As I was reading this week’s parashah about the construction of the Tabernacle, I found that one repeated detail caught my attention: “And he [Bezalel] made fifty gold clasps and coupled the curtains to one another with the clasps, so that the tabernacle became one whole,” and then just a few verses later we are told again that, “He made fifty copper clasps to couple the tent together so that it might become one whole” (Exodus 36:13,18).
Before this moment, both the tabernacle and its tent cover were not unified wholes. What Bezalel had before him was a collection of beautiful, different, and distinct pieces. Only after he intentionally coupled those pieces together did the tabernacle and tent come into being as cohesive units. At first, I thought that perhaps this was a story about the whole being more than the sum of its parts. But I soon learned that these verses about physical structures and covers ironically covers up something more profound.
These verses echo earlier instructions when God told the Israelites to make a mishkan so that God could dwell among them. At the time, the order was to “make fifty gold clasps and couple the curtains one to another with the clasps, so that the tabernacle becomes one whole” (Exodus 26:6).
I noticed something curious about this redundancy: When God said, “Couple the curtains one to another with the clasps” (vḥibarta et-hayirot ishah el aḥotah bak’rasim), the verse could be read as, “Couple the curtains, a woman to her sister (ishah el aḥotah), with the clasps, and the Mishkan will become a single whole.” The hidden, or deeper meaning of the story, could be that when women unite, the Tabernacle itself becomes a viable whole. Indeed, when women come together, extraordinary things occur.
This theme of generative female collaboration reverberates throughout the Book of Exodus. It begins with strong women of all sorts risking their lives to save a youngster and train him for a unique leadership role (Exodus 1-2). In addition to the civilly disobedient midwives Shifra and Puah, and the resourceful Miriam and Yocheved (Moses’ sister and mother, respectively), there are the “vigorous” Hebrew women who gave birth or suckled children despite Pharaoh’s cruelties (Exodus 1:19; 2:7). Pharoah’s daughter and her slave girl took on personal risks to save a single child who would dramatically alter Egyptian society (Exodus 2:5-10). Later, we see women collectively secure vital resources for the Israelites’ first steps into freedom and use their skills to help build the Tabernacle (see Exodus 3:22, 11:2, and Chapter 35). Finally, there are the women serving at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, who used their copper mirrors to entice and arouse their menfolk, ensuring that the Jewish people would endure despite the difficulties of the wilderness (Exodus 38:8; I Samuel 2:22, Tanhuma, Pekudei 9:1).
The entirety of the Book of Exodus demonstrates that the very existence of Judaism is due, in large measure, to women whose names have mostly gone unrecorded. Without all those women and their under-recognized efforts, the very structures that enable the human and the holy to commune would have collapsed into chaos, or not come into being at all.
It is ironic and tragic that women were excluded from entering the very Mishkan that they helped bring into existence. No less troubling is it that so many women go unnamed in these foundational stories. As history attests, Jewish women have been covered up and glossed over by later texts and practices. Though our sources teach us to pay attention to and applaud the named and talented, like Bezalel, doing so often comes at the expense of ignoring and even devaluing the critical and creative contributions of so many others, women included.
To make our communities cohesive—especially during these tumultuous times, we need to bring people together physically. We need to turn our collective attention to acknowledge and celebrate the diverse array of folks whose very presence and quiet contributions get covered over too frequently. Who are the unsung clasps and hooks that bring everything together? Whoever brings copper should be perceived as no less important than one who brings gold, as both must come together to make our sacred spaces and times whole.