This Week's Torah Portion: At Mount Sinai, Panic Becomes a Golden Calf (Part 22)

Dëvar Torah – Parashath Va-Yaqhél (Exodus XXXV, 1-XXXVIII, 20)

Thus begins our parasha:

And Moshe assembled [vayaqhél] all the community of the bënei Yisra’él and said, “These are the words that Ha-Shem has commanded to do them.”


 Rashi laces this assembly in its historical context:

The day after Yom Kippur, when he had descended from the mountain …

The Ramban, commenting on XXXIV, 28 in last week’s parasha, recounts the precise sequence of events proceeding from the encounter at Mt. Sinai. That encounter began on Sivan 6, 2448 (the present year is 5776). Forty full days later (Tammuz 17) Moshe descended from the mountain and took against because of the Golden Calf (as recounted last week). He then spent forty days in fasting and prayer on behalf of Israel, as he tells us in Deuteronomy IX, 18:

And I prostrated myself before Ha-Shem as at first, forty days and forty nights; I neither ate bread nor drank water, over your entire sin which you had sinned.

It was only at the end of this prolonged period, after he had achieved complete reconciliation between G-d and Israel, that Moshe was again invited to ascend Mt. Sinai and bring down the second set of tablets forty days thereafter, on Tishrei 10: Yom Kippur.

Such a general assembly of Israel, men and women alike (as is implied by the phrase “all the community of Israel”) was unusual, and certainly not in line with Moshe’s usual method of instruction, in groups, as the Talmud tells us (‘Eiruvin 54b). The subject of his address is therefore of great interest:

Six days mëlacha will be done, and on the seventh day you will have a holy institution, a sabbath of resting for Ha-Shem; anyone who does mëlacha on it will be out to death. You will not burn a fire in all your dwellings on the sabbath day (vv. 2-3).


This is followed by a second, much longer speech, listing all of the materials donated to the Mishkan, and recapitulating the details of its construction and of the objects to be used in it, which takes up the rest of the parasha.

But all of this has previously been reported in parashoth Tëruma and Tëtzavve; similarly, sabbath observance was part of the ‘Asereth haDibbëroth (often mistranslated “The Commandments,” the executive summary, if you will, of the Torah presented in parashath Yithro). What is there about these two things in particular that necessitated their repetition before all Israel assembled?

To understand the purpose of this assembly and what was at stake, it is necessary to revisit for a moment the incident of the Golden Calf.

The proximate cause of the incident was a misunderstanding. Moshe had told them that he would be atop the mountain for forty days. By this, he meant forty full days beginning on Sivan 7. His listeners misunderstood, and expected that Sivan 6 would be the first of those days (cf. Shabbath 89a).

Accordingly, as it became increasingly obvious on the thirty-ninth day (by Moshe’s reckoning) that he was not coming down, “and the people assembled (vayiqqahél) around Aharon,” (XXXII,1), i.e. there was a spontaneous assembly to protest the situation. This quickly led to panic, and the demand by the ‘erev rav, the great multitude of people who were not Bënei Yisra’él, the anonymous “they”:


And they said, Arise, make us elohim which will go before us (ibid.).

Aharon, feeling his very life threatened by the violent passions which the panic had aroused, played for time:

Remove the golden earrings which are in the ears of your wives, sons, and daughters and bring them to me (ibid., 2).

He did not realize how quickly the rot had spread:

And all of the people removed the earrings which were in their ears and brought them to Aharon (ibid., 3).

We can infer two things from the above: First, that the initial intent and direction of the request which led to the calf was an impugning of the fundamental unity of G-d. The whole sense of the phrase “elohim which will go before us,” as well as the subsequent declaration “[t]hese are your elohim, Israel, who raised you up from the land of Egypt” (ibid., 4) is expressed in the plural, with plural verbs and pronouns.

Secondly, all of the people (the only place in the account in which that word appears) donated gold to the construction of the calf. Even though (as is obvious from Moshe’s punitive actions [cf. XXXII, 20-35]) the majority of Israel were not implicated in the actual worship of the idol, nonetheless all of the people had contributed to the construction of what became the object of that worship. Thus, in a certain sense, they were all accomplices to it and were tainted thereby.

