Parashat Vayak’hel / P’kudei 5780


A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayak’hel P’kudei
By Rabbi Bruce Alpert (’11)What does it mean to have a “willing heart?” The phrase is used three times in the opening verses of this week’s parashah, Vayak’hel/P’kudei (Exodus 35:5, 22, and 29). It likewise appears in Parashat Terumah, Exodus 25:2. In each instance the circumstances are the same; it describes the voluntary donations of precious materials (gold, silver, jewels, rare fabrics) used for the construction of the Mishkan – God’s dwelling place among the Israelite tribes. These donations are all made by those whose heart moves them to do so, and they are made in such profusion that Moses ultimately must command the Israelites to stop (Exodus 36:6).

But we only realize how evocative is the phrase “willing heart” when we consider the source of these gifts. These materials were acquired by the Israelites as they left Egypt, stripping it of its precious objects as they did so (Exodus 12:36). In other words, these willing hearts belong to a group of newly liberated slaves, selflessly giving up their recently acquired property.

At first blush, this might all seem quite incredible. How could anyone, so recently living in degradation, willingly part with his only valuable possessions? But our distant ancestors’ situation was stark: a cold wilderness, indifferent to their plight. The treasure with which they left Egypt may have been beautiful to behold, yet it would prove mockingly valueless if their lives were valueless. But in donating it to the Mishkan, they created a structure that itself was a testament to the value of their lives; a value found in their attachment to that which is eternal. The hearts of the Israelites were willing because – like the heart itself – the need was so central to their being.

Our synagogues retell this story. I was reminded of this recently when an electrician was tracing the source of some wiring in our social hall, removing ceiling tiles as he went. One such tile revealed a view of the synagogue’s long hidden cornerstone. Inscribed in the stone was the number 5689 – corresponding with the year 1929.

It got me thinking about the Jews who would have lived in the small city of Wallingford, Connecticut, 90-plus years ago; a place known primarily for its silverware factories. Most of them were immigrants to this country, or the children of immigrants. They were mainly merchants, drawn to the town by the opportunities it offered. None of them had what you might call roots in this very insular and very New England-like community. Wallingford was their wilderness.

Not having recently stripped Egypt of all its wealth, the synagogue they built was a simple affair: a plain, rectangular building whose only adornments are some stained-glass windows. Its simplicity testifies to the financial burden it placed upon its creators. And yet, build it they did. They built it because, like the Mishkan, it would connect them to something that transcended themselves. And so, despite the financial strain it caused, they undertook the effort with willing hearts. For what value would there be in anything they created in this town without it?

We live in an age where we shop for synagogues rather than build them. And yet the need that motivated our ancestors, both near and distant, is still with us. I see in everyone who enters our 91-year-old building the face of a spiritual seeker; someone who, in our wilderness of plenty, is looking for her connection with that which is eternal and transcendent. She shops not for the community whose prayer, programming and demographics best match her own, but for the place that will affirm the meaning and the value of her life. Our job is to offer that to her. If we do, she will give back with the most willing of hearts.
Rabbi Bruce Alpert (AJR ’11) is Rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue in Wallingford, CT