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The Faces Of "I"

Vayakhel-Pekudei (Exodus 35-40 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

"Bezalel son of Uri son of Chur, of the tribe of Judah, [used these materials] to make all that God had commanded Moses." (Exodus 38:22)

Rashi comments on this verse as follows:

So great was Bezalel that he did not merely carry out Moses' commands, he even intuited how those commands had been relayed to Moses, although Moses had failed to pass them on to Bezalel in the same fashion. Moses instructed Bezalel to construct the Tabernacle according to the sequence described in Exodus, Chs. 25-26, where the fashioning of the vessels is described before the erection of the tent. Bezalel argued that normally you erect the building first, and only afterwards start to consider what to put inside. Moses realized that Bezalel was right. Bezalel fully lived up to his name - Bezel El, meaning "in the shadow of God." Said Moses: "You must have been in the shadow of God when He spoke to me, for indeed, that is how I heard it from God; the construction of the Tabernacle should come first."

But if this is the way Moses heard it, why didn't he instruct Bezalel accordingly to begin with? Why did Moses change the order and put the fashioning of the vessels first? What is more, what is the significance of all this altogether?


The Tabernacle is a place of worship. As far as humans are concerned, its primary importance lies in the ability it affords us to contact God through the acts of worship we carry out there. Since these acts of worship are conducted with the aid of the vessels - the Ark, the altars, the vestments of the priests and so on – it is the vessels that come first in our minds. We relate to the actual tent of the Tabernacle as the venue where these acts of worship take place. The venue is always of secondary importance.

But as we have emphasized in the past few weeks God relates to the Tabernacle as a place that His Divine Spirit inhabits. If we regard it from this point of view, the actual tent assumes the primary importance whereas the vessels and the acts of worship that are carried out with their help are clearly secondary.

Moses described the vessels first, because from the perspective of human beings, the vessels take precedence over the Tabernacle. Bezalel objected, because he perceived that the Tabernacle was primarily constructed as a place that God could inhabit. Our Parsha informs us that Bezalel's view was the correct one. We shall attempt to explore the ramifications of Bezalel's idea.


The Talmud offers the following metaphor to describe God's desire for constructing the Tabernacle in the desert:

Rebbi (R. Yehuda Hanasi, the author of the Mishna) entered into a contract of engagement with R. Yosi ben Zimra. By the terms of the agreement Rebbi's son was to marry R.Yosi's daughter. The terms of the contract stipulated that the groom would learn Torah for 12 years prior to the celebration of the marriage, but when the groom met the bride, he expressed a desire to shorten the waiting period and celebrate the marriage at the end of six years. When he met the bride a second time, he said, "Let's celebrate the marriage first before I go off to learn Torah." His father, Rebbi, told ... [him]: "You are following the precedent set by your Creator. First it is written, 'You will bring them and implant them on the mount of Your heritage, the foundation of Your dwelling-place that You God have made, the Sanctuary, my Lord, that Your hands established.' (Exodus 15:17) (Thus God intended to build His Sanctuary only after He established the Jews in Israel), but in the end it is written, 'They shall make a Sanctuary for Me [in the desert], so that I may dwell among them.' (Exodus 25:8) (Talmud Kesubos 62b)

The Talmud compares the establishment of the Sanctuary in the desert to the consummation of a marriage where the groom, having gotten a glimpse of the beautiful bride, is too impatient to wait till the planned wedding date, and moves up the celebration of his marriage.

Let us attempt to add some content to this metaphor.

Rabbi Elazar said: "It is written, 'And many nations will go and say, "Let us go up to the mountain of God, to the house of the God of Jacob."' (Isaiah 2) Why to the house of Jacob, in contrast to the house of Abraham and Isaac? Indeed [yes], not like Abraham who called it a mountain: 'And Abraham called the name of that site, "God will be seen" as it is said this day, on the mountain God will be seen.' (Genesis 22:14) Nor like Isaac who described it as a field: 'Isaac went out to supplicate in the field towards evening.' (Genesis 24:63), but like Jacob who called it a house, as it is written, 'And he named that place "the house of God."' (Genesis 28:19)" (Talmud, Pesochim 88a)

The passage relates to the site of the Temple that will be rebuilt in the Messianic era. Each of the Patriarchs had a prophetic experience at the future Temple site. Abraham, whose vision came to him in the aftermath of the Akeida, [the aborted sacrifice of Isaac], described his experience in terms of climbing a mountain, a heroic feat that requires special training and the expenditure of a great deal of effort. As such, meeting God in His Temple is not an experience accessible to everyone. Only those imbued with the dedication and the strength to be heroes can aspire to it.

