By Julia Knobloch, February 26, 2022
On Parashat Vayakhel, we often celebrate community: The contributions each individual makes to a kehilla; the collective willingness and enthusiasm permeating a defined group of people pulling on the same string.
When I worked in Jewish non-profits, it was always a welcome opportunity during team retreats or conventions that fell into this week, to appeal to a sense of team spirit, to team building, to stressing how each individual was participating in the greater good of working toward a larger goal.
וַיֵּ֥צְא֛וּ כׇּל־עֲדַ֥ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִלִּפְנֵ֥י מֹשֶֽׁה׃
וַיָּבֹ֕אוּ כׇּל־אִ֖ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־נְשָׂא֣וֹ לִבּ֑וֹ וְכֹ֡ל אֲשֶׁר֩ נָדְבָ֨ה רוּח֜וֹ אֹת֗וֹ הֵ֠בִ֠יאוּ אֶת־תְּרוּמַ֨ת יְהֹוָ֜ה לִמְלֶ֨אכֶת אֹ֤הֶל מוֹעֵד֙ וּלְכׇל־עֲבֹ֣דָת֔וֹ וּלְבִגְדֵ֖י הַקֹּֽדֶשׁ׃
So the whole community of the Israelites left Moses’ presence. And everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit was moved came, bringing to יהוה an offering for the work of the Tent of Meeting and for all its service and for the sacral vestments. (Exodus 35:20-21)
The Israelites then bring gold objects of all kind, blue and purple and crimson yarns, goats hair, dolphin and ram skins, etc. etc.: Vayakhel talks about the building of the Mishkan. After the Divine instructions to Moses about what the dwelling place of God should look like, sleeves are rolled up and the people on earth are getting to the task. The words of God are put into action. With the gifts of kol edat Israel, a beautiful mosaic is constructed, until we come to the famous lines that people love to quote, and I am quoting them too:
וַיֹּאמְרוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה לֵּאמֹ֔ר מַרְבִּ֥ים הָעָ֖ם לְהָבִ֑יא מִדֵּ֤י הָֽעֲבֹדָה֙ לַמְּלָאכָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה לַעֲשֹׂ֥ת אֹתָֽהּ׃
וַיְצַ֣ו מֹשֶׁ֗ה וַיַּעֲבִ֨ירוּ ק֥וֹל בַּֽמַּחֲנֶה֮ לֵאמֹר֒ אִ֣ישׁ וְאִשָּׁ֗ה אַל־יַעֲשׂוּ־ע֛וֹד מְלָאכָ֖ה לִתְרוּמַ֣ת הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ וַיִּכָּלֵ֥א הָעָ֖ם מֵהָבִֽיא׃
וְהַמְּלָאכָ֗ה הָיְתָ֥ה דַיָּ֛ם לְכׇל־הַמְּלָאכָ֖ה לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת אֹתָ֑הּ וְהוֹתֵֽר׃
And (the artisans) said to Moses, “The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that יהוה 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!” So the people stopped bringing: Their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done. (Exodus 36:5-7)
I can see why we love that passage. It’s a dayenu moment. It’s a more than dayenu moment. Imagining the enthusiasm and selflessness of our ancestors makes us feel good and believe in the potential each of us, our teachers, students, friends; our societies carry inside us. It instills in us a sense of joy, reassurance, and gratitude.
Yet today I also want to talk about an aspect that often gets lost in the general positivity. It is what I want to call the “warm-and-welcoming dilemma” that every community faces, Jewish or non-Jewish, religious or non-religious. It is the discrepancy between aspired ideal and actual reality.
There will always be a number of people whose spirit is moved, whose hearts are full, and who bring their offerings to the collective project: I have dolphin skins, too! Here’s my grandmother’s ring! I have a nice song to sing as well. But their offerings are not considered, or not needed – the community doesn’t really know what to do with them. Either because there already are simply enough offerings, there are enough people building the Divine dwelling place on earth. Or because those new shades of crimson and purple yarn don’t really fit into the emerging mosaic. How to balance this situation? On the one hand, you want to live up to your warm-and-welcoming mission statement. On the other hand, you also really need to focus on moving the work forward in a way that fits your vision.
It’s popular in work places to have an employee satisfaction survey: Do you feel heard? Do you feel your presence here matters? Usually, the results of these surveys are a bit unreal – because folks don’t share their potential frustration even when anonymity is guaranteed. And when they do a little, there are heartfelt all-staff emails, promising change — and sometimes, change does indeed happen. Sometimes, it doesn’t.
Imagine working for a king of flesh and blood who doesn’t exile you or throw you into prison, but beyond that he doesn’t do much else—takes but doesn’t acknowledge your role in his kingdom, the wheel you are in making it function, and it happens over and over again without change.
Imagine spending time with a human of flesh and blood who takes your offerings but then doesn’t use them, rather stashes them in a place of neglect, where they decay by themselves, to use language from Bavli Shabbat 115a:7. Your friends may applaud you when you finally stop giving, but that doesn’t change how empty you feel.
Judaism is a religion that emphasizes action. And the responsibility toward each other: כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה. In that, it is a very existentialist religion. Just that the French existentialists were/are more pessimistic than us. As atheists, they don’t believe that we are created in the image of God, but rather, in the image of those around us. And they have a point: The people who mirror us back – and those who don’t mirror us back – play a part in creating us. The existentialists took this realization to the other extreme from warm-and-welcoming, as in Jean-Paul Sartres famous line: L’enfer, c’est les autres: Hell is other people.
We need others to feel – to be – seen, but if we’re not seen, who are we? Another oft-quoted saying by Hillel the Elder echoes this existential reciprocity: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
We depend on others. All the potential we have, it gets lost, or at least diminished, when others don’t recognize it, don’t engage it.
What is the solution? It’s complicated! Life is hard, and life is short, and life sometimes forces us to be less of the person we aspire to be. I am taking this dvar also as a reminder for myself. I know I have not given attention to everyone who wanted to become my friend. And how many times will I fail congregants when I’m a rabbi? We ignore people without intending to. We only have so many chairs around our table. We fall asleep without having sent that email or text we wanted to send. I’m sure Bezalal gave curt answers to hyper-excited people who just brought him the umpteenth dolphin skin, and he may have regretted it later. And sometimes, we just sigh and say we simply can’t be friends with everyone. Not every community works for every single visitor. And while this causes hurt and frustration, who is to blame? The line between being warm-and-welcoming while also taking care of our own needs is thin, and it is easy to err.
And/but because life is hard and life is short, we want to, we need to live it to the fullest, with people who are ready to accept our contributions and help us find the best spot for them in that big mosaic of life, where they can shine. We deserve to be part of a community that makes us feel whole, or as whole as possible. I think all communities, and especially religious communities, across denominations and across faiths, need to remember that more often, and more actively –natural limitations notwithstanding. It is amazing to build a dwelling place for God. It must also be a dwelling place for those created in God’s image.