Seventy Faces of Torah A Campaign That Includes Us All
This week’s Torah portion, Vayekhel, contains one of the most colorful depictions of community-building in the Torah. Rephrased and repeated throughout the parasha is the following message: “Everyone whose heart so moves them shall bring gifts for the Lord; gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple and crimson yarns . . .” (Exodus 35:5-6). While some find a bit dull this detailed and repeated description of the pieces of the mishkan (the tabernacle in the desert) and the piles of materials donated to build it, I am invigorated by that list and what it says to us about the power of a diverse and inclusive community. When this colorful litany is read in the context of two earlier episodes in the Torah, the rainbow of Vayekhel shines even more colorfully.
If we step back just one week, to Parshat Ki Tissa, we find a more monochromatic communal endeavor:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment . . . everyone in the records shall pay a half-shekel . . . Everyone who is entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give the Lord’s offering: the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel (Exodus 30:12-15).
Here we have an egalitarianism of sorts: no matter one’s wealth or status, God compels everyone to contribute the same amount–one silver half-shekel. Though one is compulsory and the other free will, both the Vayakhel and Ki Tissa campaigns raise funds for the mishkan, which belongs to every Israelite. But upon closer inspection, we note that “everyone” called to contribute is limited to adult males over 20 years old (only they were counted in the census). The biblical text assumes that this compulsory census tax was generally heeded–a successful, standardized fundraiser, if not inclusive of the full community.
Also in last week’s parasha, we have a chronologically jarring flashback to the molding of the golden calf, another monochromatic endeavor, this time in gold. Contemporary Torah scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg suggests that the reference to this episode helps set the context for the people’s need for the mishkan, a physical, concrete place in which to focus on the Divine presence. In one well-known midrash on the golden calf (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 45), however, despite grassroots demand for such “a god who shall go before us” (Exodus 32:2), the Israelite women refuse to contribute their gold rings and earrings.
The compulsory silver campaign, which includes only a part of the community, achieves modest financial goals, but does not touch the hearts of its people. The women reject participation in the misguided campaign for the golden calf, a project that threatens the Israelites’ emerging covenantal relationship. But when every member of the community is both called upon and motivated to bring their heart, possessions, talents, skills, and love to the creation of the mishkan, this is what happens:
Men and women, all whose hearts moved them, all who would make an elevation offering of gold to the Lord, came bringing brooches, earrings, rings, and pendants – gold objects of all kinds. And everyone who had in his possession blue, purple and crimson yarns . . . brought them . . . (Exodus 35:22-23).
In fact, the overwhelming and colorful contributions grew to be too much. “Moses proclaimed, ‘Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!’ So the people stopped bringing; their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done” (Exodus 36:6).
The preceding one-dimensional campaigns–in which both color and gender are circumscribed–serve to emphasize the expansive ways in which individuals can be moved to give for the sake of community; every one of them is encouraged and motivated to contribute in a meaningful way according to his or her passions and talents. The Israelites are so moved by this sacred work that Moses has to ask them to stop giving. By the end, the Israelites’ inclusive endeavor yields incredible riches, both in resources and in passion. They have built not only an elaborate and deeply colorful mishkan — a dwelling for the Divine — but also a powerfully collaborative and generous community that is truly fit for God’s presence.
Dr. Deborah Skolnick Einhorn is an Assistant Professor and the Assistant Dean for Academic Development and Advising in the Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education at Hebrew College. She studies the role of gender in Jewish organizations, philanthropy and education. She serves as the president of the Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island.