Picking Our Battles- Pushing Gender Issues in Judaism & Parshat Vayakhel

Our Parsha opens with Moshe commanding the Jews in the construction of the Mishkan. Since Moshe faithfully relayed G-d’s words to him from Parshat Teruma, there is significant overlap between these two sedrot. However, before even looking into a textual comparison between the construction plans and their execution, Parshat Vayakhel opens in a very interesting way:

וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה, אֶת-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם: אֵלֶּה, הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה ה’, לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם.

And Moshe gathered all of the congregation of the children of Israel, and said to them: These are the words that G-d has commanded that you shall do. (שמות לה:א)

In previous weeks, we’ve read of the Ten Commandments, the Chet Ha’egel, and civil law, all of which were supposedly given to the entire Jewish people- yet, only in the command to build the Mishkan, are we told that Moshe gathered “כל עדת בני ישראל- the entire Jewish nation.”

Two pesukim later, we see this again:

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר:  זֶה הַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה ה’ לֵאמֹר.

Moshe said to the entire congregation of the children of Israel saying: This is the thing which G-d has commanded, saying (שם לה:ד)

The text continues to repeat, in very similar wording, what Moshe was commanded in Teruma, but we are still left wondering; why here, specifically, is it emphasized that “כל עדת בני ישראל” were gathered and commanded?

Ramban gives a very insightful answer:

ויקהל משה את כל עדת בני ישראל – יכלול “כל עדת בני ישראל” האנשים והנשים כי כלם התנדבו במלאכת המשכן…

Ramban, showing his feminist side for quite possibly the first and only time in his commentary on Chumash, says that “כל עדת בני ישראל” is a gender issue. It may be easy to group the entire Jewish people together when being punished, or commanded with essential mitzvot like the Ten Commandments or Mishpatim, but once a more active mitzva like constructing the Mishkan comes up, one might think to put the women on the sidelines. Therefore, Moshe said “כל עדת בני ישראל”- everyone will  be involved in the construction of the Mishkan, regardless of gender, race, or creed.

Furthermore, once the work began, we see that the women took a very active role:

וַיָּבֹאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים, עַל-הַנָּשִׁים; כֹּל נְדִיב לֵב…

And the men came to the women, all of those who were willing-hearted… (שם לה:כב)

Ramban, continuing his feminist streak, writes:

וטעם ויבואו האנשים על הנשים – בעבור כי הנדבה בתכשיטין היא מצויה אצל הנשים יותר וכלן היו להן ופרקו נזמיהן וטבעותיהן מיד ובאו תחלה והאנשים אשר נמצאו להם הביאו עמהם כי טעם על הנשים שהן היו שם בראשונה והאנשים נטפלו להן …

And the reason for And the men brought to the women– The donation of their jewelry was commanded more to the women, since they immediately removed their earrings and rings, and then afterwards the men brought them their jewelry. Since the women had listened first (lit. gotten there first), so they treated the jewelry… (רמב”ן שם)

Ramban, in a nutshell, says that the Jewish women were in charge of treating the jewelry because of their selflessness in giving up their jewelry for the construction of G-d’s home. Men also donated theirs, but not as quickly as the women, so the women were the ones who had the opportunity to be in charge of collecting the jewelry for the Tabernacle.

So, we see that not only were women commanded in the same level of construction of the Mishkan as the men, but their zealousness and selflessness gave them an edge over the men, giving them special leadership opportunities like leading the collection of jewelry, melting it into the holy artifacts for the Mishkan.

However, even as the mitzva of building the Mishkan is commanded to “כל עדת בני ישראל,” it is preceded by another command, also to all of the Jewish people:

שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, תֵּעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי יִהְיֶה לָכֶם קֹדֶשׁ שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן, לה’; כָּל-ָעֹשֶׂה בוֹ מְלָאכָה, יוּמָת. לֹא-תְבַעֲרוּ אֵשׁ, בְּכֹל מֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם, בְּיוֹם, הַשַּׁבָּת.

