Parshat Vayakhel begins with Moshe assembling the children of Israel and commanding them regarding the Shabbat, following which he instructs them in the work of the Mishkan. The juxtaposition of these two commandments, the Shabbat and the construction of the Mishkan, seems somewhat odd. Furthermore, the use of the wording “Vayakhel,” translated as “he assembled,” is also striking. There is a difference between the words “Vaye’esof,” he gathered, and the word “Vayekhel,” he assembled. In the former, people are gathering together without forming a central entity. In the latter, a “Kehillah” is being formed, a community that speaks as one and acts as an assembly. Why these choices of wording and arrangement?
Rav Zalman Sorotzkin zt”l explains in his Oznayim LaTorah that the Shabbat was not given to the individual Jew only, but to the Kehillah, the entire Jewish people. Each individual Jew’s observance of Shabbat has a profound effect on the Jewish people, for we are all partners in this Mitzvah.
A similar theme applies to the Mishkan – the Jews as a collective were commanded to build it. All of Bnei Yisrael contributed equally for the silver Adanim, the sockets of the Mishkan’s foundation, as we read in Parshat Ki Tisa. Above and beyond this contribution, each individual was free to give according to his means and desire to the Mishkan itself and to its vessels.
It is significant that each member of the Kehillah contributed equally to the Adanim. These Adanim were forged from the half-Shekel pieces that Bnei Yisrael had given Moshe as part of the census that Hashem had commanded him to take. It is clearly prohibited to count Jews in the usual way, as we see from the story of David’s counting the people against the advice of Yoav, his chief of staff (Shmuel II 24). After completing the census, David realizes he has sinned and repents. The prophet Gad is sent to tell him that he must be penalized for this sin, and to offer him a choice of punishments. David opts for three days of pestilence in the land, during which 77,000 people die. This story makes it painfully clear that counting Bnei Yisrael directly brings horrific results. Why is this the case?
Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook zt”l explains that the primary reason that a leader would want to count his people is to gauge how much military force he controls. Battles are waged on the basis of numbers; the larger the army, the more powerful it is, and the greater the likelihood of wining. Jews, however, are markedly different. Our strength does not reside in numbers. In fact, we are expressly told in Devarim 7:7 that Hashem “did not choose [us] because of our large numbers, for [we] are the smallest of nations. [Hashem chose us] rather because of His love for [us], and because…of the covenant He made with [our] forefathers,” Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. While we are insignificant from a quantitative point of view, our qualitative worth is inestimable.
As such, we cannot count Bnei Yisrael. The concept of a Kehillah Kedoshah, a holy assembly, cannot be assigned a numerical value. The only way to determine our nation’s number is to collect the half-shekel coins and count them. These coins formed the foundation of the Mishkan, the Adanim – the very supports of the structure. As Rav Kook points out, this is the true strength of the Jewish people: “We are the foundation of the House of God in this world.” Our commitment to a Torah-true life, and particularly to the Mitzvah of Shabbat, affords Hashem a place in the physical world. Hashem lives within Am Yisrael, and we give Him shelter by setting aside the physical world, literally and figuratively, through the observance of Shabbat and the other Mitzvot.
Returning to our original question concerning the juxtaposition of the Mitzvot of Mishkan and Shabbat, the Abarbanel comments that since the Mishkan symbolizes our communion with Hashem, we might believe that this commandment outweighs the day of Shabbat rest. Humans need to believe in action and the perfection attainable through performance, both of which the Mishkan epitomizes. To counteract Bnei Yisrael’s potential belief that the work of the Mishkan should override the Shabbat, Moshe informs them that it is Shabbat that is truly paramount. When we consider Rav Kook’s insight that we become Hashem’s home on earth, we can readily understand that the home we construct for Him is secondary to the place and space, the Shabbat, which He has designed for us.