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Care for What You Have, Instead of Seeking More
For her school picture this year, my daughter chose to wear a sweater my mother made for me when I was 3. That sweater, lovingly knitted, was then handed down to my sister, and cleaned and stored away till it could be given to my daughter. The sweater is in perfect condition.
Care for things is rare these days. The time it takes to make something or care for it appears to be unavailable to us now; it seems to be a waste of time in our world of disposable goods. We can buy three sweaters for the cost of that one, but those new sweaters will not outlast the year. How often do we throw something away instead of trying to fix it? How quickly do our cell phones, computers and clothes become obsolete?
Vayakhel is a call to take care of our things. This portion gives us a model of paying careful attention to the details of physical space and material objects as a way to draw closer to God. With exquisite detail, the Torah describes the effort that goes into making the Tabernacle: the rich materials used, the beauty of each object and the skill of its creator.
Everyone whose heart moves them is instructed to bring gifts to help make it, and all artists are invited to construct it. In this way, each member of the community is invested in the creation of this sacred space and the ritual objects that will be used in it.
Yet the people do not cross the fine line into thinking that material beauty is the only goal of the Tabernacle. When they give more than is needed, Moses proclaims: "Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!" The people stop their efforts at this point, understanding that when the material side of the job is done to everyone's satisfaction, it is time to focus on the purpose of the sanctuary as a place to meet God.
This "stopping" is a reflection of the commandment to rest on Shabbat that opens the portion. Moses gives this commandment before he asks for the gifts, reminding the people that building the Tabernacle is important, but the ultimate purpose of the building, and Shabbat, is dedication and connection to God.
Order in Our Lives
This is a message for our own day. For some Jews, the desire of others in the community to create an opulent synagogue seems to eclipse the real meaning of religion, leaving these Jews discouraged about the spiritual potential of Judaism. Yet paying attention to our surroundings and taking good care of our material possessions, whether they are the most simple or the most elaborate things, can lead to a sense of order in our lives that in turn allows for more spiritual connection.
Vayakhel's focus suggests the possibility for a new age of less consumption and more environmental concern. Not caring for objects leads to environmental disaster --too many things discarded in landfills, and too little respect for what we use.
The portion describes a building that uses what people have to give, and when there is enough, they stop. We can learn from this to take care of what we have, rather than to constantly seek more.
The building of the Tabernacle teaches us to make things well and maintain their beauty to last for generations, saving resources for ourselves and the planet. In this way, we can all be artists in our own lives, creating sacred spaces.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. E-mail her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.