When All You Ever Wanted to Give Was Too Much

Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5781 / פרשת וַיַּקְהֵל־פְקוּדֵי
Exodus 35:1-40:38

One of my favorite comedians, Steven Wright, has this one-liner: You can’t have everything. Where would you put it? Pretty funny. Right? But all Wright has done is taken an ostensibly philosophical statement and boiled it down to its most rational truth. As some might say, “Well, duh!” 

At the risk of further eviscerating Steven Wright’s witticism, I would observe that just as there are limits to what we can possess, there are also limits to what we can give. This truism is illustrated beautifully in this week’s Torah portion, as you’ll see. 

What isn’t addressed in the Torah is the emotional response of the people whose contributions are no longer needed. Just as it can be a let down to realize you can’t have everything you want, it can also be a let down when what you really want to give away is not received. What do you mean you can’t take everything? Can’t you find a place to put it? Think about that, and I’ll loop back to this question in a minute.

The story in Parashat Vayakhel goes like this: Moses gathers the whole Israelite community together and conveys to them God’s instruction to “Take from among you gifts to Adonai. Everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them” (Ex. 35:4-5). Moses then recites an extensive list of precious materials required for the construction of the mishkan — the Tabernacle that would serve as God’s dwelling place within the midst of the nation — its assorted ritual items and the priestly robes. Gold, silver, copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense. Special gems and wood. And don’t forget the dolphin skin! (Ex. 35:5-9).

Meanwhile, Moses has put together an all-star team of architects, engineers, builders and craftspeople to take all these things and fashion a house for God according to the plans that God had provided Moses.

At the conclusion of this gathering of young and old, rich and poor, children, women and men, Moses says, “Okay, everyone. Hands in. Who’s the best? God’s the best? Go, God!” Then they all disperse to get the things they so eagerly want to bring to the mishkan. They are psyched to help build this magnificent structure that would bind them with God and with each other.

As the people bring their wheelbarrows full of lapis lazuli, acacia wood and, yes, dolphin skins, the artisans realize they have plenty of material and they say to Moses, “Moses, the people are bringing more than is needed for the job God has given us.” At which point, Moses, standing on a rock, whistles with two fingers in his mouth and proclaims, “That’s enough. Stop bringing your gifts.” The Torah adds, “So the people stopped bringing: their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done.” 

The word for “enough for them” in the Hebrew is “dayam,” similar to “dayenu,” the refrain we sing during Pesach to say that any single act that God had done for us would have been sufficient on its own. Yet, we learn in the song that God kept on giving, whereas in our story here, the Israelites had to stop. Enough was quite literally enough. Bring no more. There’s no place to put it!

So if you were standing near Moses with a cart full of turquoise, chrysolite and dolphin skins, how would you have felt? Maybe you would have felt rejected. Everyone before me got to contribute. Why shouldn’t I? I may snooze, but I don’t want to lose. Maybe you would feel angry. I went through all this work, schlepping this stuff from Egypt, not even knowing why, and now you’re saying, “Thanks, but no thanks?”

As I said at our board meeting this past week, there are so many talented and generous people who want to make a contribution to our community. Of course, we can’t use everyone’s talents and generosity all the time. There aren’t enough hours in the day and there isn’t enough space in the synagogue to be able to take advantage of all that people have to offer all at once. So community leaders are often in the unenviable position of having to say, “We have enough for now.” AND they also have the responsibility to care for those people whose “terumah offerings,” whose gifts from the heart, are not needed at that moment.

I think these last three words are key — “at that moment.” When Moses said, “Enough!” he didn’t say the gifts weren’t welcomed. They were! I’m sure Moses and the artisans were ecstatic by the outpouring of gifts. But, the artisans also specifically said, “The people are bringing more than is needed for this particular project.” 

One medieval biblical commentator, Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel (1437–1508) from Portugal goes a step further. He says “the gold, silver and copper, as well as the silk and yarn, were kept, to make new clothes for the priests and to pay for the public sacrifices and other things that might be necessary later” (Carasik, The Commentators Bible: Exodus, p. 319). These extra gifts were critically important because they would be needed in the long-run to maintain garments and finery of the priests.

Still another medieval biblical commentator, Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno (about 1475-1550) from Italy, adds this: “The people’s efforts had been more than enough. Therefore, the artisans did not need to cut corners for fear they would run out of materials.” Knowing the community possessed this surplus of building materials gave the artisans peace of mind, and it’s much easier to excel at one’s work when you have peace of mind.

The message I want to convey is this: Our community needs you and the gifts, interests and generosity you have to offer. We are only as strong at the contributions that we can muster up together. Understand that we don’t have room for everything all at once, though. Okay, our treasurer surely disagrees, so let me correct myself. There is a miraculously ever-expanding vault for certain kinds of gifts, but for other kinds of gifts, we want you to know that the time will come when we’ll be able to take advantage of those special offerings. In the meantime, knowing that you are there and ready to make a difference lifts our spirits and makes our work more meaningful, enjoyable and effective.

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