The Torah portion Vayak’heil (Exod. 35:1-38:20) presents Moses' speech to the Israelite community at one of the many special gatherings or convocations of the Hebrews during their wanderings in the desert. The speech opens with a brief restatement of the commandment to keep the Sabbath. However, the topic of Moses' message is the building of the Tabernacle. Moses solicits gifts—gold, silver, copper, and a long list of other items—to provide for the physical structure of the Tabernacle and its adornment. He also urges those who are skilled builders to construct the Tabernacle, the tent to cover it, and all the furniture within, including the ark.
The speech is filled with every detail that deals with the physical objects used in the construction of the Tabernacle, the tent, and the ark. Nevertheless, it consists of more than just a listing of objects.
Our biblical ancestors understood the unifying power of a community effort to construct a sanctuary. With regard to giving gifts and engaging in the labor of building, the biblical text uses the phrase "everyone whose heart so moves him" to recognize the psychological need to give, as well as to praise those who donate or volunteer their wealth and time. Moses also recognizes the special capacities of the great architect and craftsman Betzalel, descended from the tribe of Judah: "God has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft." (Exod. 35:31)
Our biblical text provides an example of gratitude for gifts given when the heart moves the giver or the contribution of labor is a reflection of unique skill. Public appreciation of contributions to synagogue and community is not a modern creation. No building project, however, is without its history and its complications. Just a few chapters earlier in Exodus, we read the story of the golden calf, the Israelites' immediate and utter betrayal of the covenant at Sinai. The Midrash contains a remarkable comment on the gifts brought for the construction of the Tabernacle. It notes that the very same jewelry that the Israelites initially brought to make the golden calf they now contribute to the construction of the sanctuary. This represents far more than "hearts that had been moved to give." It is a sign of an inner turning away from idolatry, an act of t'shuvah (repentance).
Appreciation of the significance of a gift offered as a reflection of a change of heart is better than the contemporary cynicism with which the public announcement of a generous contribution is often greeted.
Rabbi Lewis M. Barth, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Midrash and Related Literature at the Jewish Institute of Religion-Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.
Imagine your congregation without a building to pray in. Then imagine your rabbi announcing, "Everyone, please donate your possessions so we may build a sanctuary." Then try to imagine your congregants giving such copious amounts of gold, silver, jewels and other precious items to be converted into a sanctuary that your rabbi has to cry, "STOP! We have enough!"
This scenario happens in Parashat Vayak’heil. The incredible giving of tzedakah to build the Tabernacle leaves Moses and the creative artists Bezalel and Oholiab reeling. People enthusiastically donate from their personal precious-metal and acacia-wood collections until there is more than enough with which to work.
We are taught that tzedakah is an obligation, but clearly the Israelites go beyond the call of duty. Should we look at this as an exagerrated fable, or should we try to incorporate it into real 1990s personal philanthropy? There are, I believe, ways to do so:
Living in the Midwest for a few years has taught me that saving the corners of one's field for the stranger, orphan, or widow is indeed possible. This can be done without a field, too. Every night when you empty your pockets, leave the corners of your metaphorical field by putting all your loose change into a jar. When the jar is full, buy groceries for a food pantry.
Even the busiest of us can squeeze out one hour during the week. Yes, we can. Use the hour to volunteer for a local agency or on a less physically active scale, simply read and become aware of causes that can use your help in the future. Find your own cause! Do this as a family and make your hour richer by including your sibs, kids, significant others, parents, and other relatives.
We are also obligated to take care of ourselves and glean a corner for us now and then: Buy a book, cook some delicious soup, listen to music, take an energizing walk, and absorb the fascinating world in which we live. We appreciate more when we ourselves are healthy. The Israelites created a breathtakingly beautiful place, suitable for their individual spirituality to find root and grow. If the place hadn't existed, they would not have been able to serve God the way they wished.
If we aren't healthy, it is hard to turn to God with a clear soul. We become more willing to give with our hearts when our hearts are pumping good blood through our bodies.
The Torah states that all those who gave to the construction of the Tabernacle were "wise-hearted" (Hertz), "wise of mind" (Plaut), and possessed "hearts that moved them to give" (Fox). The Israelites are truly role models for us. Let us be as giving with our tzedakah in our obligation to take care of ourselves, our families, and the world around us.
Jenny Romalis Winters is the director of education at Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, New Jersey.
Vayak’heil, Exodus 35:1-38:20
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 666-679; Revised Edition, pp. 611-624;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 521-544