The Torah does not skimp when detailing the work involved in the Mishkan. Even though a good major portion of this work was only relevant temporarily, until the Mikdash (Temple) was built, nevertheless the Torah details it twice. In Terumah-Tetzaveh we read about the command to build the Mishkan and in Vayakhel-Pekudei we read about the act of building it.
The details of the command and of its implementation are almost identical, but there is one glaring and surprising difference – the order in which the items are recorded. In Terumah, the detailed commands begin with a description of the vessels – the ark, the table, and the menorah (25:10). Afterwards comes the command to build the Mishkan itself – the curtains and the beams (Chapter 26). In contrast, in our portion of Vayakhel, the Torah first describes the making of the curtains and the beams (36:8), and only afterwards the making of the vessels (Chapter 37).
Why is the implementation in a different order from the command?
Chazal address this question in Berakhot 55a:
Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of Rabbi Yonatan: Betzalel was so named on account of his wisdom. Though God said to Moshe, “Go tell Betzalel to make Me a Mishkan, an ark, and vessels,” Moshe reversed it and said to him, “Make an ark, vessels, and a Mishkan.” Betzalel responded, “Moshe Rabbeinu, it is the way of the world that a person first builds a house and afterwards puts vessels into it. Yet you are saying, ’Make me an ark, vessels, and then the Mishkan’! The vessels which I make – where would I put them? Perhaps God said to you, ‘Make a Mishkan, an ark and vessels’?” Moshe responded, “Perhaps you were in the shadow of God (betzel E-l) and you knew this!”
At first glance, the midrash seems incomprehensible. The medieval Sages already asked: Where do we see that God commanded Moshe about the Mishkan before commanding him about the vessels? Rabbi Yehoshua Falk (Rabbi of Frankfurt 200 years ago), in his commentary Pnei Yehoshua, strengthens the question: Is it conceivable that Moshe, the most loyal of all messengers and prophets, would reverse a Divine command?
We can further ask: Isn’t this midrash a dangerous statement? Isn’t it likely to cause a sneaking suspicion that this might not be the only time that Moshe reversed God’s commands? If, for no particularly good reason, ”Moshe reversed it” – who knows what else we are doing backwards. . .
Upon closer examination, we can discern that the questions about the Torah text and the midrashic text are connected. When Chazal say that “Moshe reversed it,” they do not mean that Moshe woke up one morning and decided to reorganize his class for the day. Moshe here serves as a personification of the Torah. Chazal wish to tell us that the Torah (which indeed is Moshe’s transcription of God’s dictation) reverses the order of things in Terumah. The presumption is that the implementation described in our portion is “correct,” which means the command in Terumah is “reversed.” The midrash supplies a fascinating answer which works with the assumption that something happened in between the command and the implementation. There was a dialogue which led to the implementation.
The very fact that the order of the implementation is correct already teaches us an important lesson. The deed is primary. This comes to halakhic expression in the saying, “Go out and see what the people do” (Berakhot 45a) – go out and check how the Jewish people behave, and this way you’ll know which deed is correct. We still need an answer to our question, which we will reformulate according to the midrash as follows: Why is the command the reverse of the implementation?
Before we discuss the answer of the midrash, we will preface it with an important introduction. The Mishkan and the Mikdash are full of Divine worship which uses physical means. They contain utensils and offerings, incense and cherubim. The Sages of Israel stress that obedience is, ultimately, the difference between the golden calf described in the previous portion as a grave sin and the Mishkan. The golden calf was an independent human act, and therefore idol worship. If man determines the will of God and the way to serve Him, that is idol worship and a type of selfworship. The Mishkan is built in obedience to a command of God, Who alone establishes its details and paths of worship. That is why the golden calf is idol worship and the Mishkan is worship of God.
God produced creatures who are discerning and wise. If robots had carried out the command, it would have been implemented to the letter, but it would have been worthless. The foundation of the concept of Torah and commandment is that intelligent creatures who possess free will choose to keep the commandments.
With this idea, we can now understand the answer of the midrash. From the moment that a speech or text is handed over to man, there is no possibility of robotic obedience. There is a process of hearing, understanding, and interpreting. Dialogue with man is inconceivable without some interpretation of content. Especially in a place where the Torah goes into the most precise detail, where it is not permitted to express personal wishes and desires, we might think that robots are necessary – people who would implement to the letter, with no thought, the plans for the Mishkan that God showed Moshe on the mountain. In fact, the people wanted for the job are “wisehearted ones” (Shemot 35:10), who are talented creators. Specifically in the central point of Divine worship, the Torah chooses to create a distinction between the command and the implementation. It also emphasizes the importance of Betzalel in the process. God intentionally leaves room for Betzalel’s question and the conclusion he would reach. “You were in the shadow of God” – the listener challenges God based on “the way of the (human) world,” and his challenge is accepted. The Torah is given to people who apply it, to people who sit in the shadow of God and try to the best of their ability to discern His meaning.
Interpretation is not a violation of the idea of obedience. On the contrary, faithful interpretation is the source of true obedience – the obedience of a creature who is discerning and has free will. Moshe represents the theoretical, absolute Divine command. Betzalel represents the wise-hearted person who is meant to implement the command. Through their dialogue, they clarify the essence of Torah and Divine worship.