Jewish Journal

A place for being

Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei (Exodus 35:1-40:38)

by Rabbi Jocee Hudson

Posted on Mar. 15, 2012 at 3:33 pm

Rabbi Jocee Hudson

Rabbi Jocee Hudson

Imagine, amid the detailed planning, frenzied gathering of precious objects, painstaking construction and growing sense of anticipation, Moses stands before the people and says, Enough! “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” (Exodus 36:6).

I recently sat with two fifth-graders, discussing this seemingly odd directive. We discussed how Moses had previously called upon the Israelites to bring gifts for the construction of the tabernacle, but how in this week’s portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei, we learn that the Israelites were bringing too much. I asked the students why they thought Moses would tell the people to stop bringing gifts and one replied, “Maybe they brought so many gifts that there wasn’t any space left for God?”

This command to stop all donations comes on the heels of an altogether different building project. In last week’s parasha, the Israelites grew impatient with Moses’ time away on Mount Sinai and joined with Aaron in the misguided construction of the golden calf. In that episode, Aaron said to the Israelites, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me” (Exodus 32:2). The people did as he said.

When Moses lingered on the mountain, the Israelites donated jewelry to build an idol. When Moses told them to bring treasures to build the tabernacle, the Israelites gave until Moses said stop. Whether asked to give freely or by command, whether for purposes sinister or holy, the Israelites seem happy to oblige.

Under Pharaoh’s rule, the Israelites not only witnessed but also participated in the grand construction of monuments. They worked until Pharaoh said quit, they built what he designed, and they fulfilled the wishes he expressed. When it came time for the Israelites to contribute, they contributed without autonomy. For them, doing and building came as second nature. But, the Israelites built in order to build. They did in order to do. What they failed to experience was the deeper purpose of the construction, the intention behind the act.

Maybe they brought so many gifts that there wasn’t any space left for God?

Moses knew his people’s history. He had witnessed their labor as slaves and seen their construction of a useless idol well before he called upon them to stop their donations for the tabernacle. Maybe Moses came to fear that the Israelites were building the tabernacle in the same spirit that they built a golden calf for worship or erected a monument for their master?

But, the tabernacle was meant to be different.

The Hebrew word for tabernacle, mishkan, is constructed from the root letters shin-kaf-nun, meaning “dwell.” The tabernacle’s purpose was to be a dwelling place for God, not just a building project for humanity. The tabernacle was to be the antithesis of all that the Israelites had come to know and experience. The tabernacle was to be a space for being, not for doing.

Maybe they brought so many gifts that there wasn’t any space left for God?

The Israelites were so busy gathering gold and silver, crimson yarn and acacia wood, that they lost sight of the sacred purpose of their task. They were focused on the means, and missed the end.

In our lives today, we are not so different from our desert ancestors. We have our own edifices to keep us busy. Today, we too gather in our own individual pursuits, filling our moments with collections and constructions. We busy ourselves with our objects and our relationships, our worries and our passions, our aspirations and our failures. We may also find ourselves building in order to build, doing in order to do.

Maybe we are consumed by so much gathering that we fail to make space for the sacred?

Torah comes to remind us this week that life is not just about the building, but also about the being. This is a week for consciously making space. This is a week for considering the towers of activities and details and dealings that we pile around ourselves. This is a week for considering what we are using to fill our mental, emotional and spiritual wells. This is a week for clearing aside some of that stuff, which keeps us feeling full and occupied but also ultimately distracts us from that which is holy and meaningful.

Amid the detailed planning, frenzied gathering of precious objects, painstaking construction and growing sense of anticipation, Moses once again stands before his people and says, Enough!

Let us hear his call.

Rabbi Jocee Hudson is rabbi educator and religious school director at Temple Israel of Hollywood (tioh.org), a Reform congregation

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