The Eternal spoke to Moses saying: / Speak to the Israelites that they shall take for Me an offering, from each person whose heart is willing – mei-eit kol-ish asher yidd’vvenu libbo – you shall take My offering. / And this is the offering which you shall take from [what is] with them: gold and silver and copper; / blue and purple and crimson yarns and fine linen and goats hair; ram skins dyed red and dolphins skins, and acacia wood; / oil for the lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the cape and for the breast piece. Then let them make for Me a sanctuary (mikdash) that I may dwell among them – v’shachanti b’tocham.
The people are tasked with the building of the Mishkan, so that they might bring the Eternal down from the mountain to dwell in their midst. However, at the same time their gifts are voluntary. The parashah this week is a double portion: Va-yakheil – P’kudey, which completes the Book of Exodus. The account of the offerings for the building of the Mishkan is echoed almost word for word at the beginning of Va-yakheil (Exodus 35:4-9). We also find repeated reference to each person bringing their offering with ‘a willing heart’, and the voluntary nature of the contributions is stressed again and again (35:5; 21; 22; 29). Indeed, just in case one might deduce from the first references in the masculine singular, that only male individuals and their gifts were involved – kol n’div libbo: ‘each one whose heart is willing’ (masculine)(35:5) – there are specific references to ‘men and women’ (35:22); ‘every man and woman’ – Kol ish v’ishah (:29). Moreover, alongside, ‘every man’ – kol ish (:21; 23), ‘every woman’ – kolishah (:25). Crucially, the emphasis on each and every individual, irrespective of gender, is reinforced by a later verse, stating that the Israelites (plural) continued to bring their individual free-will offerings (n’davah – singular) morning after morning – ba-bokerba-boker (36:3).
So: No doubts at all that individuals were bringing their gifts voluntarily. While the Hebrew noun, n’davah designates a ‘free-will offering’, interestingly, the Hebrew root Nun Dalet Beit, has the core meaning: to ‘incite’, ‘impel’. This makes the association with the ‘heart’ – leivav – very telling. The heart: the organ that animates the human being, whose constant beat, declares that we are alive. The chief artisans, B’tzaleil and Ohili’av, and all the other skilled people responsible for receiving the gifts from their fellow Israelites and fashioning from them the Mishkan and all its utensils, are described as chacham-leiv – ‘wise of heart’ (36:1-2;8). Just as the artisan’s gift of creativity begins in the heart, so to give voluntarily is to feel impelled to give – from the inside, from our innermost being, represented by the heart. While the tale of slavery in Egypt makes it clear that slaves can be ordered by the mighty Pharaoh to build store cities (Exodus 1:11), what distinguishes a free person from a slave is the freedom to act because one is impelled from within rather than compelled from without.
And so we learn from the accounts of the building of the Mishkanthat what makes communal existence possible is that individuals contribute their gifts with willing hearts. This is an important lesson for all our communal endeavours. Where would we be without volunteers? All Jewish institutions – not least synagogues and organisations like the Israel Religious Action Centre (IRAC) – depend on people volunteering their time, energy, skills and creativity. Without the dedication, commitment and contribution of volunteers, offering their varied gifts, Jewish existence would falter.
So, what motivates individuals, what impels their hearts to be moved to volunteer their gifts for the benefit of the community? Volunteers bring their gifts with a willing heart because they feel inspired by a sense of shared values and a shared vision of what together their individual contributions might be able to achieve. In the case of IRAC: a fully democratic state that ensures pluralism and equal rights. In the context of the experience of the newly freed slaves in the wilderness, whose ancestors had been enslaved for generations, the vision was the possibility of community itself. Va-yakheil opens (35:1):
Va-yakheil Moshe et-kol–adat b’ney Yisraeil – Moses assembled all the congregation of the Israelites.
When we read those words, we must remind ourselves that until individuals came together bearing their gifts with willing hearts there was no congregation to assemble. This reminder is reinforced towards the end of P’kudey, where we read that the Mishkan was completed and erected ‘on the first day of the first month in the second year’ (39:17) – that is, less than a year after the slaves Egypt.
Jews throughout millennia since have continued to be inspired by a similar vision of community – hence the abundance of synagogues and Jewish institutions throughout the world. All these communal miracles testify to the spirit of the individuals that made them possible. Yes, after escaping Egypt, our slave ancestors were inspired to offer their gifts for the building of community; and after each and every churban – destruction – ‘from Egypt until now’, individuals have responded by rebuilding Jewish communal life – not least, during the past few decades, in Israel, and in the countries of the Former Soviet Union. Va-yakheil– P’kudey reminds us to celebrate all the individual contributions that continue to make Jewish life possible.