This taint came about because of an unnecessary and voluntary assembly and subsequent donation of material for ‘avoda ara, a strange and unauthorized form of worship. To remove the stain from Israel’s souls, Moshe called his assembly — so the assembly was a mitzva, a commandment — and called for voluntary donations from “all the generous of heart” (XXXV, 8) for the Mishkan.


Rabbi Eliyahu ben Avraham, the 18th century rabbi known affectionately as the ga’on (“genius”) of Vilna, adds up the categories of donations and, finding that there were thirteen of them, concludes that the bënei Yisra’él were attesting to the unit of G-d by allusion. Thirteen is the gimatriya, or numerical value, of the three consonants comprising the word echad, “one” (alef represent 1, cheth represents 8, and dalet represents 4).

The purpose of Sabbath observance, as Israel were informed in the ‘Asereth haDibbëroth, is no less than weekly testimony that G-d created the world:

Therefore Ha-Shem blessed the sabbath day and sanctified it (Exodus XX, 11).

The purpose of every item in the Mishkan, every design contour and measurement, was charged with symbolic significance representing some feature of the created world, as the many commentators demonstrate. No wonder, as the Ramban notes in commenting on XXXVI, 8, that the details of the construction are recapitulated no fewer than five times in the Biblical narrative — reflecting the love and esteem in which Ha-Shem held the Mishkan, no less than He feels for His world.

  • The Talmud (Shabbath 97b) records a deduction of Rabbi Yëhuda haNasi on the first verse of our parasha, which, with Rashi’s help, we can understand as follows: The word dëvarim, being plural, reflects a minimum number of two words or things. Expanded with the definite prefix to hadëvarim, “the words,” yields a third word or thing. The gimatriya or numerical value of the consonants of the word élle (alef represents 1, lamed 30, and 5) is thirty-six. Thus, the phrase élle hadëvarim is indicative of the thirty-nine melachoth forbidden on the sabbath.
  • What are these mysterious mëlachoth which, as we’ve been told over and over again, are forbidden on the sabbath on pain of death? It seems from our text that hav‘ara, “lighting a fire,” is one of them, but what are the other thirty-eight?
  • An examination of our parasha reveals that the mëlacha occurs over and over again in connection with the various crafts and skills necessary to make the Mishkan and its artifacts. Thus, it emerges that a mëlacha was any form of creative work necessary to the fashioning of the artificial “world” of the Mishkan, and indeed the Talmud (Shabbath 49a) tells us that the mëlachoth of our parasha constitute those thirty-nine categories. Just as Ha-Shem “rested” from His labors of the Creation, so, too, must Israel rest from the labors of the Mishkan.
  • Why is one mëlacha singled out in our parasha? To provide a deduction by example: “It is taught: Hav‘ara was included with all of the other mëlachoth, so why is it singled out? For comparison purposes, and to tell you that hav‘ara is a major category of mëlacha for which one incurs guilt individually, so does one incur guilt individually for any of the major categories of mëlacha (Shabbath 70a).” Sabbath observance is an indivisible whole, not a Chinese menu; every detail of Creation is part of a harmonious whole, necessary to its continued existence.
  • From the above, we begin to glimpse something of the awesome significance of the Mishkan and the service which went on in it. The Mishkan’s successor, of course, was the Temple, which we presently do not have (so the Talmud [Yoma 9b] tells us) because of sin’ath chinnam, “groundless hatred.” If the completion of the Mishkan depended upon the unity of the nation, each contributing what he or she could, then its devastation was brought about by disunity, strife, faction — all manifestations of sin’ath chinnam.
  • After our parasha it is customary on this sabbath to read the passage called parashath Shëqalim (Exodus XXX, 11-15) which provides us with a clue of how to build the Jewish unity without which the Temple cannot be rebuilt. The parasha tells us that the holy sheqel which is discussed weighed twenty géra, and that each man of Israel was required to contribute half a sheqel, “a ransom for his soul,” such that “the rich may not increase it, nor the poor decrease it.” The Talmud (Yërushalmi Shëqalim II, 3) offers that the ten géra of the sheqel haqodesh correspond to the ‘Asereth haDibbëroth against which Israel had sinned.
  • We are not all equal in our abilities and opportunities. Some of us have brilliant minds, others are more simple; some of us have merited to sit at the feet of great scholars and imbibe the riches they have to offer, others have not. But all Jews are equally obligated in the mitzvoth of the Torah, and it is in the acceptance and cheerful submission to that obligation that the source of true Jewish unity lies.


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