By Shai Held
Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5775
In conveying instructions for the building of the mishkan (tabernacle), God instructs Moses, “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts (terumah); you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him (yidvenu libo) … And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:2, 6). These opening words make two crucial points. First, God does not simply seek a place to dwell; God seeks, rather, a place constructed by human hands. Second, God has no interest in a structure erected through coercion or taxation; what God wants is an edifice built from freely-bestowed gifts. As Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it: “Constructing an adequate place for the holiness of God is indeed human work, wrought in generosity.”
Sure enough, when Moses transmits God’s word to the people, he announces, “This is what the Lord has commanded: “Take from among you gifts to the Lord; everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them” (35:4-5). The Torah then narrates the bringing of gifts at great length (35:4-36:8). Strikingly, the phrase “one whose heart so moves him” (nediv libo or a variant), which appears nowhere else in the Torah, appears three times over the course of just forty verses; within these verses the root n-d-v, meaning to donate, appears no fewer than six times. These repetitions underscore just how important it is to God that gifts for the mishkan come freely and without any hint of coercion.
Another word occurs even more frequently than n-d-v in the narration of the bringing of gifts: The word “heart” (lev) appears fourteen times – a multiple of seven, the biblical symbol of completion or totality. While the contributors must be “generous of heart,” the actual builders must be “wise of heart” (hakham lev). The Torah seems to go out of its way to emphasize that both the giving and the constructing must be done with “heart.”
The question, of course, is why. What is it about the construction of the mishkan that makes giving from the heart so fundamental? The answer, I think, lies in the fact that the heart is the great equalizer.
R. Meir Leibush Weiser (Malbim, 1809-1879) makes the beautiful observation that in the construction of the mishkan, “the essence of the gift (terumah)… is the generosity (nedavat ha-lev); the spirit’s desire to donate is the very essence of the donation.” This requires emphasis, Malbim writes, because “there were poor people among the children of Israel who did not have anything at all to donate, but they gave in spirit (hitnadvu be-ruham) – that is, they thought that if only they had great wealth, they would give enough for the whole mishkan and all of its utensils just from their own possessions. God, who knew what was in their heart, received this as if they had given concretely” (Comments to Exodus 35:21).
Why the special concern in this context to include those who cannot afford to contribute materially? The mishkan is a magnificent structure; in constructing it, the Torah tells us, the Israelites make use of “gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns; fine linen and goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood… lapis lazuli and other stones” (Exodus 25:3-5,7). In any massive capital campaign, the temptation is for people to lavish attention and admiration upon those with means; after all, it is their generosity that makes the project feasible. In such moments, those without wealth or “capacity” can quickly be rendered invisible. Yet something about that possibility undercuts the very purpose of the construction: If the mishkan is to be erected so that God can dwell in and with the entire people, then manifesting – and even deepening – divisions of status and class in the process of building it represents a spiritual contradiction in terms. So God stresses that all gifts count – even the smallest of the small; even the purely internal gift of wishing one had the means to contribute materially. As a Talmudic dictum puts it, “It is the same whether one offers much or one offers little, as long as one directs one’s heart to Heaven” (BT, Menahot 110a).
A similar logic underlies a memorable midrash about those who led the construction efforts. The Torah highlights the great wisdom and skill of Bezalel, from the tribe of Judah, who directed all aspects of the building (35:30-35). Alongside him, we learn, stood Oholiab, from the tribe of Dan (35:34). R. Hanina b. Pazi observes that “there was no more elevated tribe than the tribe of Judah and no more lowly tribe than the tribe of Dan, who was from among the sons of Jacob’s concubines… The Blessed Holy One said, ‘Let Oholiab come and work with Bezalel, lest the latter grow haughty – for the great and the lowly are equal before the Blessed Holy One’” (Tanhuma, Ki Tissa 13). Expanding upon this midrash, Rashi (1040-1105) cites a description of God from the book of Job: “The noble are not preferred to the wretched” (Job 34:19, cited in Rashi’s comments to Exodus 35:34). In appointing those who will manage the massive construction project, in other words, God carefully ensures that the whole people is represented. The mishkan is to be built together, without some being glorified and others erased.
From beginning to end, the construction process is animated by overflowing generosity. So responsive are the people to Moses’ call for donations that he eventually has to call a halt to the proliferation of gifts; the people’s efforts “had been more than enough for all that had to be done” (35:4-7). The Torah spends several verses discussing how much has already been brought – not just brought, but brought freely and generously (35:20-28) – and then, somewhat oddly, stops to note – again – that “every man and woman whose hearts so moved them” brought these gifts (35:29). R. Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) explains that the text is emphasizing that “each and every one of them donated for the proper reason, to serve God and fulfill God’s will”; they had no ulterior motives, like pride or the pursuit of grandeur. According to Abravanel, then, the people did not just give freely; they also gave for the right reasons, without thought of status or recognition (comments to Exodus 35).
Implicit in Abravanel’s words is a (gentle? stinging?) critique of those whose generosity is motivated by a desire for attention and approbation. While in most instances it is better to give for less-than-ideal reasons than not to give at all, we can take Abravanel’s comments as a subtle reminder of what giving at its best looks like: It is about the cause, not the donor. Or, in this (and many) context(s), it is about serving God, not our own ego or lust for prestige. So pure was Israel’s giving in this paradigmatic building project, Abravanel suggests, that for a moment at least, the people forget themselves and achieve a state of unadulterated generosity.
According to some commentators, the generosity extended still further. The Torah describes Bezalel and Ohaliab as being endowed by God with the skills necessary to work “in every kind of designer’s craft,” but also, crucially, with the “the heart to instruct others (lehorot natan be-libo)” (35:31-35). R. Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) notes tersely that “there are many wise people who find it hard to teach others” (longer commentary to Exodus 35:34). On one level, of course, Ibn Ezra may simply be referring to the fact that some people find it difficult to communicate what they know. Yet he may also be pointing to something deeper, namely that some people hoard their expertise and are reluctant to share what they know. If that is what Ibn Ezra means, then Israel’s two master craftsmen are credited here with being open-hearted enough to share their talents and abilities with others.
At first glance, Bezalel and Ohaliab’s eagerness to teach may seem like an insignificant detail. Upon closer reflection, though, it helps us discern the larger thrust of the narrative: God wants God’s dwelling place to be wrought in generosity both towards God and towards one another. After all, as God makes clear, God wishes to dwell among the people, and not (merely) in the mishkan (Exodus 25:8).
For many of us, it may be difficult to imagine genuine selflessness and generosity flowing so freely among flesh-and-blood people in the “real world.” But consider: If the mishkan is intended to serve as a “counterworld” (Brueggemann), an oasis of Eden in a decidedly non-Edenic world, then it makes sense that the construction process is described in ideal(ized) terms. Through its portrayal, the Torah offers us a window on what the ideal communal project would look like: generous, ego-less, and motivated by the sacredness of the cause itself.
Rabbi Shai Held is Co-Founder, Dean, and Chair in Jewish Thought at Mechon Hadar, and the author of “Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence.” You can sign up to receive his weekly essays at www.mechonhadar.org/shaiheld