A Circle of Obligation

Vayak-hel By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Mar 3, 2000 / 5760 | Torah Commentary

In last week’s parasha, Ki Tissa, we heard of the Israelites’ ultimate act of disloyalty – the creation and worship of a Golden Calf. In contrast, this week’s parasha, Va–Yakhel, paints a portrait of absolute devotion. Only three chapters after the Golden Calf episode, the Israelites are now engaged in one of the greatest acts of worship: building a tabernacle which will house the Presence of God. This week’s loyalty stands in stark contrast to last week’s disloyalty. 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 especially deep examination of these two episodes. The Rabbis ask the very important question, ‘why is it that in the Golden Calf episode we read of the unqualified and total participation of the Israelites in bringing gifts to create an idol (Ex. 32:3: ‘And all the people took off the gold rings [vayitparku kol ha–ahm]), yet with the Tabernacle we read only that those whose hearts moved them gave gifts?’ (Ex. 35:5: ‘Take from among you gifts to the Lord; everyone whose heart so moves him’ [kol nediv libo]).

The Talmud acknowledges the inconsistency. In Tractate Shekalim, the rabbis remark, “It is impossible to discern the character of this nation – they were asked to give to the Golden Calf and they gave; they were asked to give to the tabernacle and they gave.” On the one hand the Israelites confuse Moses with God. Impatient with Moses, they decide to replace him with an idol made of their own hands, causing the supreme affront to God. On the other hand, soon afterward they give generously of their hearts and resources toward the building of a dwelling place for God in the midst of the people.

Though the rabbis express their confusion at the two seemingly opposite acts of the Israelites, they do not precisely answer the question. We continue to wonder why one passage speaks of all of the people participating, yet the other speaks of only those whose hearts moved them.

Rabbi Meir Shapira of Lublin offers one interesting interpretation. He bases his comments on the ambiguous wording of the Torah, “And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, the people gathered themselves unto Aaron and said to him, ‘Up, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what has become of him.’… And they said, ‘this is your God, Israel …’ ” (Exodus 32: 1,4). (It seems that the people may not have been rejecting God altogether, but rather requesting a more present form of leader.)

Rabbi Meir Shapira continues, “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. 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 only ones who gave were those whose hearts moved them” (Simha Raz, Shivim Panim LaTorah, 242).

Generously, Rabbi Shapira gives the benefit of the doubt to those involved in the creation of the Golden Calf: it was their initial understanding that they were giving for the sake of God, not to participate in an idolatrous act. However, the leaders betrayed them. As a result of this experience, the Israelites became less trusting; therefore, not all of the nation chose to participate in the building of the tabernacle lest they be deceived again. Only those whose hearts moved them contributed to the tabernacle.

I want to suggest another resolution to our dilemma. The connection between the two stories is striking – especially when one sees the repetition of the word vayak’hel. The root of vayak’hel is k–h–l – community. In these two episodes we are presented with two distinct models of community. On the one hand, the Golden Calf episode conveys a sense of blind group solidarity. Throngs of Israelites confront Aaron in the desperation of an uncertain moment and demand that he make a god for them. Aaron acquiesces to the demand and becomes a ringleader of sorts. 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.

This recognition is crucial to our sense of community in Judaism. In Pirkei Avot 2:2, “Rabban Gamliel son of R. Judah the Patriarch said: All who work for the community should work with them for Heaven’s sake… And as for you who labor thus, I regard you as deserving great reward, as though you had accomplished it all on your own.” May each of us, as individuals learn from the model of community presented to us in Parashat Va–Yakhel. May the individual always have an eye toward the community and may the community always work with a sense of appreciation of the value of the individual.

Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,

Matthew Berkowitz

The publication and distribution of commentary on Parashat Va-yak·hel are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.