Drash on Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei
Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky
Beit Shalom Synagogue
Adelaide, South Australia
The Offering of our Hearts
For three weeks during the year, or four in a leap year, the Torah reading appears to be unrelentingly dull. Two portions in Exodus detail the complete blueprints and patterns for making the Tent of Meeting and all its accessories as well as the priestly clothes. And then, the last two portions in Exodus detail how these plans were carried out. It can appear on the surface to be mind-numbing stuff.
But buried beneath the endless descriptions of planks, sockets, fabrics and turbans is a beautiful message of a community working together to create something of lasting worth and glory to God. The tent of meeting, the ark, the altars, the basins, the implements, the priestly robes, tunics, belts, turbans--all are made entirely from donated materials and by donated labour. The people are urged to contribute according to the desires of their hearts, and in the end, they donate so much that Moses has to ask them to stop. Likewise, those who are skilled at the crafts required to assemble all of these different components are invited to volunteer--both men and women! This is the only place in the Torah where women are explicitly invited to participate in such sacred work. It's a wonderful moment.
The volunteer spirit and the level of generosity portrayed in Exodus contrasts sharply with the haftarah readings that accompany these Torah portions. It is understandable that the rabbis who selected appropriate haftarah readings to accompany the weekly Torah portion would have settled on the story of the building of the first Temple by King Solomon. But the two stories could not be more different. God asks that the Tent of Meeting and everything connected with it be constructed by those whose hearts are moved to do so. King Solomon's Temple is built by conscripted labour and financed by huge taxes levied on the Israelites. The Temple is built to honour God, but the cost--both human and financial--of its construction is so high that it ultimately leads to the secession of the Kingdom of Israel after King Solomon's death.
We can take away several important lessons from our parashah about synagogue life and especially about the major projects we all undertake. First is our approach to money. Contemporary synagogues favour membership dues as a way to underwrite the operations of our institutions. Many churches, and a small but growing number of synagogues, instead rely on free-will donations from their members. People are asked to give as they feel moved to do, and many give more in donations than they might in dues because they are giving an offering from their hearts rather than fulfilling a fiscal obligation. This is an area that merits more discussion to see where it might lead.
We can also learn much from how we include volunteers, who are so crucial to our congregations. Here, there appears to be a place for everyone, but volunteers are matched to tasks according to where the gifts lie. A gifted seamstress is not assigned to carpentry. A metalsmith is not asked to grind incense. We are all challenged to find a place for those within our communities whose hearts are moved to give of themselves. The end result can be a congregation where all feel that they are contributing, where all can share the excitement of a cooperative venture.
I like to imagine what it might have been like when the Tent of Meeting was finally assembled, along with everything that went into it and around it. Looking on proudly were all the volunteers whose hands and hearts had brought these things of beauty into the world. They embraced other while pointing out their handiwork as part of the greater whole. So we all strive to bring our own gifts together to build something of lasting beauty.