Those Whose Hearts Lift Them

Pekudei Vayak-hel By :  Nicole Wilson-Spiro PhD Candidate in Rabbinic Literature, Gershon Kekst Graduate School Posted On Mar 18, 2020 / 5780 | Main Commentary
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When I lived in South Philly, I fell in love with the Mummers, an annual parade and show on New Year’s Day and part of the fabric of the neighborhood throughout the year. Mummers dress in elaborate costumes and “strut” down Broad Street, while playing music and handing out beaded necklaces and New Year’s greetings to enthusiastic crowds. While some Mummers merely enjoy the opportunity to cavort in silly costumes in various stages of drunkenness, other Mummers clubs are intensely competitive, guarding the secret of their yearly themes with a vengeance and working throughout the year to prepare a spectacle.

Since the 17th century, when immigrants from Sweden and Finland brought with them a tradition of working-class street celebrations, Mummers celebrations have been chaotic, iconoclastic, irreverent—and sometimes vulgar and racist. The City of Philadelphia has a complicated relationship with the Mummers, at times attempting to suppress the parades unsuccessfully and at other times working to co-opt their popularity and enthusiasm to benefit the City. Racism, in the form of blackface and other unacceptable behaviors, is undeniably a stain on the history of mummery, and some small number of Mummers persist in perpetuating this shameful tradition. Accordingly, even today, some people in Philadelphia dismiss Mummers as drunken nuisances and racists.

These critiques of Mummers are valid, but they do not tell the whole story. Mummer clubs are important social organizations that help to create cohesive communities in South Philly and beyond. Sons, as well as daughters more recently, march in the same clubs as their fathers and grandfathers. They hold fundraisers for children with special needs and people who are sick in the community. Some Mummers are so devoted to their clubs that they get buried in their costumes.

In addition to building community, Mummers also create unbelievable art with sequins, feathers, paint, and musical instruments. In particular, the “Fancy Brigades” create Broadway-caliber entertainment with phenomenal costumes, dancing, and sets. The fact that the Mummers are not professional painters, dancers, or musicians makes their achievements all the more impressive. The Mummers’ passion for their art strengthens their sense of community, while in turn their commitment to community makes their art so inspiring.

Our Torah teaches us that communal passion can indeed be dangerous because it is nearly impossible to control—the Israelites’ fervor to build the golden calf nearly destroyed their community. But our Torah teaches us this week that the same passion can also yield a unique beauty that can never be achieved by one artist, no matter how talented or well-trained. Given my fascination with the Mummers, I was reminded of the beauty of communal art when I read the first part of this week’s double Torah portion, Vayak-hel.

In Vayak-hel, the Israelites cooperate to craft the Mishkan, a dwelling place for God’s presence, and simultaneously strengthen their community. As one might expect, the Mishkan was made with the finest materials: gold, silver, precious stones, and fine wool. The craftsmanship was of the highest artistic and technical standards. So it may come as a surprise that both the biblical text and later commentators emphasize that the building of the Mishkan was a communal enterprise. “Moses stated to the entire community of Israelites, ‘This is the thing God has commanded [me] to tell you’” (Exod. 35:4, per Rashi’s explanation).

Moses goes on to explain how the entire community can participate in the building of the Mishkan: everyone whose heart is inclined (“nediv libo”) should contribute financially, and everyone who is skilled (“hakham lev”) should participate in the work (35: 5 and 10, per Ramban’s explanation).

The Israelites heed Moses’s command. In fact, they bring so many donations that Moses is compelled to ask them to stop. Women are explicitly included among those who contribute both financially and artistically. Interestingly, the established leadership, the chieftains of the tribes, do not appear to contribute at all.

In addition to those groups Moses has invited to participate, another group joins in: “kol ish asher nesa’o libo,” literally “everyone whose heart lifts him” (v. 21). Ramban, a 13th-century commentator, notices this new category of contributors and suggests that they are different than those who donate monetarily. Perhaps they are also different than the experts (“hakham lev”) Moses has invited. Ramban points out (on Exod. 31:2 in last week’s portion) that very few of the Israelites would have had the opportunity to develop as professional artisans who worked with fine metals and precious stones, since they had been slaves in Egypt confined to working with bricks and with mortar. He writes of the men and women “whose hearts lift them,” “None of them had studied these crafts from instructors, nor had they trained at all, but rather they found that they knew what to do intuitively.” In other words, they were enthusiastic amateurs.

Similarly, God chooses Betzalel and Oholiab to lead the construction of the Mishkan. A wonderful midrash explains why Moses could not lead the construction himself. Apparently, Moshe Rabbenu (“Moses our teacher”) was not particularly gifted mechanically, struggling to understand how to create the menorah for the Mishkan, even after God has explained several times and even demonstrated with a menorah of fire (Bemidbar Rabbah 16:10-11). We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps to compensate for Moses’s weakness, God endows Betzalel with a divine spirit that allows him to excel at every craft.

So why does God need to appoint Oholiab as well? Ibn Ezra, a 12th-century commentator, suggests that while Betzalel was skilled in every craft, it was hard for him, as it is for many creative geniuses, to teach others. Since Betzalel descended from Miriam and enjoyed distinguished social standing, while Oholiab was from the more modest tribe of Dan, I would add that Oholiab’s upbringing also may have made it easier for him to relate to “everyone whose heart lifts him.” Oholiab’s great contribution to the Mishkan was his ability to instruct these untrained volunteers, to channel their enthusiasm towards artistic beauty.

Perhaps Oholiab is the unsung hero of this week’s portion. Perhaps he understood that amateurs can create vibrant art together, exciting because it is the product of an outpouring of communal love. Even more, as our Torah specifies, he may have also understood that shared pursuit of beauty and joy, whether for the Mishkan or the Mummers parade, causes people “to draw near” (Exod. 36:2) to their art, to each other, and to their Creator.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).