When the Book of Exodus is discussed in popular literature, theater and film, the focus of the story tends to be on the first half of the book: the liberation from slavery, the ten plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea. Despite its name, Cecil B. DeMille’s movie The Ten Commandments only spends its final minutes on the revelation at Sinai. Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron focuses on the sin of the Golden Calf.

But what no one spends much time on are the “boring” parts of the second half of Exodus: the laws of Parshat Mishpatim (chs. 21-24) and the details of the Mishkan in Teruma, Tetzaveh, Vayakhel and Pekudei (chs. 25-31 and 35-40), which together form 35 percent of the book. These less narrative parts of Exodus, naturally, do not lend themselves to books and movies, which are rooted in the movements of dramatic action. Yet the failure to engage with these sections of Exodus gives many people a false impression of the Torah’s message.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written in The Home We Build Together, the story of liberation is not enough to build a nation. “A nation is built by building,” he writes. While people can be let loose from oppressive forces, it is only through the common act of creating something shared that they become a people with a covenantal sense of self. Thus the laws of Mishpatim and the long chapters of building the Mishkan can be understood as the fulfillment of the liberation of the first half of Exodus: it is not enough to be set free; the next step is to build a society together—arrangements of property, physical space, and moral order; mutual assumptions of responsibility; and a common sense of the commons.

Parshat Vayakhel is highly inspiring, not in the way of an epic motion picture, but in the mode of a great documentary. Read 35:20-29, and you can’t help but be inspired by the image of “all the Israelite men and women” voluntarily contributing whatever they have in order to make the Mishkan. The Torah repeats the word kol, all, 15 times within chapter 35, forming a drumbeat of popular energy which is nothing short of stirring. In fact, we find, they bring so much material that the builders have to tell them to stop.

Yet this is also the people who worshipped a golden calf just in last week’s Torah reading! How can the inspiring image of the people lovingly contributing out of common sense of covenant jibe with the one of debauchery we read about a week ago? Here again, the Torah offers us an honest portrait: the children of Israel are capable of great achievement and of great failing. The protestors in Tahrir Square who toppled a dictator through non-violent protests also assaulted journalists. You can’t tell the whole story without telling the whole story.

The use of the Exodus story as an archetype for revolution is one of the enduring contributions of the Jewish people to human history. Yet the second half of Exodus must be read alongside the first in order for the lessons to be fully learned. Liberation is necessary, but it is not sufficient. After the oppressor has been thrown off, a people must be brought together. The Torah’s means of nation-building is for the people to build the nation. Let us hope that the movements of liberation we are witnessing in our own time can learn from the second half of Exodus as much as the first.

Shabbat shalom.

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