Isaac compared his prophetic experience to working a field. This still requires some effort, but it is certainly not a heroic task. All people work for a living; it is a common part of everyday life for everyone. In terms of Isaac's vision access to God's Temple may not be automatic, but the simple willingness to work is all that is required to bring it into one's reach.

But Jacob compared his experience to spending time in his own house. A house is a place where one feels at home. Every man's home is his castle. It is the place to which he retires when he is worn down by the daily grind and just wants to relax. By the time Jacob had perfected himself, access to God had become such a matter of course that Jacob could describe himself as spending time in God's house.


Like any other form of progress, the establishment of God's Presence in man's world is a product of hard work. God's willingness to proclaim His Presence among us is a sign of a spiritually better world. We know from our experience of the physical world that it takes an accumulation of intense effort to build a better world. It follows that it required generations of the same sort of intense effort to induce God to openly establish a residence here on earth. The progressive nature of this process is the point of this passage of Talmud:

"They heard the voice of God walking about the Garden ..." (Genesis 3:8)

Rabbi Aba said: "The verb 'to walk' in this verse is grammatically expressed in the reflexive mood [indicating that] the voice of God was in the process of being withdrawn. The reflexive mood is always employed grammatically to convey the idea of self-absorption; one does not turn to others in the reflexive tense] Adam sinned and God's Presence [the Shechina] departed to the first level of the heavens. Cain sinned and God's Presence ascended another level ... [Then] these seven tzadikim managed to bring it back down to earth. Abraham had the merit of bringing God's Presence down from level seven to level six; Isaac brought it to descend from six to five; Jacob to level four; Levi to three; Kehas from three to two; Amrom to the first level up; Moses back down to the earth."

Rabbi Yizchak said: "About this is it written, "The tzadikim inherit the earth and dwell forever upon it." (Psalms 37) The evildoers are suspended in space with nowhere to be because they do not bring God's Presence to earth, but the tzadikim managed to relocate God's Presence on earth through their efforts. As a consequence they 'dwell forever upon it,'; God's Presence dwells on earth as a result of their efforts ... When did God's Presence rest on the earth? On the day the Tabernacle was erected." (Shir Hashirim Rabba, 5,1)

The Tabernacle is not some lollipop or prize that is bestowed as a reward for good behavior; nor is it a badge of honor and a mark of prestige conferred by a grateful God on a deserving Jewish people. It is erected by the hard work of human beings who bring God's Presence down to the world through their effort and dedication. It is people who erect the Tabernacle, spiritually as well as physically.


To understand the significance of the Tabernacle we must have some insight into the special significance of the Divine name, Shechina, the name of its inhabitant.

The first blessing in the Amidah prayer begins:

"Blessed are You, Lord our God and the God of our forefathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob ..."

This beginning differs sharply from other blessings which all begin with a declaration that God is the ruler of the universe:

"Blessed are You, Lord our God, the King of the Universe..."

This variation is not only provocative in differing from the norm; it should be unacceptable by the dictates of Jewish ritual law concerning blessings. The Talmud (Berachot 40b) rules that a blessing that does not specifically mention the fact that God is King of the Universe is invalid and must be repeated.

Tosafos [ibid.] responds to the challenge presented by this problematic aspect of the Amidah prayer. He explains that when we refer to God as the God of Abraham that is an alternate way of describing Him as the King of the Universe; it was Abraham who first established God's "kingdom" by teaching people that God was their ruler.

But how can we relate to the idea of establishing God's Kingdom? Isn't the statement that God is the King of the Universe merely an acknowledgment of fact? It may be a fact that not everyone subscribes to, as there are people who reject the very fact of God's existence, but that does not mean that God's Kingdom needs to be established! The believer, who does accept God's existence, does not turn God into a ruler. God is the King of the Universe by virtue of His own Divine powers. What did Abraham have to do with it?

