Parsha Vayakhel is one of those parshot that is easy to just gloss over. It seems, at first glance like one of the “listing” parshot. You know the ones, lists of begats or lists of things that just seem endless. I’m sure a true Torah sage can find great depth in them, but to me they are like certain passages in Jane Austen novels that you can read a few lines and then just skip on. There presence in no way diminishes the overall experience, but seem best glossed over.
But Vayakhel, is actually a parshat that my experience in Kohenet has helped me to find great depth in, but we’ll get to that part in a second. In studying Vayakhel to prepare to write this drash, I found something new. It may have been obvious to others but it was a new treasure for me. The passage starts out with a reminder of the prohibition against working on the Sabbath. The first time through this time, I glossed over that, but about half way through the passage I thought, ” hold on a minute!”
The majority of this passage is about the tribe’s excitement in the building of the tabernacle. Who wouldn’t be excited? Just think about how great it is just to build a community Sukkah. Now imagine you’ve just escaped slavery and persecution — oh and the G!d(dess) who rescued you has said to help build the sanctuary! AWESOME!
You would might get so excited that you think, “this isn’t work!” That reiteration that we aren’t to work on the Sabbath was a reminder to the Israelites that even building the Mishkan counted as work. For me it was a moment to rethink some choices I’ve been making about things I do and do not do on the Sabbath. I look at halakah as a reference point, not law, so halakah offers me a perspective what I should and should’t do, but then it’s up to me to do soul searching and set my direction. This passage made me rethink things I had classified as “avodah,” or work of my heart, which I didn’t consider as “work.” If the Israelites were supposed to cease work on the Mishkan on the Sabbath, then maybe I needed to refocus on the Sabbath being a liminal-space day of just being. Especially in this day and age when so many of us feel that we don’t have enough hours in day to begin with, the Sabbath and the cessation from work is even more precious.
But how do I do this? I guess the answer is, “just stop.” But is the kind of thing tzitzit and tefillin were supposed to help us with: And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.” Pretty much every Jew knows the words to the “v’ahavta,” which is really a part of the Shema prayer. It was the first Hebrew prayer I remember learning to chant in Hebrew School. Fewer may be familiar with the “vayomer” section that includes this phrase: “And they shall be tzitzit for you, and when you look at them you will remember all of the Lord’s commandments and do them and not follow after your heart and after your eyes which lead you astray.” We tie these words around our hands and make signs between our eyes to keep us from just following our hearts or eyes. They help us from making bad choices in moments of spiritual weakness.
I have a brass cuff bracelet I wear every day inspired by this idea. The choice of material was inspired by another section of Vayakhel, one that we studied in the Kohenet program. Exodus 38:8 is one of those lines that you’d think there would be a TON of commentary about, but there doesn’t seem to be. We studied it in Kohenet because part of what we do in the training is dive into the overlooked and buried parts of the women’s stories. The Tzovah, the priestess path of Shekhinah of Kohenet spiritual framework appears in Exodus 38:8. Generally, Tzovot, plural for Tzovah, has been translated as “working women” or “serving women.” Much of the traditional commentary that does exists seems to want to explain these women’s appearance away.
38:8. Mirrors of the serving women that did service at the door of the tent of meeting (JPS, 1917)
Modern translations and commentaries seem to acknowledge that these women, who gave their brass or copper mirrors to the cause of the Mishkan, probably had some ritual function. In an incredibly thought-provoking book by Christian theologian Wilda Gafney, it is proposed that they were a core of women whose job it was to guard the entry to the Mishkan. She also posits that the mirrors they sacrificed for the Mishkah were their signaling tools. Wow, did that put this offering in a whole new perspective. It even made me alter a line of a prayer in the Kohenet prayerbook, which is a regular part of my morning prayers to say, “I call to mind the Tzovah, at the threshold’s door — guarding the holy of holies forevermore.
More important to me though, than this line of a prayer, is my bracelet. My brass cuff, which I bought for $5 at a festival, is a daily reminder of who I am, a Kohenet. Regardless of the situation I am in, when I see the cuff I think of the Tzovah and remember that one of my jobs in this world is to guard the thresholds of the sacred, and welcome people as the come, and help them as they exit. Now, because of Vayakhel, I am exploring having special one made for Shabbat. So no matter else is going on in my life, I will have special reminder that the Sabbath is for ceasing. It is a liminal time, where we are to just “be.” What an incredible gift and challenge all at once.