Parashat Vayakhel begins with Moshe assembling Benei Yisrael to convey to them God’s instructions for building the Mishkan (preceded by the command to observe Shabbat). The Torah does not tell us where Moshe spoke to the people, but Ibn Ezra (35:20) understood from the description of the people’s departure after the assembly – “The entire congregation of Israel left Moshe’s presence” – that this assembly took place in the Ohel Mo’ed (“Tent of Meeting”). Ibn Ezra refers here to the Torah’s earlier reference to Moshe’s tent, which was given the name “Ohel Mo’ed” and where people would go when they needed Moshe’s prophetic guidance (33:7). According to Ibn Ezra, it was in this tent where Moshe gathered the people to tell them about God’s instructions concerning the Mishkan. It stands to reason that this tent was not nearly large enough to accommodate the entire nation, and it is, presumably, for this reason that Ibn Ezra added that Moshe addressed the people in small groups, one at a time (“kat achar kat”).
A later Spanish commentator, Rav Avraham Saba, took a different view. In his Tzeror Ha-mor (to 35:20), Rav Saba writes in reference to this assembly, “This is one of the places where the few took hold of the many.” Meaning, according to the Tzeror Ha-mor, this assembly was held in miraculous fashion, as the entire nation was able to gather in the small confines of Moshe’s tent. (See Torah Sheleima to 35:20, note 65.)
If so, then we might wonder about the possible significance of this miracle. Why was it important for this gathering, in which Moshe informed the people of God’s command to construct a Mishkan, be held this way, with the entire nation supernaturally standing together inside Moshe’s tent?
One answer, perhaps, is that this aspect of the assembly points to a special “miraculous” quality of the Mishkan – namely, that it could accommodate and serve all the many different members of the nation. The Mishkan occupied a relatively small area, and its rituals followed a very specific set of detailed laws, and yet it was the sole site of sacrificial offerings for all Benei Yisrael. In a sense, this quality characterizes Torah life generally – as it is, on the one hand, specific and inflexible, yet it also allows room for all kinds of people and their countless different personalities, backgrounds and styles. Torah is, ironically, both rigid and accommodating. It sets definite limitations on theology and practice, yet it provides enough room within those limitations for a range of different styles. The miracle of all Benei Yisrael assembling in Moshe’s tent when hearing about the Mishkan thus might reflect the miracle of the “Mishkan” itself, how religious life sets limits while still allowing room for each person’s individual expression and unique contribution to the beautiful “sanctuary” which we are to work together to build.