The answer to this question is based on one of the fundamentals of Judaism. In fact God is not the King of the Universe by virtue of His Divine powers. In order to be referred to as King, God requires recognition.

"For the Kingship belongs to God and He rules over the nations." (Psalms 22:29) The Gaon of Vilna explains: "God is the King of the Jewish people because they accepted Him as their King when they agreed to keep His laws. As far as the nations are concerned, He rules over them. When He wants them to, they are forced to carry out His will, but since they do not recognize God as their ruler, He is not their king. In Hebrew, the title King has a constitutional implication; a king requires the willing recognition of his subjects to merit his title."

We express this idea twice daily in the Shema prayer.

"Hear O! Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One." (Deut. 6:4)

God who is only our God today and not the God of the nations will be the single God of all in the future ... As is written: "God will be king over the entire earth; on that day God will be One and His name will be One." (Rashi, ibid)

The establishment of the kingdom of God is the achievement of human beings. The kingdom is created by man's free will decision to subject himself to God's rule. It seems that it was Abraham after all who first established God's Kingdom. The nation that followed his teaching and took the fateful step of accepting God's rule thereby actualized Abraham's vision; for there is no monarch if there are no subjects. By accepting God's rule, the Jewish people merited the ability to obtain a glimpse of their ruler. The ultimate result was the Tabernacle.


"Please bestow upon me kisses from your lips." (Song of Songs 1:2)

This verse is a parable to a king who desired marriage with a noble woman from a good family. He sent a go-between to ask for her consent; she replied that she was not even fit to be his maid, but nevertheless, [if he was really proposing marriage] she would like to hear the proposal from his own lips. So too the Jewish people made a similar request: "We desire to see our King." As it is written:

"Moses brought the words of the people back to God." (Exodus 19:9)

God has a special Presence, a revelation of Himself whose purpose is to allow His deserving human bride to obtain a glimpse of Him. After the Jewish people accepted God as their King, this Presence became inextricably intertwined with the Jewish nation. To get an idea of who this Presence is we must dig into our souls a bit.


The human soul, or neshama, is divisible into parts in much the same manner as the human body. The parts of the neshama are known as Neshama, Chaya, and Yechida. Without exploring the full complexity that lies behind these details, a task that would be beyond my competence in any case, we can get some idea of the meaning of this division by examining the Torah source that associates the soul with the idea of neshama, a word that literally means breath.

"And Hashem God formed the man of dust from the ground, and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life; and man became a living being." (Genesis 2:7)

The human soul is made of God's breath. This breath is called simply that when it becomes part of us; neshama, the Breath, God's Breath in ourselves. God's Breath symbolically originates in the Divine life force as our breath does in ours. Respiration is the fundamental sign of life. The Neshama comes from the Chaya, a word meaning life.

But respiration is only the outward sign of life. The breath of life supports the individual doing the breathing. Speaking symbolically again, the ultimate source of the Neshama is the unity of God, or Yechida, a word that means exclusively one. At its deepest Source, the human neshama is a portion of God Himself. But at this deepest point it is not the individual neshama. It is the singularity of all neshamot of all Jews rolled into one.

There are 600,000 root souls that support the spiritual foundation of the Jewish people. The Exodus had to wait until there were 600,000 males between the ages of 20 and 60 before the Jewish people could leave Egypt. In order to be a viable nation all the necessary components had to be down here on earth. These 600,000 Jewish souls are collectively known as Knesset Israel, the Congregation of Israel. This is the level of Yechida. At this level you are at the ultimate Source of all Neshamot, and whether you call this congregation God's Presence, the Shechina, or whether you call it Knesset Israel depends only on your point of view. If you are looking up from the world you are looking at the Shechina. If you are looking down from God's Throne, you are looking at Knesset Yisroel. Essentially, you are dealing with a single entity. (See Nefesh Hachaim, Gate 1, Ch.3)


To explore the ramifications of this concept let us study a passage of the Talmud:

They said of the Sage Hillel that when he would rejoice at the Succot celebration held in the Temple, he would declare: If I am here, than everything is here. But if I am not here who is here? (Talmud, Succa 53a)

Rashi and the Tosafos dispute the identity of the person that Hilell refers to with his 'I'.

