There is a curious incident in this week’s Torah portion. The Israelites have been commanded to build the Mishkan, the tent-like sanctuary in which they can worship God and connect the human world to the divine realm, even in the wilderness in which they wander.
Moses asks them to bring gifts of precious materials — gold, silver, and copper, woven cloth in purple, blue, and crimson — that will be transformed by skilled artisans to make the Mishkan a reality. The Israelites respond with enthusiasm, each bringing a gift to help create a place for them to connect with God.
Although only males will serve as priests in the Mishkan, the Torah specifically notes that both men and women bring their gifts to build it, and male and female artisans accept them as the raw materials with which to create this fitting resting place for the divine. But then something strange happens: The artisans are actually overwhelmed by gifts! They approach Moses and say, “The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Lord has commanded to be done.” (Exodus 36:5) When we think of the difficulty we sometimes have soliciting gifts to build holy places in our own time, this outcome seems almost inconceivable. Too much?!
Moses actually has to issue an edict to prevent the people from continuing to bring gifts: “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” (Exodus 36:6) And the people, seemingly reluctantly, finally obey: “So the people stopped bringing; their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done.” (Exodus 36:6-7).
One common interpretation of this incident is that it shows the Israelites’ eagerness to come close to God by contributing to the building of the Mishkan. But the fact that Moses has to take steps to prevent the people from bringing further gifts hints that something else is going on here. What is wrong with the people bringing extra gifts?
Several weeks ago, we read about the Israelites standing at Sinai and hearing the voice of God reciting the Ten Commandments. At that point, they were hardly eager to do more. In fact, they told Moses that they would prefer to hear God’s word second-hand, from Moses. Dealing with the immaterial God and the abstract commandments was too much. But when they are asked to contribute material for the Mishkan, they can’t do enough.
Moses is trying to teach the Israelites to balance the abstract learning that is necessary to understand Torah with the physical rituals that are used to worship God. But the Israelites are much more familiar with the ritual than with learning a moral code. In Egypt, they saw so much physical worship, apparently divorced from ethical precepts to guide it. So it is understandable that they shy from hearing Torah but are eager when it comes to building a structure in which to worship.
Like the Israelites, we, too, struggle to balance our understanding of the ethical and moral code that Torah demands of us with the ritual acts that bind us to God and to Jewish tradition. Sometimes we emphasize one; other times we are attracted to the other. Moses’ warning to the Israelites is for us as well. Only by balancing our lives between learning and worship can we put ourselves on course to connect with God.
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: [email protected] .