Parashah Vayakhel – 29th Adar, 9th March 2024 – Leslie Wheeler

Parashah Vayakhel – 29th Adar

Whenever I’m invited to provide a sermon I like to explore the Parashah for possible comparisons. Comparisons that can be found in neighbouring cultures during the biblical period.

What evidence can be found during the biblical period of the Exodus that compares to the Mishkan?

Exodus 12:40 informs us that 

“The length of time that the Israelites lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years”. during this very long period they would have undoubtedly integrated with their Egyptian neighbours. Torah describes how the Israelites were able to borrow gold and silver from their Egyptian neighbours as well as from the Egyptians that resided in the homes of the Israelites. From this description one can reasonably establish that the Israelites were not isolated from their Egyptian neighbours but in fact had become a part of the Egyptian multicultural fabric. They would have become accustomed to the Egyptian culture involving their gods temples and priests. With little scientific knowledge of the world about them, it would have been common place for these ancient people to worship gods.

At the time of the Exodus the Egyptians had more than 1,500 named deities. This polytheistic religion lasted some 3,000 years and was centred on a constant interaction of offerings and prayers to gain favour with these gods by the people.

Religion was very important in ancient Egypt. Temples were places where gods lived and statues of the gods were deemed gods themselves. Everything involved in this ancient religion was shrouded in mystery. Temple Priests who wore a mask of a specific god during a ceremony would become an avatar of that god, an embodiment of the god himself.

The temple Priest would wear a mask that covered his head and shoulders. The head of the mask was higher than the individual priest’s head constraining him to look through two small holes on the neck of the mask.

The Priest would speak god’s words and convey god’s will to the people.

Here we can draw comparisons between the masks worn by the temple priest and the face veil worn by Moses

Further striking similarities can be found in how closely the Mishkan resembles Rameses II royal war tent used during the battle of Qadesh (1275 BCE) Like the Mishkan the war tent was divided into two rooms, the outer being twice the length of the inner sanctum where the Pharaoh would reside. Torah informs us that the Mishkan was encompassed by a rectangular courtyard 100 cubits in length and 50 cubits in width a 2:1 ratio just like the Pharaohs war tent. 

Fig 1 Comparison between Rameses II’s War Tent and Tabernacle (Mishkan). 

Camped around the rectangular precinct of the Pharaoh’s war tent were the four divisions of the Egyptian army. Once again we have similarities where camped around the Mishkan to the East were the tribes of Judah, to the south the tribes of Reuben, to the West the tribes of Ephraim and to the North the tribes of Dan.

Further similarities exist if we consider the two cherubim described in Exodus 25:18-20

“Make two cherubim of gold—make them of hammered work—at the two ends of the cover.”

“Make one cherub at one end and the other cherub at the other end; of one piece with the cover shall you make the cherubim at its two ends.”

“The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover.”

This description closely resembles Pharaoh’s royal tent where his golden throne was flanked on either side by the wings of the falcon god Horus.

My final comparison is the two silver trumpets as described in Numbers 10:1-10 which were to be used to gather the assembly, march to war, to celebrate the festivals and the New Moon. These silver trumpets compare closely in construction and use to the trumpets found in the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, one was made of silver and the other was made copper and bronze overlaid with gold. These trumpets were to be found in Egyptian temples were used to gather the people to witness a ceremony and, further, to assemble the military in preparation for war.

Gods living in tents was common place in these ancient times, the deity El head of the Canaanite gods, is described as living in a tent by Ugaritic text from Northern Syria.

The mythological story of the conflict between the gods Horus and Seth describe both gods retiring to their tents after their hostilities.

So we should not be surprised at God’s design instructions to Moses to build him a tent! What does surprise is why it took almost 400 verses of instruction and King Solomon’s Temple only required a mere 70 verses.

Two of the most fundamental objectives found in a designer’s manual are that design involves putting oneself in the shoes of the user which means seeing the world through the eyes of the user. Effective design shifts the thinking from technology or objects to people. It’s based on what humans need to improve their situation – to make things better and easier.

My question here is did God use such foresight / considerations in his design of the Mishkan? 

As the creator of the universe God could have chosen anything he wanted in which to reside amongst the Israelites; Ezekiel’s chariot with loud flapping wings for example.

Because God knows our every thought who better to design something that would satisfy the requirements of each and every one of the Israelites?

 Having been familiar with the mysterious Egyptian customs and gods for so many years we can fully understand the desperation of the Israelites for a god or a leader to turn to when left alone in the desert. This is why Aaron instructed the building of the golden calf. But Aaron had not shown understanding in his design, he had not placed himself into the shoes of the desperate Israelites but instead he had the people build something that only Aaron himself considered effective. We all know the result of Aaron’s design, it had not satisfied the needs of the Israelites and as it most certainly had not improved their situation to this end Aaron’s design must be considered a design failure.

God’s design on the other hand had understanding at its core and had returned God’s presence back to the children of Israel after an absence of 430 years during their exile in Egypt.

God had laid down the template of Judaism through his design of the universe and the sacred space of the Mishkan so that we today have a template that can make our lives and the lives of those about us better and easier. That same template was used in the building of King Solomon’s Temple, hence only needing 70 verses.  The nuts and bolts of god’s sacred template are to be found in today’s synagogues siddurim and machzorim.

I end this sermon with a quote from a davar torah “Encampments and Journeys” I found on the Jonathan Sacks’ Legacy website:

“Bereishit begins with God making the cosmos. Shemot ends with human beings making a micro-cosmos, a miniature and symbolic universe. Thus the entire narrative of Genesis-Exodus is a single vast span that begins and ends with the concept of God-filled space, with this difference: that in the beginning the work is done by God-the-Creator. By the end it is done by man-and-woman-the-creators. The whole intricate history has been a story with one overarching theme: the transfer of the power and responsibility of creation from heaven to earth, from God to the image-of-God called mankind.”  

Shabbat Shalom