Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei

Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei

March 18, 2007

By Julius Rabinowitz

As we go through our daily routines, the concept of ‘giving’ enters our thoughts and, it is hoped, our actions. Often times this concept manifests itself through obligatory or routine giving. Perhaps it arises in the course of providing for our family or other household members, for example, putting breakfast on the table or running errands. Alternatively, at some point in a weekday synagogue service, someone puts a Tzedakah box on the table or marches around with it, and we reach into our pocket and put some amount in, the usual amount or whatever loose change may be available. Or, we are sitting on a crowded bus and, confronted with a mother with young children, we unconsciously give up our seat without missing a beat on our iPod or a line from the New York Times.

Yet as rewarding as these acts may be, in the overall fulfillment of the concept of ‘giving,’ they leave something to be desired.

This week we are privileged to read the combined parashiot, Vayakhel-Pekudei. Parashat Vayakhel begins with yet another recitation that we are to work for six days and on the seventh day, the Sabbath, we are to refrain from all melakhah, loosely translated as ‘work.’ The remainder of the parashiot are devoted to the minutiae of the construction of the Tabernacle in the desert, a formula not unlike last week’s Torah reading, Ki Tissa, from which the Rabbis of the Talmud extrapolate the 39 categories of prohibited ‘work,’ corresponding to the activities undertaken for the construction of the Tabernacle.

Yet within the details of this week’s Tabernacle construction we have a significant addition previously lacking. This week’s detailed construction project includes a fair number of ‘gifts’ provided by the Israelites, and in describing the manner in which the Israelites brought the gifts, Torah repeatedly mentions that they are brought from the heart, as, for example, brought by those among the Israelites ‘whose spirit moved them’ (Exodus 35:21), or those ‘whose hearts moved them’ (35:22 and 29). Clearly, these gifts fall outside the concept of our everyday ‘obligatory’ gifts or those resulting from an unconscious or rote activity.

The Torah sees this form of giving from the heart as the result of God’s command (35:29. Yet how can a gift from the heart be the product of a command? Certainly one can perform an obligatory act in response to a command, but how does one compel oneself to ‘perform from the heart’?

To tackle this problem, perhaps we should try to better understand the elements of a ‘successful’ gift. For, in addition to investing our ‘heart,’ we need to appreciate its impact on the recipient. For example, we may want to bestow a tasty delight on a friend or a needy stranger’but should it be a mass-produced supermarket cookie, one that is rich in nothing but refined flour and sugar. Tasty, sure’but hardly something healthy. Or on a much broader scale, when confronted with the tragedy of Katrina, how much value does throwing billions of dollars of relief aid really produce, if it is not properly orchestrated.

Indeed, reliance solely on the heart in making a gift can actually have deleterious effects. For example, in the early 1960’s a group of Mississippi tenant farmers went on strike in protest of the share-cropping system then prevalent in the South. The strikers set up a ‘tent city’ and their cause received national attention, as part of the overall Civil Rights struggle. One day a television crew arrived and focused their attention on a young girl and her struggling family. Not unexpectedly, this particular coverage evoked sympathy throughout the nation, resulting in an outpouring of donations to this one family. But the others in the tent city felt that these donations should be shared by the entire community, thus causing a rift between the family and the others.

Torah recognizes this difficulty. It teaches that a successful gift, in addition to being from the heart, must also be accompanied by ‘wisdom.’ And we see in this week’s Torah portion, that the Israelites’ gifts were also brought with hokhmah, ‘wisdom.’ (35:25-26) (And in response to those who feel that Torah gives short-shrift to the importance of women, it should not be overlooked that it was their gifts that included this second element.)

Once we understand the need for a successful gift to include the wisdom element, we can also appreciate that it could be in response to God’s command. That in making a gift, we need to invoke our active intellect, that which characterizes our being created b’Tzelem Elokim, in God’s image. As illustrated by the share-cropping ‘gift’ above, this is often not an easy task, and requires a great deal of forethought. And God’s gift of Shabbat can be the perfect time: for having freed us from performing any Melakhot on this day, God has showered us with an abundance of free time for us to make not only a kind gift, one from the heart, but also devise a thoughtful gift, one that will produce the greatest good.