Six days shall work be done, and the seventh day will for you a holy day, a day of rest for G-d, whoever does work will be put to death. You shall not light any fire in your cities on Shabbat. (שם לה:ג)

First and foremost, the Jewish people are commanded to keep Shabbat. Rav Chaim ibn Attar, author of the Or HaChaim commentary on Chumash, explains that this command precedes that of building the Mishkan because Shabbat is the essence of the Tabernacle. The Gemara famously teaches in many places that keeping Shabbat is equal to keeping all of the other commandments. When the Jewish People committed the sin of avoda zara during chet ha’egel, they not only bowed down to a golden calf- they in essence rejected all of the mitzvot. In order to earn G-d’s returned presence to their camp, they first had to re-accept all of the mitzvot that they had previously spurned, by keeping Shabbat. Only through this could they merit building G-d’s home, and have His shechina return to their midst.

What emerges from this is an order of priorities for us as well. Yes, sometimes it’s easy to jump in and start the avoda of building the Mishkan– it’s more glorious than other, less active mitzvot. But, serving G-d is not about  our glory- it’s about honoring Him with our service, and before the Jews in the wilderness could reach the level of building Him a home, they had to start at a more basic place; honoring Him through shmirat Shabbat. In our times too, this should be the priority- focusing on the more basic and less glamorous mitzvot like Shmirat Shabbat, and building up to more outward commandments.

This idea has become particularly relevant over the past few weeks in the United States. About one month ago, Salanter Akiba Riverdale (SAR) Academy in New York began to allow their female students to wear tefilin at their daily minyanim. Even though there were in fact only two middle-school students who would benefit from this policy, there was an immediate outcry from both the Conservative and Orthodox worlds. Even the media, never one to stay out of a fight, got in, with right-wing publications and left-wing publications alike spinning the small story into a bigger issue. Before long, even the gedolim of the American Modern Orthodox world were forced to take sides on the issue, which had been completely blown out of proportion.

Putting aside the halacha discussion on in the issue of women wearing tefilin (to my knowledge, there are no halacha sources explicitly forbidding it, though I don’t claim to be an expert), this whole debacle has shown that the American Jewish world is suffering from the same problem that Ramban and Ibn Attar taught Parshat Vayakhel was designed to warn against; a problem of perspective and priorities. In a world of 58 percent Jewish intermarriage and less than 25 percent religious affiliation (see the Pew Report), it seems weird that an issue as relatively minor as women wearing tefilin is taking the stage. In the news recently, Rabbis of all levels and backgrounds have gotten up and opined on the issue, many for and many against SAR’s move and its implication on Jewish women- where were their comments and our concern on intermarriage? As a reminder to those who aren’t aware, a Jew marrying a non-Jew is a form of gilui arayot, one of the three cardinal sins that a Jew must die rather than committing. Violating Shabbat is a sin so severe that a Jew cannot repent for it in this world- he or she is put into karet (spiritual exile in the World-To-Come).

However, the rise of these terrible sins even in American Modern Orthodox society is being put on the side to give spotlight to women wearing tefilin, which, I stress again, is not absolutely and clearly prohibited anywhere- it’s just not something commonly done by religious Jewish women. (I also feel obligated to remind all of my readers that since 1948, all Jews in the Diaspora have had a clear and present obligation to fulfill the mitzva of Yishuv Ha’aretz, which, while not on the level of Chilul Shabbat or gilui arayot, is still an obligation for every single Jew, including women). These mitzvot, which are being violated every single day by hundreds of thousands of Jews in the US, should be given the spotlight, rather than berating women who, while unconventional, are the opposite of the problem- they are at the very least spiritually awakened and halacha observant.

We all need to learn a lesson from the order of the opening of Parshat Vayakhel. When it comes to gathering כל עדת בני ישראל to tell an important message, it behooves us to get our priorities straight- first focus on Shabbat and other essential mitzvot, before drilling into observance of building the Mishkan, and other directives that are not as serious. If we can follow this order, then I have no doubt that Jews on the fringe will become more inspired instead of disenfranchised, and with G-d’s help, by the next Pew Report, we will see 100% religious observance among American Jews, even if all of the women are wearing tefilin in the process. Through this teshuva, we will hopefully merit the next Pew Study to also report the Jewish population of America as zero, because they will have all moved to Israel, with the coming of the geulah, very speedily in our days.