Light from the Sidra

Vayak'hel/Pekudei ('And he assembled...'/'Accounts')

Torah: Exodus 35:1-40:38. Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16-38

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)


Going through the motions?

A YouGov poll conducted at the end of last year found that one in four people in the United Kingdom believe that, amongst other things, ‘Jews chase money’ more than other British people. It’s the old stereotype that Jews are stingy money grubbers. Most Jewish people I know are very generous and in Parasha Vayek’hel the entire nation proves itself to be extremely generous in contributing materials for the construction of the Tabernacle.

One of the more remarkable expressions of Jewish generosity is found in Exodus 38:8, which tells us that the women of Israel gave mirrors to be melted down for the construction of the kiyor, the huge bronze basin in which the priests washed themselves in preparation for serving God. How many women today consider spiritual cleanliness to be more important than looking good?

In the end, the people gave more than was required for the making of the Tabernacle and had to be restrained from contributing even more. According to Rabbi Shaul in the New Testament, HASHEM loves a cheerful giver and, following the incident of the golden calf, HASHEM must have been delighted by Israel’s zeal in giving to the construction of his house. We are not told that every Israelite responded to the call to give but many did and this was surely a high point in Israel’s sojourn at Sinai. All of which poses a question about how we give to HASHEM; do we give to him joyfully or grudgingly?

Moses stresses in Exodus 25:21 and elsewhere that the people gave willingly from their hearts. Their spirits were stirred to give. This was the most important element in the entire episode. Some of the people were able to contribute more than others; some gave gold and the precious stones on which were engraved the names of the tribes of Israel, while others contributed linen or animal skins. But what mattered to God was the heart attitude of each giver.

Once, in the second temple, the disciples of a famous rabbi pointed out to him the impressive gifts that were being donated with great ostentation by certain wealthy men. In response, Rabbi Jesus drew their attention to a humble widow who was placing two small coins into the contribution chest. That widow, said Jesus, had given far more than all the rich men because they gave out of their abundance whereas she gave everything she had. What matters to HASHEM when we give to him is our heart attitude. Do we give gifts in order to feel good about ourselves? Do we give in order to be receive the praise of others or do we give out of a sense of heartfelt gratitude to God and love for others? Do we give out of our abundance or does it cost us to give?

It’s instructive to compare what Rabbi Jesus said about giving with what some other rabbis have taught on the subject. To encourage the performance of mitzvot, some rabbis teach that we should do good whether we feel like doing it or not. If we perform mitzvot and tzedaka, they say, we will grow more willing to do good. That is actually a very dangerous teaching because it promotes a mere outward formality in religion rather than a heartfelt love for God and men. This was the case in the days of Isaiah, who spoke against religious formality: ‘Inasmuch as this people has drawn close [to Me], with its mouth and with its lips it has honoured Me, yet it has distanced its heart from Me — their fear of Me is like rote learning of human commands’ (Isaiah 29:13). Israel was going through the motions of religion because their teachers taught them that all HASHEM required was obedience to a set of rules and regulations. The consequence was that the hearts of the people were not in their worship.

The prophets criticised the temple offerings, not because HASHEM condemned the sacrificial system as such – after all, he instituted the system – but God was angry because the people thought he would be pleased with offerings that were presented without any real devotion. It is clear from King David’s great psalm of repentance that the performance of mitzvot are worthless without a right attitude of heart: ‘You do not desire a sacrifice, else I would give it; a burnt-offering You do not want. The sacrifices God desires are a broken spirit; a heart broken and humbled, O God, You will not despise’ (Psalm 51:18-19). But, David goes on, when our hearts are right God is pleased with our offerings: ‘Then you will desire the offerings of righteousness’ (Psalm 51:21).

Even repentance can become a mere formality. It is possible to fast and say the penitential prayers on Yom Kippur out of commitment to tradition rather than out of a sense of true shame for the sins committed in the previous year. When we become conscious of the hardness of our hearts, the right course of action is not to carry on regardless but to approach God humbly, confess our sin and plead with to him to do what he promised through Ezekiel in the Haftarah: ‘I will sprinkle pure water upon you, that you may become cleansed; I will cleanse you from all your contamination and from all your idols; I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh. I will put My Spirit within you, and I will make it so you will follow My decrees and guard My ordinances and fulfil them’ (Ezekiel 36:25-27).

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