Parashat VaYakheil: We Are God’s Partners

Posted on March 15, 2024 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck

In a commentary on the Book of Exodus, Martin Buber (1) notices something striking about the language used to describe the building of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary the Israelites built and carried with them on their journey to the Promised Land. It mirrors in exact detail the language used to describe God’s creation of the world in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis. Buber notes seven instances where the language of the two events is painstakingly parallel.

 

The message is clear. The two acts of creating the world and the building of the Tabernacle are presented as reciprocal acts. God made a place for humanity and humanity imitates God by making a dwelling place on earth for the Divine Presence. As Nehama Leibowitz has written, in beautiful symmetry, we “assume the role of being God’s partner in Creation.” (2)

 

The sacrificial offerings that our ancestors brought to the Tabernacle (and later to the Great Temple in Jerusalem) were expressions and acknowledgements of this partnership in which God provides the raw materials of creation and we humans take them, refine them, and symbolically bring them back to God.

 

The best example of this was the offering known as lechem ha-panim, the Showbread. (3) Each Shabbat the Priests of ancient Israel were instructed to bake 12 loaves of bread made from exact measurements of fine flour. These challot were to be arranged in two rows on a pure table and placed in the inner chamber of the Tabernacle. There the loaves remained on display until the following Shabbat when they would be replaced by fresh ones and eaten by the priests.

 

This weekly offering was rich in symbolism and meaning. The twelve challot of equal size and shape represented the unity and equality of the twelve tribes of Israel joining together in the service of God. And bread by its very nature reflects the partnership between God, who brings forth grain, and humanity, whose efforts turn it into something of greater value.

 

To this day, bread has a special status among the various types of foods. It is called the “staff of life,” and we refer to sharing a meal as “breaking bread.” Our rabbis ordained that eating bread should be preceded by a special blessing because bread sustains the spirit as well as the body.

 

“Blessed is the Eternal our God, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” This blessing is one of the best-known Jewish prayers, yet there is also something strange about it. Does God bring forth bread from the earth? Do loaves of bread grow on trees or stalks? No, making bread requires both divine and human effort, and that is part of what makes it so precious. It is a symbol of our partnership with God in tikkun olam, building and repairing the world.

 

There is a beautiful story that recalls the message and the meaning of the Showbread and of our sacred partnership with God. I received it from Rabbi Larry Kushner who received it from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l:

 

“A long time ago in the northern part of Israel, in the town of Tsefat, the richest man in town was, as usual, sleeping through Shabbat morning services. Every now and then, he would almost wake up, trying to get comfortable on the hard wooden bench, and then sink back into a deep sleep. One morning, he awoke just long enough to hear the chanting of the Torah verses from Leviticus 24:5-6, in which God instructs the children of Israel to place twelve loaves of challah on a table in the ancient wilderness tabernacle.

When services ended, the wealthy man woke up, not realizing that all he had heard was the Torah reading about how God wanted twelve loaves of challah. He thought that God had come to him in his sleep and had asked him to personally bring twelve loaves of challah to God. The rich man felt honored that God should single him out, but he also felt a little foolish. Of all the things God could want from a person, twelve loaves of challah did not seem very important. But who was he to argue with God. He went home and baked the bread.

Upon returning to the synagogue, he decided the only proper place for his holy gift was alongside the Torah scrolls in the ark. He carefully arranged the loaves and said to God, “Thank you for telling me what you want of me. Pleasing you makes me very happy.” Then he left.

No sooner had he gone than the poorest Jew in the town, the synagogue janitor, entered the sanctuary. All alone, he spoke to God. “O Lord, I am so poor. My family is starving; we have nothing to eat. Unless you perform a miracle for us, we will surely perish.” Then, as was his custom, he walked around the room to tidy it up. When he ascended the bimah and opened the ark, there before him were twelve loaves of challah! “A miracle!” exclaimed the poor man, “I had no idea you worked so quickly! Blessed are You, O God, who answers our prayers.” Then he ran home to share the bread with his family.

Minutes later, the rich man returned to the sanctuary, curious to know whether or not God had eaten the challah. Slowly he ascended the bimah, opened the ark, and saw that the challot were gone. “Oh, my God!” he shouted, “you really ate my challot! I thought you were teasing. This is wonderful. You can be sure that I’ll bring another twelve loaves — with raisins in them, too!”

The following week, the rich man brought a dozen loaves to the synagogue and again left them in the ark. Minutes later, the poor man entered the sanctuary. “God, seven loaves we ate, four we sold, and one we gave to charity. But now, nothing is left and, unless you do another miracle, we surely will starve.” He approached the ark and slowly opened its doors. “Another miracle!” he cried, “Twelve more loaves, and with raisins, too! Thank you, God; this is wonderful!”

The challah exchange became a weekly ritual that continued for many years. And, like most rituals that become routine, neither man gave it much thought. Then, one day, the Rabbi, detained in the sanctuary longer than usual, watched the rich man place the dozen loaves in the ark and the poor man redeem them.

The Rabbi called the two men together and told them what they had been doing. “I see,” said the rich man sadly, “God doesn’t really eat challah.”

“I understand,” said the poor man, “God hasn’t been baking challah for me after all.”

They both feared that now God would no longer be present in their lives.

Then the Rabbi asked them to look at their hands. “Your hands,” he said to the rich man, “are the hands of God giving food to the poor. And your hands,” he said to the poor man, “also are the hands of God, receiving gifts from the rich. So you see, God can still be present in your lives. Continue baking and continue taking. Your hands are the hands of God.” (4)

The last of the seven parallel phrases that link the building of the Tabernacle to the Creation of the world confers blessing upon the respective creative acts. In Genesis we read: “And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy…” (Gen. 2:3) And near the end of the Book of Exodus in this week’s parashah, Pikudei, we read: “And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks — as God had commanded, so they had done — Moses blessed them.” (Ex. 39:43)

God blesses creation, and we, God’s creations, bless one another in perfect symmetry, closing a circle of reciprocity and holy partnership.

As for the content of Moses’ blessing, Rashi suggests: “He said to them: May it be granted that the Divine Presence rest upon the work of your hands.” (5)

So may it be for us that our hands will be instruments of God’s purpose in this world and that the Divine Presence will rest upon all that we do in sacred partnership with the Holy One of Blessing.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Arnie Gluck
(1) Leibowitz, Nehama, Studies in Shemot, World Zionist Organization Department for Torah Education & Culture in the Diaspora, p. 474-479.

(2) Ibid, p. 480-481.

(3) Leviticus 24:5-6

(4) Kushner, Lawrence, The Book of Miracles, Jewish Lights Publishing

(5) Rashi on Exodus 39:43