Vacating the premises
Unleavened offerings of our hearts (Radical Torah repost)

A home for God among us (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote in 2007 for this week's portion, originally published at Radical Torah.

Parashat Vayekhel-Pekudei: the end of the book of Exodus, and -- after much prelude -- the actual construction of the mishkan, the home for God's presence among the community.

And everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved him came, bringing to the Lord his offering for the work of the Tent of Meeting and for all its service and for the sacral vestments. Men and women, all whose hearts moved them, all who would make an elevation offering of gold to the Lord, came bringing brooches, earrings, rings, and pendants — gold objects of all kinds. And everyone who had in his possession blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats' hair, tanned ram skins, and dolphin skins, brought them; everyone who would make gifts of silver or copper brought them as gifts for the Lord; and everyone who had in his possession acacia wood for any work of the service brought that. And all the skilled women spun with their own hands, and brought what they had spun, in blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and in fine linen...

What I love about this passage, this rich and detailed description of a construction project I can hardly imagine, is how grassroots it sounds. This isn't some decreed-from-above, top-down, serfs-laboring kind of process; this is everyone with a talent bringing that talent to bear on the work at hand. This is everyone in the community donating what they've got, whether it's gold or fine linen or soft leather. This is a veritable barn-raising, folks. Except that in a traditional barn-raising, the community comes together to build a structure for one of its members; here in our story, the community comes together to build a structure which will be inhabited not by any individual or family, but by the presence of God.

As a contemporary feminist reader of this text, I find much to savor in this passage. Here, women's contributions are valued and honored alongside the contributions of men. And, notably, women contribute in at least two different ways. Both women and men make elevation offerings of gold to God, and women are specifically commended for their skilled weaving-work. In other words, women contribute to the building of the mishkan both on a fiscal level, and on a creative level. They give physical items of value, as well as the spiritually-valuable work of their hands and hearts.

People bring every kind of beautiful thing they had. Cloth and leather, polished wood and precious stones. On a metaphorical level, I imagine, people bring every kind of temperament and creative skill to the process. Those who are even-keeled bring their serenity; those who are hot-headed bring their fire. Woodworkers and weavers, careful introverts and spontaneous extroverts, bring what they have, and who they are, to this work -- work which, the text notes, is fueled by the entire community, each person giving as she or he feels called.

In this week's part of our story, the Israelites take every opportunity to be generous, and that generosity transforms them. The craftsmen Bezalel and Oholiab, and "every skilled person whom God had endowed with skill," together undertake the project of building a suitable home for God's presence. They take, from Moses, all of the gifts the Israelites brought, in order to fashion them into the mishkan. But then, we read:

But when these continued to bring freewill offerings to him morning after morning, all the artisans who were engaged in the tasks of the sanctuary came, each from the task upon which he was engaged, and said to Moses, "The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Lord 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.

The community has become so swept up in the experience of being generous, of donating both items of value and the gift of heart and spirit that accompanies those items, that their generosity overwhelms the artisans. They give too much; Moses has to remind them to stop. A boundary (some gevurah) is needed to balance the community's overflowing lovingkindness (chesed) and willingness to give.

How can this speak to us today, so many centuries removed from the construction of the mishkan? Maybe in this way: it can exhort us to give freely of ourselves, our gifts and our talents, in the communal work of creating a sacred space where the Presence of God can dwell...and can also remind us that once we've built that space for God, it's also our job to pull back and to turn our generosity in other directions. To make God's presence manifest through building homes for the needy, weaving garments for those who are cold, and adorning our world with all the beauty we're capable of creating.

This is how we can build a mishkan, a home for the Shekhinah (indwelling and immanent Presence of God), in our midst. We close the book of Exodus as we approach the retelling of our liberation story on the seasonal calendar -- but wherever we are in our journeys toward liberation, may God travel with us and among us, and may we be able to give freely of ourselves, both to God and to one another, in our wanderings.