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  • James Kennard

Vayakhel: The limits of individualism

It was the most remarkable fundraising event in Jewish history.

Not only was the collection of materials for the construction of the Tabernacle – the portable Temple that accompanied the Jews in the desert – the first ever fundraiser, it was the only one ever to be judged as too successful.

As the people donated vast quantities of the various materials needed for the building and the craftsmanship, the architects pronounced “the people are bringing much than is needed for the work” and Moses commanded “let no man or woman do any more work” (Exodus 36:5-6).

One can try to imagine a synagogue building fund announcing that “we have raised too much money – please stop giving”. One can try, but without success! What could explain Moses’s insistence that the donations should stop?

A close reading of the relevant wording suggests that people were not contributing too much money or materials, but “work” in the form of finished articles. This was the problem. Moses had asked for contributions such as precious metals and fabrics so that the architects could then fashion then into the required building and artefacts in precise accordance with the details of the divine command. Actual items that people had made by themselves had not been requested and were not desired.

To understand why this should be so, we have to go back to the origin of the Tabernacle itself. According to some

 commentators, the movable sanctuary was a reaction to the building of the golden calf. While condemning this act of idolatry, God understood that it was an expression of the people’s need for a tangible representation that would serve as a focus of worship. In response, He gave them an opportunity to create a beautiful, and tangible centre where He could be served.

But there was a crucial difference between the calf and the Tabernacle. The calf was fashioned by men and women, in accordance with their wishes. God’s “home” had to be built only following His plans, not theirs. For this reason, the description of the completion of each part of the Tabernacle is concluded with the words “as God commanded Moses”. And for the same reason, items that people had made themselves, however well-intentioned, could not be accepted.

This is the fundamental distinction between idolatry and the service of God. Idolatry is man deciding for himself how to serve his “god”; the Torah tells us how God wants to be served. Serving God in a way other than the one He has prescribed is not service at all.

Moses introduces the instructions for building the Tabernacle was a seemingly unrelated subject – the laws of Shabbat (Exodus 35:1-2). But the connection is clear. Shabbat teaches us to curtail our own powers and desires of creativity and mastery for one day of the week in order to acknowledge that only God has the ultimate authority and rulership in the world. It is precisely the same idea that governs the construction of God’s dwelling place on earth, and indeed all of our efforts to enable Him to dwell amongst us.

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