Parashat Vayakhel tells of the construction of the Mishkan, in fulfillment of the detailed commands which God had presented to Moshe, as we read in Parashat Teruma. Already the Gemara in Masekhet Berakhot (55a) noted the discrepancy between the commands in Parashat Teruma and their fulfillment in Parashat Vayakhel, with respect to the sequence of construction. In issuing the commands regarding the Mishkan, God first commanded constructing the furnishings kept inside the Mishkan, and then the structure itself. (The notable exception is the incense altar, which, surprisingly, is presented at the very end of Parashat Tetzaveh, after the commands regarding the Mishkan and the priestly garments.) In Parashat Vayakhel, however, the Torah tells of the artisans first building the structure, and then proceeds to tell of their constructing the furnishings kept inside the Mishkan.
The Gemara, cited by Rashi in the beginning of Parashat Pekudei (38:22), relates that when Moshe first summoned Betzalel, the chief artisan assigned over the project, and communicated to him God’s commands, he mentioned the furnishings before the structure. Betzalel then noted to Moshe that this sequence could not be accurate, because it is far more reasonable to first build a structure so that there will be somewhere to place the furnishings once they are constructed. Moshe replied, “Perhaps you were in the shadow of the Almighty [be-tzel Kel]” – because indeed, this was God’s intention, that the Mishkan be built before the furnishings. Although God told Moshe first about the construction of the furnishings, this was because He wanted to mention first the most sacred items. But as a practical matter, He wanted the structure to be built first, as otherwise, the furnishings would have nowhere to be stored in the interim. Moshe was dazzled by Betzalel’s intuition, his recognizing that God wanted the Mishkan to be built before its furnishings.
Rav Yitzchak Zelig Morgenstern of Sokolov (a great-grandson of the Kotzker Rebbe), in his She’eirit Yitzchak, suggests a possible explanation of this exchange between Moshe and Betzalel. He writes that the question as to the sequence of the Mishkan’s construction revolved around the concern of the sacred articles being defiled by the people if they were left out in the open during the interim, before the structure was built. Moshe initially figured that the sacred articles should be constructed first, as befitting their unique status, and he assumed that the people could be trusted not to touch them while they were left exposed as the Mishkan itself was being built. Betzalel, however, noted that this cannot be done, because the people could not be trusted. Moshe acknowledged that he had erred, and that indeed, God wanted the structure to be built first, before the furnishings.
According to this reading, the Gemara here teaches the importance of building our “Mishkan” with an understanding of the people whom it is meant to serve. We must build religious life in strict accordance with halakhic requirements – just as Benei Yisrael built the Mishkan in strict accordance with God’s commands – but also in a manner that best suits the people in every particular time and place. Moshe praised Betzalel for his understanding of the people, for his intuitive sense of which sequence would be suitable and which would not be suitable given Benei Yisrael’s condition at that time. Whenever we involve ourselves in building the “Mishkan,” in building institutions and spreading Torah knowledge, we must try to do so with this kind of intuitive understanding of the people, so that our “Mishkan” will be effective and successful in fulfilling the goal of bringing God’s presence to the Jewish Nation.