March 22, 2017 - Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei
by Cantor Sandy Horowitz
Ancestors. We begin praying the Amidah by invoking them: as we acknowledge the presence of God, we do so by stating that this is also the God of our patriarchs. In recent times, more liberal streams of Judaism added the matriarchs; as a woman it is comforting to read the names of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah alongside (well actually, following) Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
It can be an equally meaningful though different experience to pray from a traditional siddur in which our maternal ancestors have not been added, this too. I still recite their names after reading the printed names of the patriarchs, as a conscious acknowledgement of their textual invisibility. It is an opportunity as well to reflect on the broader notion of inclusion and exclusion.
Ancestors. Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei provides a rare opportunity to acknowledge the entire community of ancient Israelite women, our collective female ancestors who are mentioned here not once but several times.
In this week’s reading God instructs Moses to collect offerings from the people in order to build the mishkan, the portable sanctuary for God during their years in the wilderness on their way to the promised land. They will also contribute to the making of the priestly vestments.
In Exodus 35:4 Moses begins by calling upon “kol adat b’nei Yisrael” – the entire community of the children of Israel — and asks for offerings from all those who carry a wise heart (chochmei lev). This might refer only to the men, however two verses later we read, “the men came with the women (ha anashim al kol nashim), every generous hearted person brought bracelets and earrings and rings and buckles….” Soon after, the women are singled out for their contributions: “And every wise hearted woman (kol ishah chachmat-lev) spun with her hands, and they brought spun material: blue, purple, and crimson wool, and linen. And all the women whose hearts uplifted them with wisdom, spun the goat hair (Exodus 35:25-26).” These acts of collective sacrifice are then summarized in verse 29, “All the men and women whose hearts moved them to bring anything for the work…brought it as a freewill offering.”
Here, unlike anywhere else in the Torah, the women are explicitly instructed, and they explicitly comply – to do what? To contribute together and equally to this most sacred task of building the mishkan. In The Womens Torah Commentary Rabbi Nancy H. Wiener writes in her essay on parashat Vayakhel that these verses are “nothing short of extraordinary in the realm of biblical narrative. The women suddenly become an important collective entity within the community of Israel.”
Sadly however, once the mishkan is completed the women will no longer be allowed to participate in any aspect of ritual upkeep or sacrificial offering. As Rabbi Wiener states, “Through their actions, the generation that contributed to the miskhan taught that a kehillah kedoshah [holy community] should include all of its members. Over time however, their teaching was eclipsed by the belief that it is exclusion that safeguards holiness.” (Exclusion of course was not limited to women, as many categories of men were also excluded – the blind, deaf, those with skin ailments, etc.)
The notion of holiness being defined by way of exclusion is most evident, ironically, with regard to the descendant of the Mishkan — the Kotel, the holy remains of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Western Wall. Efforts of the organization Women of the Wall and others to bring equality of prayer to the kotel are well known. But we need merely to note that the length of the section where women are permitted to pray is one quarter the size of the men’s section, 12 meters as compared with 48 meters. In an article published in Haaretz on May 14, 2013 Yair Ettinger wrote, with regard to efforts to provide women with a larger space: “a 2006 religious ruling by [Rabbi of the Wall] Shmuel Rabinowitz … determines that… the floor of the men’s section there is sacred and not a single square meter of it can be transferred to the women’s section.” To do so, states Rabinowitz, would “diminish [its] sanctity”. It seems God’s recognition of “kol adat b’nei Yisrael” has been forgotten.
Ancestors. For a brief, significant event in our biblical narrative, we were all equal in holiness. As we continue to struggle for recognition on behalf of those who are excluded, we must remember this singular moment and the message it provides: we are each holy. All it takes is a wise heart.
Cantor Sandy Horowitz is the cantor of Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ.
The Women’s Torah Commentary edited by Rabby Elyse Goldstein. Jewish Lights Publishing, 2008. “Vayakhel – Of Women and Mirrors” by Rabbi Nancy H. Wiener. 173-176.
“The Short and Overcrowded History of Women at the Western Wall”, Yair Ettinger May 14, 2013