DAVAR ACHER (Alternative commentary) : Parsha Vayakhel

Image by Reijo Telaranta from Pixabay
Image by Reijo Telaranta from Pixabay

On the surface, Vayakhel is the set of interior decorating instructions for the inside of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary we will carry through the desert. Moses details the material donations needed to adorn the inside of the sanctuary. This includes gold, silver and copper, blue-, purple- and red-dyed wool; goat hair; spun linen; animal skins; wood, olive oil, herbs, and precious stones.

First, Moses has to remind the followers of who is in charge, as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner titled his memoir of being a pulpit rabbi, his book, I’m G-d; You’re Not. Moses does this with two instructions. Notice a slight change in the phrasing. The first is in the plural:  “These are the things that the Lord has commanded …. to keep the Sabbath day and to not kindle any fires in your homes on the Sabbath day.” This is followed by, “This is the thing (singular) that the Lord has commanded …” and goes into a discussion of what needs to be brought for the interior of the sanctuary. Moses tells them that what they bring has to be voluntary contributions, in effect, donations from the heart. The Talmud teaches, “G-d desires the heart.” (The Talmud, Sanhedrin 106b, “G-d desires the heart.”)

Rabbi Jared Viders, in his commentary on Naso, ( https://aish.com/511076122/ ), retells a parable of an innkeeper, himself facing hard times, who helps a poor person with a small free room for the night, and then responds to the poor person’s request for a free glass of schnapps in a very strange way. The inn-keeper pours two glasses on the floor first, then gives the third pour to the one who requested it.

“The inn-keeper’s son observed this unusual sequence of events and asked, ‘Father, your drinks are in such short supply and so valuable, why did you throw them to waste on the ground?’”

His father replied, “The first time I filled the snifter I was full of resentment for having to entertain this poor man’s request for a freebie. The second time, too, I still harbored a tinge of frustration. By the third time, I was able to proceed with a full heart. Kindness, my son, is done with one’s heart – not just with one’s possessions.”

To reinforce the need to feel it in our heart, Rabbi Viders repeats a famous teaching of Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987), whom he describes as “one of the greatest violinists of all time” He retells this famous quote from Jascha Heifetz:  “If I don’t practice for three days, the audience knows it. If I don’t practice for two days, the critics know it. If I don’t practice for one day, I know it.”

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlov, taught: “Do not think that the words of the prayer as you say them go up to God. It is not the words themselves that ascend; it is rather the burning desire of your heart that rises like smoke toward heaven. ( http://www.adasyoshuron.org/resources/2008-kn-heart.pdf )

It is not about when the scriptures were written, but simply that they exist. You can take them as jigsaw puzzle pieces scattered on the floor. You can pick them up one by one, and see how they fit together for you, today.

These lessons bring us back two pondering points in Parsha Vayakhel, one implicit and one explicit, that is, until we unpack them. The parsha explicitly teaches that the plea of Moses for the material for the inside of the mishkan was responded to by both women and men. The women were ahead of the men is an inference from Exodus 35:22, from which the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks taught, “the men accompanied the women.” Secondly, the plea for the material was responded to in such abundance that people had to be turned away.

The implicit mystery is that some of the women brought their mirrors as precious donations. Midrash teaches that Moses wanted to reject the donation of mirrors, arguing with G-d that they were made for temptation.G-d said to Moses, in the Midrash, “Accept [them], for these are more precious to Me than anything (and continues with an explanation of why).” The mirrors were eventually used to make the washstand in the mishkan, or at least the copper surrounding the mirrors were used for the base and foundation of the washstand in the mishkan. It is not clear what happened to the reflecting parts of the mirrors. (https://aish.com/mirrors-of-love/ )

The explicit mystery is that so many Israelites were bringing so many voluntary donations that the queue lining up with donations had to be stopped. Some bringing donations had to be turned away. Exodus 36:7, in this parsha, teaches, “Let neither man nor woman do any more work for the contribution to the sanctuary; so the people were restrained from bringing [more].” (translation from My Bar Mitzvah Chumash, published by the Stern Hebrew Book Company, pre-1962CE).

As a professional chaplain, my default obsession is feelings. When I study this parsha, I wonder, how did the potential donors who were turned away feel? Were they just too slow or dwell too far away, to make it to the front of the line of potential donors? It was clearly not about the quality of the potential donations. To Moses, it was simply that we already had enough. Where was Moses’ concern for the feelings of those whose donations never made it to the mishkan? By rejecting their intent to donate, what was his impact on their feelings?

Could Moses have found a way to re-channel their intentions? We were only thinking the materials, but, remember, G-d wants the heart.

The Office of the Chief Rabbi of London commenting on this Parsha Vayakhel on 07 March 2018, ( https://chiefrabbi.org/all-media/dvar-torah-parashat-vayakhel-pekudei-3/ ), taught about Rabbi Eliezer Askari, a Kabbalist of the 16th century, who wrote the poem we sing in Friday night worship, Yedid Nefesh. Rabbi Askari wrote another beautiful poem, “Bilvavi.” This poem teaches, “In my heart, I will build a Mishkan, to reflect the glory of HaShem.” The Chief Rabbi of London wrote here, “This is the essence of what the Mishkan represented:  through our experiences within it, it inspired us to carry within our hearts that little Mishkan, to take the presence of HaShem with us wherever we went.”

Fast-forward to today. As we relax Covid-imposed-restrictions, houses of worship across the faith spectrum grapple with the questions of, “Who returns to our sanctuaries?” and, more globally, “What are the purposes of our sanctuaries?

One, did any of our actions as congregations during the pandemic turn away our members from the desire to return to our sanctuaries by inadvertently hurting their feelings or disenfranchising them, as Moses might have done by stopping those who wanted to donate materials for the inside of the mishkan, saying we had enough already?

Two, we need to reinforce and magnify the role of our sanctuaries. We faced this when we ponder the rhetorical question of, “If G-d is everywhere, why do G-d and we need sanctuaries?” For a new way of looking at an old question, I recommend the 2021 book How G-d Works by psychology professor David DeSteno of Northeastern University, where he looks at the common denominators of the places, symbols and rituals across religions. (https://davedesteno.com )  Professor DeSteno writes, “… nudging the mind to focus .. on G-d or religious symbols … pushes people toward virtue. … When people are made to feel awe … they subsequently report greater belief in G-d’s existence.”

Third, the choreography of the worship experience has to elevate, “to take the presence of Hashem with us wherever we went,” as I quoted earlier. A reimagined oneg shabbat, post-worship kiddush, pre-worship meal, or reducing lecture time and increasing discussion time might all help, as socialization fights the reemerging pandemic of our time, loneliness.

As George Meredith wrote, “He who rises from prayer a better person, his prayer is answered.”

Ken Yehi Ratzon, may this be G-d’s will.

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