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Parashat Vayakhel 5779

March 1, 2019

A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayakhel
By Rabbi Heidi Hoover (’11)

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel, the Israelites finally get to do something. Something sanctioned, something that is approved—in fact, instructed—by God through Moses. Moses has received the detailed instructions from God to build a dwelling-place for God among the Israelites, the Tabernacle. The Israelites became restless and anxious while waiting for Moses: In last week’s Torah portion they made the Golden Calf, and were punished for it.

Now Moses stands before them again, and this time they are not in trouble. Moses begins by instructing them to work six days of the week, but to rest on the seventh. Then they are instructed to bring as gifts the materials needed to build the Tabernacle, and they bring, and bring, and bring, until there is more than is needed and they have to be told to stop.

Why do they bring so much? Rebbe Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, author of the S’fat Emet, a Torah commentary, was a Hasidic rabbi at the turn of the 20th century. On this Torah portion, he teaches that after the sin of creating the Golden Calf, they needed to give this offering. Now this was a free-will offering, though God does seem pretty confident that plenty of people will give a free-will offering when advised to do so. I think we can understand, though, that even though there was punishment for the creation of the Golden Calf, there might be a lingering desire to do something positive as a response.

The S’fat Emet takes it further, though, quoting a midrash that comments, “My children made Me a sanctuary of [mere] skins, and I came down and dwelt among them.” This comment is on a quote in the Midrash from the biblical book Song of Songs: “Vast floods cannot quench love, nor rivers drown it” (Song of Songs 8:7).

The point is two-pronged: God’s love for Israel was not quenched or drowned by the incident of the Golden Calf, though God was indeed very angry. For God to come and dwell among them, they had to overcome their mistake and bring that love out into the open. The S’fat Emet writes, “By the act of giving they brought forth their inner generosity, their longing and attachment, so that they were able to draw the Shechinah [–the Presence of God–] into their midst,” (The Language of Truth, Arthur Green, p. 137).

Our tradition tells us that all of us stood at Mt. Sinai, even though we weren’t alive then (e.g., Deuteronomy 29:14). So all of us carry the love of God inside of us. But as the S’fat Emet points out, it is generosity—of physical things, yes, but also generosity of spirit—that allows God to dwell among us. Because, according to the S’fat Emet, the reason that God comes and dwells in the Tabernacle isn’t because it is so very beautiful and awesome, but because the Israelites opened their hearts and gave so generously for its construction.

We see this in our own communities when there is a death and the family sits shiva. They typically receive many visitors and an overwhelming amount of food—usually much more than they need. This generosity, and giving more than is needed, is an expression of compassion and caring that is part of what brings the Presence of God to that shiva, through the loving people who come to comfort the family.

We see this at other times too, when we in my community gather for Torah study, for example. Participants are generous with their thoughts and ideas, and for me at least, when I experience something new in the Torah portion, I feel the Presence of God, the Shechinah.

We learn from the story of Adam, the first human, that we are to be partners with God in creation. Here, in Vayakhel, we learn through the writing of the S’fat Emet that we are also partners in bringing God into our community and our lives.

May we always be moved to give generously of what we have to others, in order to increase the holiness, the warmth, and the health of our communities, and so that God may always have a place to dwell with us.
Rabbi Heidi Hoover (AJR ’11) has taught Conversion at AJR. She is the rabbi of B’ShERT: Beth Shalom v’Emeth Reform Temple in Brooklyn, NY.