The Israelites at their best and worst


By Rabbi Charles Feinberg

This week’s Torah portion is Vayakhel-Pekudei, Exodus 35:1 – 40:38.

Last week, we read about the Israelites’ ultimate act of disloyalty: the Golden Calf. In contrast, this week’s parshah paints a portrait of absolute devotion.

The Israelites are building a tabernacle that will house the Presence of God.

These two episodes, however, not only puzzle the reader with their disparity but serve to shed light on each other.

One particular difficulty led the rabbis to an examination of these two episodes.

The rabbis ask: “Why in the Golden Calf episode do we read of the unqualified and total participation of the Israelites in bringing gifts to create an idol [Exodus 32:3], yet with the tabernacle we read only that those whose hearts moved them gave gifts?” [Exodus 35:5].

Rabbi Meir Shapira of Lublin offers one interesting interpretation: “Sometimes there are those who donate large sums, convinced that the money collected is marked for some holy endeavor, for a religious end or national endeavor, and afterwards they discover to their dismay that the money has been used for other purposes,” he wrote. “This is what happened with the Golden Calf: not all of the Israelites knew that the riches were being collected to make an idol. For the leaders said, ‘this is your God, Israel,’ that is to say, they made it seem as if it were for a higher purpose. So later when others came to solicit them, the people became cautious. And when they came to them to request a donation for the tabernacle, they hesitated to give, lest they be deceived — and so at this time the ones who gave were only those whose hearts moved them.”

I want to suggest another resolution to our dilemma. In these two episodes we are presented with two distinct models of community. The Golden Calf episode conveys a sense of blind group solidarity. The people come en masse. There is no sense of separate individual identity. Rather, they are a nameless and an identity-less multitude.

In sharp contrast, we have the building of the tabernacle.

Moses assembles the people and addresses them as a community. After detailing the needs of the tabernacle, the Torah tells us that those whose hearts move them participate.

Later in the narrative, we see the repetition of kol ish — each person. Every individual contributes to the magnificent beauty of the tabernacle. It is not the work of one person’s hands, but rather the collective work of individuals. Each individual leaves his/her mark on this magnificent structure. Identity remains central to the project. Far from being a faceless mob, the text conveys meaningful identity — a sense of shared ownership. The community works toward its collective vision, but it is not at the cost of the community’s parts.

Today when we as a nation — and the world as a whole — confront the coronavirus crisis, the importance of acting as a community is paramount. But we should never give up our individual identity when facing this crisis. Each individual needs to contribute his or her talents and knowledge to overcome this disease.

At the same time, we need to embrace a common vision and path that will motivate all of us to succeed. The community exists to serve and protect the individual. But the individual has to be motivated in order to ensure the vitality of the community.

Rabbi Charles Feinberg is executive director of Interfaith Action for Human Rights in Washington.

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