but adds one phrase:
But Moses said to the children of Israel, Look the Lord called the name of Bezalel. . . .
And the Lord has put it in his heart to teach. . . . (35:30 and 34)
Having lived through the consequences of the golden-calf episode and Aaron’s failure of leadership, Moses homes in on the essential quality Bezalel has that Aaron lacks. Bezalel can teach. The miracle that now ensues in the third act is not about the architectural detail and the magnificent fretwork of gold tchotchkes. It is in the fact that Bezalel can lead this rabble in fulfilling God’s commands. They do not tell him they want a golden calf; he tells them they’re going to build a kosher Tabernacle. And they do.
We won’t get to the climax until next week’s reading of P’kudey, but here it is:
And the children of Israel did just as the Lord commanded Moses, so they did. . . .
And Moses looked over all the craft and see, they’d done it as the Lord commanded, so they’d done.
And Moses blessed them. . . .
And the cloud covered the meeting tent and the glory of God filled the tabernacle
And Moses couldn’t come into the meeting tent
Because the cloud resided over it and the glory of God filled the tabernacle. . . .
For the cloud of the Lord was over the dwelling by day and there was fire in it by night
Before all the house of Israel in all their journeys. (39:42-43; 40:34-38)
At the end of this movie (also the end of the book of Exodus), the house of Israel is united again—I would underline the word all in “all the house of Israel”—and the Jews are once again united with their God, who has achieved His desire to find a way to dwell among them. The neutron bomb is in the middle of the camp, ready to travel wherever the Jews go.
Eventually, when the second Temple falls to the Romans, the priests will be supplanted permanently by the rabbis. To this day, the central role assumed by rabbis is not the administering of charity or the priestly atonement of sins but teaching. When an aspiring rabbi is examined and found proficient in the required branches of law, he is ordained with the words, “Yoreh yoreh” (“let him teach, let him teach”): exactly the verb Moses uses in reference to Bezalel. And to this day, whenever a rabbi mounts a pulpit to address a congregation of uncertain moral consistency, he is well advised to remember the two contrasting models of Jewish leadership offered by Aaron and Bezalel, and consider that what comes out of his mouth as he smelts gold in the service of the people should be not a golden beast but a golden box to house the law.