The Tabernacle of the Wise-Hearted

Vayak'heil, Exodus 35:1–38:20

D'Var Torah By: Yoel H. Kahn

Focal Point

Moses said further to the whole community of Israelites: This is what Adonai has commanded: Take from among you gifts to Adonai, everyone whose heart so moves him [or her] shall bring them—gifts for Adonai: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats' hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece. And let all among you who are skilled come and make all that Adonai has commanded: the Tabernacle, its tent and its covering, its clasps and its planks, its bars, its posts, and its sockets. (Exodus 35:4-11)

D'var Torah

The description of the making of the portable Tabernacle, called the Mishkan, which is one of the most lovingly drawn scenes in the Torah—such a vivid catalog of the raw materials!—is followed by an exhaustive verbal description of the architectural and construction details. Over the years, many have asked where these former slaves, wandering in the desert, found all these luxury goods? But if we read the text carefully, we see that the most wondrous offering the Israelites brought was not the precious stones, nor the blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and not even the rare spices. Rather, it was the offering of the heart, which preceded all the other gifts.

Our translation of Exodus 35:4 reads, "Take from among you gifts to Adonai, everyone whose heart so moves him [or her] shall bring them." While this is clearly the plain meaning of the Hebrew, a careful word-for-word reading of the original leads to an alternative interpretation. Employing the technique of "hyperliteralism," whereby nothing is taken for granted, the midrashic interpretation may, for example, ignore the idiomatic sense of words and assume that minor grammatical irregularities are deliberate. Thus if every word and letter of the Torah is sacred, surely everything in it—including apparent irregularities—is potentially of the utmost significance. This technique, associated with Rabbi Akiva and his school, deliberately reads biblical text out of context in order to elicit another dimension of sacred meaning from the Torah.

In this case, a literal reading of Exodus 35:5 is, "Each one whose heart so moves him [or her] shall bring it, the gift of Adonai." But if the "gift" consists of the long list of luxury goods cataloged in verses 35:5-9, why is it cited in the singular? What exactly is "it" that each person whose heart is moved brings to help build the sanctuary? The Chasidic teacher Judah Aryeh Alter, known as the S'fat Emet (1847-1905), taught that the gift each one brings is the offering of his or her heart.

So then, what does bringing the heart as a voluntary offering mean? We are, of course, speaking metaphorically. Yet the metaphoric symbolism of the heart can have different associations. In Western imagery the heart is the seat of the emotions, while in the ancient Near Eastern world the heart represents the intellect. For us the heart might suggest both our passion and our intellect. But what does the Torah mean by the words "Each one whose heart so moves him [or her] shall bring it, the gift of Adonai"?

Maybe this verse can be understood in contrast to last week's Torah portion, Ki Tisa, which describes the building and worship of the Golden Calf. Then, too, the people brought gold and free-will offerings, but they dedicated them for an idolatrous purpose. What distinguishes the offerings in Vaya'kheil from those described inKi Tisa is the orientation of the heart, which precedes all else. To build the sanctuary with the offering of one's heart means to seek to live according to the highest ideals and most sacred purposes. Thus a gift to build the sanctuary precedes all other offerings and work that is to be done. Giving this gift is a continual spiritual task for in every moment, there is a renewed opportunity to respond to the invitation "Each one whose heart so moves him [or her] shall bring it."

And what is done with the offering of the heart? We learn in Exodus 35:10, "Let all among you who are skilled come and make all that Adonai has commanded." The Hebrew expression chacham-lev, usually rendered "skilled," literally means "wise-hearted." Thus the verse can be read, "Let each one among you who is wise-hearted come and make all that the Eternal has commanded: the Tabernacle...." And from what do those who are wise-hearted build the Mishkan? The answer is, the voluntary offering of their hearts! The underlying root ofMishkan is "close by, present" because the Mishkan is the "neighborly place" where our Close Neighbor, the Shechinah, dwells.

Hence we should not be surprised to learn that one thread of the tradition views the Torah's elaborate description of the construction of the physical sanctuary, the Mishkan, as a metaphor for the building of the inner sanctuary—the heart and soul as mishkan. Thus the opening verse of this passage, "Each one whose heart so moves him [or her] shall bring it," is an invitation to Jewish spiritual practice. From the start, we should consecrate the heart to a sacred purpose. We should make the act of cleaving to the Holy One the fundamental fact of life itself.

But once we have offered our hearts to the Holy One, they are given right back to us. Don't give your heart to me, says God. Make a space for me inside! Construct the Tabernacle within. Those who are "wise-hearted" do not go to God but rather take God in. This week's Torah portion invites us to use all of our gifts, day by day, moment by moment, in the building of the mishkan.

By the Way

Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.

This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:

Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one...
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.

(Wallace Stevens, "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour")

Your Guide

  1. What is the textual problem that the midrashic reading of the verse resolves? What spiritual issue does it seek to illuminate?

  2. What is your understanding of the significance of the Mishkan?

  3. Wallace Stevens writes of creating a sanctuary wherein "We make a dwelling in the evening air/In which being there together is enough," but earlier in the poem, he declares, "God and the imagination are one." How do you imagine or feel a closeness to God? Is it an experience of intimacy and unity?

Rabbi Yoel H. Kahn, Ph.D., is the rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, CA.

Reference Materials

Vayak’heil, Exodus 35:1-38:20
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 666-679; Revised Edition, pp. 611-624;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 521-544

Originally published: