This week, we read the double portion, Vayak'heil/P'kudei. In Parashat P'kudei, the last section of the Book of Exodus, there is a rather tedious repetition of the inventory of all the equipment used in the building and decorating of the Tabernacle, the place of worship for the Israelites during their sojourn in the wilderness after they left Egypt. It begins: Eileh f’kudei haMishkan, “These are the records of the Tabernacle . . .” (Exodus 38:21). Then follows a detailed list of the materials: how much gold and silver and copper was used, and what each was used for; the kinds of fabrics and their specific functions; all the vestments of the priests and the breastplate; every utensil and vessel, and their purposes. These lists are punctuated with phrases like “as the Eternal commanded Moses” (for example, 39:1) and “the Israelites did so; just as the Eternal had commanded Moses, so they did” (39:32).
Pretty exciting stuff, eh? It reminds me of that part in the Book of Esther, which we read on the festival of Purim, where the king can’t sleep, and has someone read to him from the records, the annals of the kingdom, so that he will be bored into sleep (Esther 6:1). Imagine if the U.S. president suffered from insomnia, and the remedy was someone reading aloud the Congressional Record. A sure soporific treatment!
Why do we need such documents, such boring lists that threaten to put us to sleep? Because careful accounting keeps us honest. Moses felt obliged to give a detailed account of all the riches used for the fashioning of the Tabernacle and its furnishings so that he could satisfy those who might have suspected improper use of the materials. We read:
“Some Israelites knew that they would have taken advantage of handling all that gold and silver for their own enrichment. They suspected Moses of being no better than they were. Thus the Midrash [that collection of Rabbinic commentaries and excurses on the biblical text] emphasizes that leaders of the community must be above any suspicion of personal aggrandizement. [The Rabbis give the example that] the family that prepared incense for the Temple service would never let their relatives wear perfume, lest some people suspect them of using Temple incense for their personal benefit. The official who supervised the shekel offering would wear a special garment with no pockets and no long sleeves when he did so, so that no one could suspect him of pocketing public funds.” (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 3:7, cited in Etz Hayim Torah Commentary, p. 564)
Careful accounting keeps us honest. A tedious inventory is there so that no one suspects that valuables have gone missing. Public officials must earn the public trust by scrupulous honesty and transparent records. There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun. In biblical times or in our own day, the rules are the same: the temptation is the same, the concern over abuse is the same, and the need for accurate records is the same.
We often use the phrase, “Put your money where your mouth is.” One can learn a great deal about an organization or a governmental entity by reading its budget. A budget reveals much more than numbers—a budget reveals values, and not only numeric values. How we allocate funds and where we spend our money tell a great deal about what we hold to be most important. In 2005, Rabbi David Saperstein wrote an analysis for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism of the budget proposed for the country for the next fiscal year. He began:
“The budget is the great moral document of our nation, setting forth the government’s priorities and values for the coming year and beyond. It is fair, therefore, to ask what values are, and are not, being advanced in this year’s budget.”
That introduction could apply to every budget of every government, every year. “The budget is the great moral document of our nation.” It is much more than numbers and finance. Budgets and records and inventories are the tips of the icebergs, the visible indicators of what is really going on beneath the surface of our society. Careful accounting keeps us honest, and putting our money where our values are keeps us moral.
Eileh f’kudei haMishkan, “These are the records of the Tabernacle . . .” In order to create a place for God to dwell, the Israelites collected the offerings and built the Tabernacle. In order to create a society in which God’s Presence is evident and God’s teachings are practiced, we form a government and collect the taxes and build the social infrastructure that upholds all the people. The records are important, and the budget reflects the values of the society. The records may sometimes put us to sleep, but what they say should rouse us out of our complacency and energize us to raise our voices. Our task is to work together as partners with all people of goodwill to create and maintain a just and compassionate society.
Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus is rabbi emerita of B’nai Yehuda Beth Sholom in Homewood, Illinois. She is past-president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
"These are the records of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of the Pact, which were drawn up at Moses' bidding . . ." (Exodus 38:21)
Rabbi Dreyfus convincingly explains why we should wade through the tedious details of this week's double portion, Vayak'heil/P'kudei, in order to arrive at an important truth: the most mundane records can provide us with crucial insights into the life and values of a community. If you have ever worked with archival documents or explored your family's history, you know that the seemingly unimportant details that you find in budgets, grocery lists, and meeting minutes can become the colors that you paint with and the tools that you use to create a full and nuanced portrait of a person or a community.
Whenever I read Vayak'heil/P'kudei, I am reminded of an article that Rabbi Isaac M. Wise, the founder of Reform Judaism in North America, published in his newspaper, The Israelite, on April 2, 1858.1 His report on the dedication of the new synagogue in Memphis, Tennessee is every bit as detailed as the one that appears in this week's Torah portions. We read:
"Elegant are the curtains before the ark and the covers of the pulpit and desk… The curtain is of silk velvet and heavy gold embroidery. A gold eagle bearing the palm of peace in its clutches, [sic] stretches its wide pinions . . . Above the eagle glitter the gold stars, directing the mind heavenward . . . The young men of our persuasion in this city manifest no indifference, and are not lukewarm towards the sacred cause of Israel . . . on the contrary, they contributed largely to the solemnity of the occasion."2
The detailed accounts in both Vayak'heil/P'kudei and The Israelite should remind us that whether we are speaking of the Tabernacle in the wilderness or a synagogue in Memphis, Tennessee, a space is only considered holy when its construction has been made possible through the resources and enthusiasm of the entire community.
- Isaac M. Wise, "Memphis, Tenn.-Congregation Benat Israel,—Consecration of the Synagogue.—Miscellaneous," The Israelite, vol. 4 (April 2, 1858): 308
Rabbi Rachel Bearman is the spiritual leader of Temple B'nai Chaim in Georgetown, Connecticut. She was ordained at the Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio.
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