Vayakhel/Pekudei: Building a Holy Community on Individual Effort
“Do not regard anyone with contempt, and do not reject anything, for there is no man who does not have his hour and nothing which does not have its place.”
— Ben Azzai, Pirkei Avot 4:3
Every so often, the weekly Torah reading is a “double reading”, including the text of two portions in one week so that the entire Torah can be read in a year. It is the case this week as we read the two Torah portions of Vayakhel and Pekudei, which comprise the closing chapters of the Book of Exodus. Beginning with the challenges of the Jews as slaves in Egypt, continuing through the Exodus and the giving of the Torah at Mt Sinai; the Book of Exodus concludes here with the people manifesting the earlier -instructions of God in building the Sanctuary.
Each of the ancient Hebrews contributes to the effort, creating an opportunity for everyone to participate in the community formation of the national centerpiece dedicated to God. “Every man whose heart inspired him came; and everyone whose spirit motivated him brought the portion” (35:21). God asked, and we gave from our hearts and spirits.
The command, and its fulfillment, was not based on wealth. Nor was the determination of the donation — be it of gold, fabrics or skills — based upon what the mind thought would be “appropriate” charity. It was based on each person becoming aware of their spirit and their heart and acting on that awareness.
Each gift was not judged based on its financial value, but valued because it was a gift of the heart and a unique expression of that individual. According to my friend and teacher, Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum, “The various different physical materials that different men and women had in their possession and contributed for the construction of the Sanctuary correspond to the unique personal attributes and powers possessed by each and every individual.” On a mystical level, this is the understanding that each person was able through their gifts to strengthen a particular aspect, energy, or foundation stone of the whole project…as long as their gift was an honest reflection of their own spirit.
The Book of Exodus tells the story of a journey into freedom, but with freedom comes responsibilities. We see in these portions how Exodus ends with a clear teaching: each individual has a responsibility to choose to give from the deepest part within themselves in order to achieve God’s goals and obey God’s instructions. There are no statements that one person’s gift is better than another, just an instruction that the gifts must be heartfelt, passionate, and full expressions of the individual.
The implication is twofold. First and most primary, we must give from our hearts. Our generosity, especially towards honoring God’s commands, must be determined by what our hearts say, not our minds (which are often concerned with growing assets and eliminating financial debts). All too often, we think about, and even “want to” donate something, but hesitate because we are scared that ultimately we will “not have enough”. While our hearts and spirits are able to integrate information and be present in the moment, knowing what is truly righteous; our minds often get in the way and worry about the future. But when we are spiritually centered we know that the deeper reality is that every choice is one between faith and fear, and while our hearts know that it is right to give of ourselves, our minds sometimes get caught in that fear. Our minds, busy worrying about the future (Rebbe Nachman taught that the only thing we should ever worry about is that we worry too much) often get in the way of what our hearts know is truly righteous. The teaching in our portion reminds us to follow our hearts, and to give fully…knowing in faith that we are in partnership with God and that our future wellbeing is always in God’s hands.
This double portion, as well as the words of Ben Azzai, also reminds us to honor the honest gift of each person. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all judged each other with the same standards that God demonstrates in this part of the Torah? If, rather than glorifying someone who gives a lot of money to their temple and degrading someone who gives less (or worse, trying to shame them into giving more) we chose to look at whether a gift of any sort was a reflection of the person’s spirit and heart. If we valued the volunteer who helps set up and take down services and does it from their heart, as highly as we valued the financial donor? If we followed this simple instruction of respecting and treasuring each person and their individual gifts, how much more full would all of our communities be?
How much more welcoming and healthy would every spiritual community be if we truly honored each person for their own uniqueness, special qualities and expressions. Maybe we could even start to entice the huge percentage of Jews who are not currently involved in Judaism back to Jewish communities as they perceive a more welcoming and respectful attitude towards everyone who gives from their heart, rather than only demonstrating respect for one type of gift.
Freedom itself is a Divine gift. This week’s portion reminds us to truly open our hearts and let our actions be a reflection of that openness — to respect each individual for their unique gifts and to embrace the results of more participation in all ways.
Open hearts, action and true respect. Isn’t that what defines a healthy community?
May we all be blessed to build our own communities with the same integrity and passion as our ancestors, and to reap the blessings God provides as a result.
Rabbi Michael Barclay March 12, 2021 28th of Adar, 5781