The Torah is filled with great drama. Moviemakers and even animators turn to the text repeatedly for its stunning visual imagery and profound drama. This week's Torah portion, Vayak’heil, is replete with both.
Close your eyes and imagine the following: Six hundred thousand Jews are encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai. One after another, people come forward, bearing gifts. A midrash tells us they brought earrings of gold, bracelets of silver, and brilliant jewels. For their leaders, they brought tunics of fine cloth and embroidery. This is a description of what followed Moses' request that the people "take from among you gifts to God; everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them—gifts for Adonai: gold, silver, and copper." (Exodus 35:5-9) The bringing of voluntary gifts to build the Mishkan—the sacred Place of Assembly in the wilderness—is the central theme of this week's portion.
However, this description can also be applied to last week's parashah, when the Israelites willingly contributed to and collaborated in the building of the golden calf. (Exodus 32) One week later the scene is the same—one after another, the Israelites bring gold and silver, wonderful clothes, and brilliant jewels—but the purpose is different. This time their intent is to build a Mishkan.
A common adage observes that whoever dies with the most toys wins. This saying purports to instruct us about the value of things. But the true value of things can be better ascertained from this week's Torah portion. What we learn here is that a thing is neither good nor bad on its own. It is what we do with things—whether we make a destructive idol or create a sacred space—that gives them value. Reflecting on these two Torah portions, the sages say, "With earrings the Israelites sinned and with earrings were they redeemed."
This teaching highlights the ambivalent nature of possessions and wealth. All the things we have—money, cars, homes, clothes, time, and emotions—are the modern equivalent of the Israelites' gold and silver, which we can use to build either idols or sanctuaries.
How are we to decide which we will build? Parashat Vayak’heil opens with a command to observe Shabbat. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches us that Shabbat is a "sanctuary in time." According to Heschel, in providing us with this model of a sanctuary in time, God gives us a taste of the holiness that could be ours if we choose to create a sacred space. Consequently, the holiness we experience in abstract time immeasurably intensifies our yearning to experience holiness in concrete space.
Each week Shabbat can help us get through the coming week. By enabling us to taste a bit of holiness in time, Shabbat reminds us to seek holiness throughout the week. As a result, when we leave the sanctuary of time (i.e., when Shabbat ends), we can rededicate ourselves to the construction of sanctuaries in our lives--our homes, congregations, communities, and workplaces. We can do this by avoiding the urge to create idols and seeking to use our wealth, our hopes, and our dreams as building blocks to create a better world.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: The Noonday Press), 1996.
Rabbi Elliott A. Kleinman is the Chief Engagement Officer at the Jewish Institute of Religion-Hebrew Union College in New York.
In this week's Torah portion, Vayak’heil, Moses assembles the entire Israelite community and tells them what God has commanded. He instructs the people to "take gifts" to God to help create the sacred Mishkan—the Tabernacle. (Exodus 35:4-9) As a result, "Men and women, all whose hearts moved them, all who would make an elevation offering of gold to Adonai, came bringing brooches, earrings, rings, and pendants—gold objects of all kinds." (Exodus 35:22)
The Torah in this instance states that the motivation for the Israelites' actions came from their hearts. Visualizing the many people who, "moved by their hearts," brought their valuables to support the greater needs of the community evokes a striking image. It makes us wonder how were they able to respond so quickly and collectively. What made their hearts quicken?
Our tradition states: "Do not stand too long, for standing too long is harmful to the heart." (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 16b) A heart that is not used, one that is not active and thus becomes insensitive to the needs and pressures of the outside community, deteriorates and can no longer contribute to the health of the entire body.
What, on the other hand, does having a heart that is moved--or, as various translations indicate, having a heart that is "lifted" or a "willing heart"--mean? Our tradition teaches us about many different aspects of the heart: We read of Pharaoh's heart that was "hardened" toward the Jewish people. We sing the lyrics "So long as still within the innermost heart a Jewish spirit sings? our hope is not lost" in Hatikvah. During t'filah we pray to love God with all of our heart and with all of our soul.
It is a Yiddish saying, however, that I believe encapsulates the meaning of the heartfelt actions described in Parashat Vayakhel: Di klainer hartz nemt arum di groisseh velt, "The heart is small and embraces the whole wide world." The heart is indeed small--just the size of a fist--but it helps us cope with the many challenges that we face in our communities. Like this hand tucked inside each of us, the heart has the power to strike like a fist or to gather and embrace like an open hand. It is up to each of us to learn how to move our heart to embrace the world.
Questions for Discussion
What does a Jewish heart need in order to be moved? Is it Jewish study, practice, a combination of both, or any other choices?
The text states: "Everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved him" (Exodus 35:21) responded to Moses' command. Characterize both groups. In what way do they differ? Is one group better than the other?
What can we do to involve those people whose hearts are not moved to respond to the needs of the Jewish community? How can we "resuscitate" these people?
Michelle Rose Young, MAJE, is a teacher in the Epstein School in Atlanta, GA.
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