But when [the Israelites] continued to bring freewill offerings morning after morning, all the artisans who were engaged in the tasks of the sanctuary came, each from the task on which he was engaged, and said to Moses, “The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Lord has commanded to be done.” Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp: “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” (Ex. 36:3–6)
How could such a thing have happened? The relationship of this parashah to what precedes it in Exodus suggests some conclusions.
First, there is the obvious parallel to the immediately preceding parashah, Ki Tisa. In fact, the cognomen of this parashah, Vayakhel, is ominous, because a different form of the same word was used to describe the discontented assembly that led to the making of the golden calf. There, the Israelites gladly contributed gold to make an idol; here, however, they contribute gold and many other substances that are needed to make the tabernacle. Thus, their gifts and the making of the tabernacle provide formal closure to the episode of the golden calf, not through punishment, which has already taken place, but through a return to God.
Second, Vayakhel concludes a logical unit that began with parashat Terumah, in which God says to Moses, “Tell the Israelite people to bring me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him” (Ex. 25:2).
Third, it is part of a symbolic cycle that began much earlier in Exodus, with the liberation from Mitzrayim, and that reached its peak with the revelation at Sinai. It was because of trust and gratitude that
How could Moses dare to check the expression of that gratitude? It would appear that, because
Moses can limit the Israelites’ gifts, however, because God has already given detailed instructions about the construction of the tabernacle, and from these the artisans can determine what is sufficient. In the modern world, when our instructions are less clear, the needs seem endless, and our “freewill offerings” may be less generous, it is harder to say, “Enough!”
The remainder of this parashah, which describes the making of the tabernacle and its artifacts by Bezalel, Oholiab, and the other artisans, casts some light on this predicament. Although the specifics of the tabernacle are unique, they have a parallel in our practice of hidur mitzvah – the enhancement of a mitzvah through the use of beautiful artifacts and superior materials. For example, we choose to use silver rather than a base metal for Shabbat candlesticks, and we select the best available kind of bread for Shabbat, even though the mitzvot could be fulfilled technically without these enhancements.
But how much enhancement is enough? Most of us, once we have acquired beautiful Shabbat candlesticks, do not yearn for a pair that might be even more beautiful. We have some sense that the enhancement is sufficient. We may even realize that, if we were to insist on having enormously expensive and beautiful religious artifacts, they might become the objects of worship rather than the appurtenances of it. And, whether we give freely or grudgingly to a synagogue or federation fund drive, few of us feel compelled to continue adding to our pledges once we have made them.
In matters of our personal service to God it is less clear. Whether our personal observance is traditional or liberal, we often feel a gnawing discontent, which may impel those whose style of observance is liberal to reclaim traditional practices, or those whose observance is traditional to adopt various chumrot (additional strictnesses).
And yet the discontent remains. Rather than be discouraged by it, we should be heartened: it reminds us that, like our ancestors in this parashah, we are still able to feel grateful to God for our liberation from Mitzrayim and for the gift of Torah.