A Community Commitment

And every wise hearted woman spun with her hands, and they brought spun material: blue, purple, and crimson wool, and linen. (Sefer Shemot 35:35)

I. Everyone builds the Bait HaMikdash

VaYakhel-Pekudai completes the Torah’s account of the fabrication of the Mishcan – the Tabernacle. The Mishcan was the precursor to the Bait HaMikdash – the Sacred Temple – built by King Shlomo. The creation of the Mishcan of the wilderness and the Bait HaMikdash is one of the Torah’s 613 commandments. This commandment applies for all generation. Shlomo established the first Bait HaMikdash in response to this commandment. The second Bait HaMikdash was created to fulfill this obligation. We await our opportunity to fulfill this commandment through building the third Bait HaMikdash.

Who is obligated in this commandment? Rambam – Maimonides – explains that the obligation is on men and women.[1] This ruling contradicts a principle of halachah. What is this principle?

II. The Bait HaMikdash is built only during the day

Women are generally not obligated in positive commandments that must be performed at a specific time. For example, women are not obligated to perform the mitzvah of arba minim – picking up and waving the four species on Succot. They are exempt because it has a specific time at which it is performed. This commandment is performed only on Succot.

Now, let us return to the mitzvah of creating a Mishcan or Bait HaMikdash. Rambam rules that the building of the Mishcan or Bait HaMikdash is done only during the day. It may not be done at night.[2] This is a mitzvah that is performed at a specific time – only during the daytime. Women should be exempt.

III. An obligation of the nation

There are various solutions to this problem.[3] We will focus on one.[4] Sefer HaChinuch writes:

This mitzvah applies when most of the Jewish people are [living] on their land (the Land of Israel). This mitzvah is not [an obligation] placed upon the individual. Rather, it is upon the entire congregation. (Rabbaynu Aharon HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, mitzvah 95)

Sefer HaChinuch explains that this commandment does not charge the individual. It is an obligation that charges the nation. We are collectively required to build the Bait HaMikdash. What is the distinction that he is making? The nation is composed of its individuals. Does not the mitzvah upon the nation obligate its members? Is Sefer HaChinuch suggesting that the individual is under no obligation to participate in the building?

IV. The meaning of a communal obligation

Sefer HaChinuch’s comment is based upon an important concept in halachahHalachah recognizes two types of groups. One type is a group that is a collection of individuals. The identity of the group is the combined identity of its members. The second is a group that has its own identity. The identity of the members of the group merge into a new identity – the identity of the group. These two types of groups are analogous to the distinction in chemistry between a mixture and compound. When two elements combine, and each retains its own character the combination is a mixture. This is analogous to the first type of group. In contrast, when the two elements combine to form something that is new and that has its own character, different from the characters of its elements, the combination is a compound. This is analogous to the second type of group. 

Sefer HaChinuch is explaining that the mitzvah of building the Bait HaMikdash obligates us as a nation. Is the nation a collection of individuals – the first type of group or does the nation have an identity that is independent and different from its members – the second type of group?

The answer is obvious. If he means that we are obligated as individual members of the group, then his comment has no meaning. There is no difference between being obligated as individuals or as individual members of a group! He means that the obligation is upon the nation as a unique and distinct entity – different from the identity of its individual members. 

V. The characteristics of the individual and nation

Now, Rambam’s ruling is easily explained. Gender is a characteristic of an individual. The individual person has a gender. The nation does not have a gender. The Jewish nation is neither male nor female. The paradigm of gender is not applicable to the nation – with its unique and distinct identity. Every member of the Jewish nation has two identities – an individual identity and an identity as part of the nation. Gender is relevant to individual identity, not the one’s identity as a member of the nation. Women are obligated in the building of the Bait HaMikdash because they are part of the nation. 

To clarify this explanation, let us return to the analogy of mixture and compound. If I create a compound and then remove a portion of the new compound, this portion does not have the characteristics of the elements that combined to form the compound. It has the characteristics of the compound. Gender is analogous to a characteristic of the elements. It does not exist in the new compound or in the parts of the compound. 

An important message emerges from the discussion. As Jews, we are joined together in a remarkable manner. Together, we form a nation that is more than the sum of our individual identities. This is more than a halachic principle; it binds us to one another. It is one of the foundations of the mitzvah to love one’s fellow Jew. But how do we translate this powerful concept into a behavioral norm?

If you go in the ways of My statutes and you observe My commandments. (Sefer VaYikra 26:3)

VI. Secular and Torah law

The above passage introduces Hashem’s assurance that if we observe His commandments, we will receive His material blessings. We are required to observe the commandments and to travel in the path of his commandments. The meaning of observing commandments is clear. But what does it mean to travel in the path of the commandments? Rav Eliezer Menachem Shach explained that there is a difference between a secular system of laws and the Torah system. A secular system of laws is designed to enforce the authority of the government and to create cohesion and harmony within society. These laws do not have a deeper meaning or message. A secular legal system does not include laws designed to teach religious or even moral lessons. The Torah also includes mitzvot that create harmony and cohesion in society. In addition, it includes many mitzvot designed to teach us values and instill within us religious truths. Rav Shach explained that our mitzvot are specific obligations but also communicate important values and messages. We are obligated to observe the mitzvot and to be attentive to the messages they communicate. This attentiveness is described by the passage as traveling in the ways of the statutes.[5]

VII. Translating values into behaviors

The idea of our shared identity is reinforced and consistently communicated by the many commandments that regulate our behavior toward one another. These mitzvot obligate us to treat one another with chesed and kindness, to regulate our speech, to guard how we speak about one another, and virtually every aspect of our relationships with one another. Our observance of these commandments and our attention to the message of these mitzvot translate the concept of our shared identity into a program of behavior. 

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Bait HaBechirah 1:12.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Bait HaBechirah 1:12.

[3] The simplest solution is suggested by a comment of Kesef Mishne. He explains that Rambam’s ruling that women are included in the obligation is based upon the above passage. In this passage, the Torah describes women participating in the fabrication of the MishcanMinchat Eliezer (vol. 2, tshuvah 47) explains that there are exceptions to the exemption of women from commandments assigned a specific time. The exemption does not apply to mitzvot that the Torah specifically extends to women. The passage clearly indicates that women are included in the mitzvah. The Torah is excluding this mitzvah from the general principle.  

[4] This approach is suggested in many sources. See, for example, Mishne Halachot (vol. 6, tshuvah 326).

[5] Rav Shimon Vanunu, Torat MeShulchan Rabanan, p 42.