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“Do not regard anyone with contempt, and do not reject anything, for there is no man who does not have his hour and nothing which does not have its place.”
— Ben Azzai, Pirkei Avot 4:3
The two Torah portions of Vayakhel and Pekudei comprise the closing chapters of the book of Exodus. Beginning with the challenges of the Jews as slaves in Egypt, continuing through the Exodus and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the book concludes with the people manifesting the earlier instructions of God in building the Sanctuary.
Each person contributes to the effort, creating an opportunity for everyone to participate in the community formation of the national centerpiece dedicated to God: “Every man whose heart inspired him came; and everyone whose spirit motivated him brought the portion” (Exodus 35:21).
The command, and its fulfillment, was not based on wealth. Nor was the determination of the donation — be it of gold, fabrics or skills — based on what the mind thought would be “appropriate” charity. It was based on each person becoming aware of their spirit and their heart and acting on that awareness.
Each gift was not judged by its financial value, but valued because it was a gift of the heart, a unique expression of that person. According to Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum, “The various different physical materials that different men and women had in their possession and contributed for the construction of the Sanctuary correspond to the unique personal attributes and powers possessed by each and every individual.”
The book of Exodus tells the story of a journey into freedom, but with freedom comes responsibilities. The book ends with a clear teaching: Each individual must choose to give from the deepest part within themselves in order to achieve God’s goals and obey God’s instructions. There are no statements that one person’s gift is better than another’s, just an instruction that the gifts must be heartfelt.
The implication is twofold. First, our generosity, especially toward honoring God’s commands, must be determined by what our hearts say, not our minds (which are often concerned with growing assets and eliminating financial debts). All too often, we think about and even “want to” donate something but hesitate because we are scared that ultimately we will “not have enough.” Our minds, busy worrying about the future, often get in the way of what our hearts know is truly righteous.
In reality, every choice is one between faith and fear, and while our hearts may know that it is right to give of ourselves, our minds sometimes get caught in that fear, and so we don’t follow the deeper parts of ourselves. The teaching in our portion reminds us to follow our hearts and to give fully … knowing in faith that we are in partnership with God and that our well-being is always in God’s hands.
The portion, as well as the words of Ben Azzai, also reminds us to honor the honest gift of each person. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all judged each other with the same standards that God demonstrates in this part of the Torah? If, rather than glorifying someone who gives a lot of money to their temple and degrading someone who gives less — or worse, trying to shame them into giving more — we chose to look at whether the gift was a reflection of the person’s spirit and heart. If we valued the volunteer who helps set up and take down services and does it from their heart, as highly as we valued the financial donor? If we followed this simple instruction of respecting and treasuring each person and their individual gifts, how much more full would our communities be?
How much more welcoming and healthy would our communities be if we truly honored each person for their own uniqueness, special qualities and expressions? Maybe we could even entice the huge percentage of Jews who are not involved in Judaism to come back to Jewish communities as they perceive a more welcoming and respectful attitude toward everyone who gives from their heart, rather than only demonstrating respect to the large financial donor.
Freedom itself is a Divine gift. This week’s portion reminds us to truly open our hearts and let our actions be a reflection of that openness — to respect each individual for their unique gifts and to embrace the results of more participation in all ways.
Open hearts, action and true respect. Isn’t that what defines a healthy community?
May we all be blessed to build our own communities with the same integrity and passion as our ancestors, and to reap the blessings God provides as a result.
Rabbi Michael Barclay is the spiritual leader of Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village (nersimcha.org) and the author of “Sacred Relationships: Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together” (Liturgical Press, 2013). He can be reached at RabbiBarclay@aol.com.