We, The Workers

[The following is the text of the dvar torah that I delivered last Friday evening, Feb. 25th, for Shabbat Vayakhel, the weekly Torah portion found at Exodus 35:1 - 38:20]

The Torah goes to enormous lengths to describe the building process of the portable structure sometimes called  mishkan /dwelling place/tabernacle, and sometimes called  mikdash/sanctuary, and sometimes called ohel mo’ed/tent of meeting.  In fact the details about the mishkan dominate much of the second half of the Book of Exodus. 

The subject is introduced in Parshat Terumah, beginning at Exodus 25.  That Torah portion includes God’s instructions to Moses.  Now, in this week’s portion, Vayakhel, there is a detailed repetition of this material as Moses relays the instructions to the people.  Then another repetition in this week’s portion, as the various components and furnishings of the structure are fabricated.  And, finally, in next week’s concluding portion of the Book of Exodus, Parshat Pekudey, we have yet another repetition of all of these details as the Mishkan is finally erected and its furnishings are put in place.

Why so much space devoted to such seemingly tedious and mind-numbing details?

Some, like the 15th century Spanish  Jewish commentator Isaac Abravanel, hold that many of the construction details contain a symbolic or allegorical meaning.  

For example  --- The images of two cherubs are to be made at the top of the ark.  But the Torah says  "ufeneyhem ish el achiv" /"Their faces should be directed towards each other"  (Ex. 37:9).   From this detail comes the teaching that we should never turn away from our fellow human beings – that we are to serve God by striving not to be indifferent to the human needs of others.  And that we should strive to communicate with one another directly, forthrightly and honestly.

I think another theme we can derive from this excess of detail about the mishkan is the theme of the dignity and importance of work.  The Torah often uses the word “melacha” (מְלָאכָה to designate creative work.  This appears to be a subset of “avodah,”, which is the more generic Hebrew term for work.

In the book of Genesis, Torah teachs  --

 וַיְכַל אֱלֹהִים בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה; וַיִּשְׁבֹּת בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, מִכָּל-מְלַאכְתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה.   וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶת-יוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ:  כִּי בוֹ שָׁבַת מִכָּל-מְלַאכְתּוֹ, אֲשֶׁר-בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים לַעֲשׂוֹת

On the seventh day, God finished “melachto” [His “work”] that God had been doing, and ceased mikawl melachto [from all His melacha]  that  God had done.  And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased mikawl melachto [from all His melacha] of creation that God had done. (Gen. 2: 2-3)

And here in our Torah portion Vayakhel, just before enumerating all the melacha/ all the work undertaken by the Israelites in building the mishkan, Torah reminds us

 שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, תֵּעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי יִהְיֶה לָכֶם קֹדֶשׁ שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן, לַיהוָה

On six days melacha/work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to Adonai…  (Ex. 35:2a).

Jewish Bible commentators over the centuries have noted that the “work” or “melacha” involved in the people’s construction of the mishkan at the end of the book of Exodus is a human counterpart to God’s “melacha” in creating the world at the beginning of the book of Genesis.  And the traditional 39 Avot Melachot (i.e., the 39 major categories of work traditionally forbidden on Shabbat) are based on the activities that the Torah says the Israelites did in constructing the mishkan. 

In the Talmud, we learn --- גדולה מלאכה שמכבדת את בעליה“Gedolah melacha shemechabedet et be'aleyha"/ "Great is melacha for it gives honor to those who do it”. (Nedarim 49b)

These Jewish teachings about the dignity of work and of the worker seem all the more important this week as the events in Madison, Wisconsin continue to agitate, inspire or aggravate us, depending on where we might place ourselves on the political spectrum.

Many of us find ourselves furious at Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his allies in the Wisconsin legislature over their efforts to crush the public service workers unions there.  They argue that it’s all about balancing the budget.  Yet, that argument appears hollow when they insist on stripping the unions of most collective bargaining rights even after the unions have agreed to the financial concessions called for in the pending legislation there.

For example, just today the national organization “Jewish Funds for Justice” issued a press release that reads in part as follows:

The right to dignified working conditions, the opportunity to earn a decent wage for a day’s work, and the power of workers to negotiate fairly with employers -- these are basic Jewish values. Jewish Funds for Justice supports the public employees in Wisconsin and other states who are struggling today to defend these hard-earned rights, and we urge other Jews and Jewish organizations to stand with the public servants of our nation.

For twenty-five years, Jewish Funds for Justice has been committed to advancing the rights of workers in our country and striving to ensure a fair and decent wage for all workers. For more than a century the American Jewish community has proudly supported the organized labor movement as a vehicle for achieving the promise and opportunity of America. As the protests in Madison approach the two-week mark, and as Governor Walker and leaders in other states utilize budget crises to disguise attacks on collective bargaining, the Jewish community has a responsibility to once again answer the call of our rich heritage and stand with the labor movement and for hard-working men and women across the nation.


An important counterargument advanced by supporters of Gov. Walker is that public service workers are in a different situation than employees of private companies.   For in the case of civil servants, the employer is the State itself.  And they quote no less a storied political liberal than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who in 1937 wrote the following on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the National Federation of Federal Employees.

FDR wrote:

The desire of Government employees for fair and adequate pay, reasonable hours of work, safe and suitable working conditions, development of opportunities for advancement, facilities for fair and impartial consideration and review of grievances, and other objectives of a proper employee relations policy, is basically no different from that of employees in private industry. Organization on their part to present their views on such matters is both natural and logical, but meticulous attention should be paid to the special relationships and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the Government.

All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. It has its distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management. The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress. Accordingly, administrative officials and employees alike are governed and guided, and in many instances restricted, by laws which establish policies, procedures, or rules in personnel matters.


There is merit in both of these philosophical approaches.  However, as I see it, the fact of the matter is that the Wisconsin governor didn’t campaign on any sort of promise to decimate the public service unions’ ability to function.

When he and his supporters simply argue that “we’re broke” and refuse to negotiate, even when the unions are saying they’d agree to the particular wage and benefits concessions demanded of them ---- this doesn’t seem like the kind of honest and open communication evoked by our Torah portion’s description of the cherubim over the ark "ufeneyhem ish el achiv" -- who encountered one another face to face.

גדולה מלאכה שמכבדת את בעליה /  “Gedolah melacha shemechabedet et be'aleyha"/ "Great is work for it gives honor to those who do it”.

On this Shabbat, as we pause from the work of the week, we give thanks for the blessings we enjoy from God’s work of creation and from the work that our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, and we ourselves – contribute to the functioning of society.   And we pray that those who exercise economic and political power will use it justly; that political controversies will be waged “leshem shamayim” (“for the sake of heaven”); and that every worker in this society – whether in the private or public spheres – will be guaranteed dignity and fair treatment. 

And creating and sustaining such  a society is the melacha/  the work of us all.

Lo alekha hamelachah ligmor, vlo atah ben chorin lehibatel mimena (Pirke Avot 2:16).  We may not be able to finish this work, but neither can we absent ourselves from the endeavor.

Shabbat shalom.

(C) Rabbi David Steinberg 5771/2011


Posted on March 2, 2011 .