Vayakhel, our weekly parashah, once again focuses on the construction of the sanctuary. Whenever the Torah seems to be repeating itself, the risk is to read the seemingly repetitive passages with little attention, leaving out important details or missing those clues that tell us that something important is being said instead, once again. Vayakhel is not just a sterile repetition of the instructions for the construction of the sanctuary, for it contains instead a valuable model of how, even today, we can build the space in which divine service, worship, takes place. I am not referring to the construction of our synagogues, as buildings, but to the metaphorical and symbolic space we construct each week when we gather in our synagogues for Shabbat.
Vayakhel, Moses gathered the whole community of Israel. There can be no divine service without community, without Israel coming together with a purpose, to bear witness to its covenant with God. All are summoned, men and women, without distinction. And everyone is asked to bring a gift, something essential for the building of the sanctuary. The list is detailed: they are asked to bring gold, silver and copper; but also cloth and goat’s hair and skins of other animals; precious stones but also ropes and pegs. Every Sabbath we gather in our synagogues and each of us brings what he or she can as a gift: our talents and skills, our joy and sadness, our thoughts and our undisclosed desires, our worries, sometimes our despairs. This sanctuary, the symbolic space we build together every Sabbath, is nothing less than the totality of what each of us brings. Nothing is superfluous, everything contributes to the construction of that sacred space which constitutes the encounter between God and his people.
Furthermore, Vayakhel also tells us how we are to bring our gifts for the construction of this symbolic space of encounter with our God. There are some expressions that recur frequently. The men and women who bring gifts for the building of the sanctuary are carried by their hearts and their offering is made willingly. Verse 35:21 states: ‘And everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit was moved came, bringing to the Eternal an offering for the work of the Tent of Meeting and for all its service and for the sacral vestments’ (JPS translation). The Or Hachaim, the commentary on Torah by Rabbi Chaim ben Attar (1696-1742) comments thus on this verse: ‘The Torah alludes to two different categories of donors. A person who donates as a result of an urge to do so in accordance with his means, both physically and financially. The Torah describes such a person as nadva rucho, to stress that such a donor does not feel that he deprives himself of something by giving it away. The second type of donor is one who loses his sense of proportion because of his enthusiasm for the project for which he donates. As a result he contributes more than he can afford. The Torah describes this second type of person as nes’ao libbo, “he is carried away by his heart.” At the time he donates, such a person considers himself as possessing far more economic resources than he actually does. The Torah spoke of both of these types in our verse to show that there were both of these kinds of donors among the Israelites’.
However, the expression nesa’o libbo can be translated differently. In ancient times, the heart was considered the seat of thought, not feelings. Men and women who bring their offerings to the shrine have to be ‘carried’, guided by their minds. nas’a can also mean to elevate, to lift up. Men and women who bring their gifts for the building of the sanctuary do so with the hope that those material gifts will be elevated to a higher purpose and that in doing so their minds, their intention will elevate them as people to a higher purpose. It is no accident that we read in verses 10 and 25 respectively: all men of wise minds and all women of wise minds. What does it mean to have a wise mind? I think it means having the ability to unite our will, our desires, what motivates us and drives us to act with the knowledge of what direction we should give to our will, so that we can guide ourselves towards something, or someone, better and higher. And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all your mind, and with all yourself, and with all your means’. And the Torah will guide you to put every part of you in the service of your Creator.
So, when we will find ourselves gathered as a community this Saturday to once again build the space of encounter between us and God, may each person bring every part of themselves into that space and, guided by the words of prayer and Torah, be led and uplifted as a human being to a higher purpose. May each of us bring the fragments of an often confused and lost self and see them put back together and harmonized into something beautiful and essential, as was our sanctuary, dismantled and rebuilt each time in the desert. May it be His will. Shabbat Shalom.
Martina Loreggian LBC rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.