Rashi understands the 'I' of the passage as a reference to God:

Hillel would sermonize to the public and warn them against sin, speaking in the name of God. "If I, God, am here than all is here; as long as I desire this house and My Presence resides in it, its glory will endure and all men will want to come here. But if you sin and My Presence leaves who will want to come here?"

Tosafos interprets the 'I' as referring to Hillel:

Rashi explains that Hillel was speaking in the name of God, but in the Jerusalem Talmud it would appear that he was speaking about himself. The Talmud asks there: "Does God require Hillel's praise?" The Talmud answers that the "I" of Hillell was the collective I. He was speaking in the name of Israel, and the praise of Israel is more beloved to God than anything, as it is written: "And You the Holy One who is supported by the praise of Israel." (Psalms 22)

The soul of the great tzaddik Hillel, who was the leader of Israel at the time, his 'I', could either represent the 'I' of God, or the collective 'I' of the congregation of Israel. The sensitive ear picks up the implication that these two 'I's are really one and the same. The holiness of the Temple fuses them into a unity that represents the collective consciousness of both.

The fusion of these two identities - the 'I' of God and the 'I' of Israel – can only be symbolically expressed adequately in terms of the consummation of a marriage. Ideally, when marriage partners bond, their two 'I's fuse into one, single, inseparable 'I'. They themselves have no clear notion where one ends and the other one begins.

When Israel merits, it is able to attain the same level of unity with God. It is the need to express this remarkable unity that necessitates a Temple where this unity between God and Israel can actually be seen and felt.


God's Presence can never be detected except through the formation of a powerful spiritual bond with some intelligent creature. His Presence is always detectable in the heavens, because He is the acknowledged King of all the creatures that reside there; heavenly creatures are always in perfect union with God.

But to make His Presence felt on earth, God must fuse with man, and, as we well know, this sort of bond cannot be taken for granted. Unlike the creatures that inhabit the heavens, down here on earth we have free will and are often confused. It takes a giant like Abraham to blaze the trail that eventually results in the fusion between the Jewish people and God.

When God was finally able to send His Shechina down to earth to fuse with man, He reclaimed a part of His dominion to which He previously had no entry. No doubt He had the power to manipulate it from the outside as He was its Creator, but there was no possibility of any relationship with this part of the universe. There was no affection, zero warmth. He could not make His Presence felt. The man-God connection was purely business.

Our parsha closes the Book of Exodus. In his introduction to Exodus, Nachmanides explains that this book is the story of the first Diaspora and the first Redemption. Although at the end of Exodus Israel has not yet entered the Promised Land and is still wandering in the desert, the Redemption has already arrived. The completion of the building of the Tabernacle, and the coming to rest of the Shechina within it is the true Redemption. When the Shechina came to rest in the Tabernacle Israel once again attained the lofty spiritual level of the Patriarchs in whose tents the Shechina dwelled.

Exodus ends:

"The cloud of the Holy Spirit covered the Tent of Meeting and the Presence of God filled the Tabernacle." (Exodus 40:34)

The fusion of the 'I' of God with the 'I' of Israel is the true Exodus. With the fusion of the 'I's man finally escaped the confining limitations of physicality and fused with the Infinite. When Israel's collective 'I' fused with God's, the Divine light that filtered down through the levels of Yechida and Chaya to the level of Neshama transformed the existence of every individual Jew. Physical life acquired a spiritual mantle.

The lack of a Temple robs us of the ability to express our spirituality in our everyday lives and leaves our humanity severely impaired. We are hemmed in by the limitations of physicality and the only avenue to the world of the spirit that remains open leads through our minds and imaginations. But the contact with God established through these channels often leaves our bodies and our emotions behind, where they remain mired in the mud of the world ruled by the Pharaohs. In the absence of the Tabernacle the liberation of the Exodus cannot penetrate to the level of the physical.

Our own frustration at this inability to express our spirituality physically is shared by God. The lack of a Temple also inhibits Him from attaining His goal, the fusion between His Shechina and Israel. He becomes a King without a country.

Elijah asked Rabbi Yosi if he heard anything when he prayed. Rabbi Yosi told him that he heard an echo that sighed like a dove and proclaimed, "Woe to My children, because of their sins, I demolished My house and burnt my Sanctuary and exiled them among the nations." ... Woe to the Father that had to exile His children, And woe to the children who were driven away from their Father's table. (Talmud, Berachot, 3a)

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