The Human Element of Building a Mishkan

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat VaYakhel

Imprisoned From Contributing

The Jews donate materials for the construction of the Mishkan to the point were Moshe sends out word they had enough and more, and the last words of Shemot 34;6 are va-yikalei ha-am me-havi. Some translations on Sefaria write just “the people stopped bringing,” where others have a version more in line with what HaKetav VeHaKabbalah teaches us, the people were restrained from bringing.

He first focuses on the last word, me-havi. Were it their choice, he says the word would have been le-havi, to bring, the people stopped bringing. Me-havi means someone else had them stop. Later in the comment, he gives other examples of where a mem before a verb implies a negative, such as where Hashem tells Avimelech, Bereshit 20;6, He had protected him me-chato, from sinning. Yeshayahu 56;2 and 6 (the haftarah for fast days), praises those who observe Shabbat me-challelo, not desecrating it.

Besides the first-letter mem, the previous verse told us those leading the construction had informed Moshe they had too much. Logically, the people would only stop when made to, not on their own.

Finally, the verb va-yikalei, has the same root as beit hakele in Yirmiyahu 37;18, where Yirmiyahu was confined [it also appears in Melachim; we know it already, but R. Mecklenburg did not have the advantage of knowing modern Hebrew]. Hence his translation, the people were restrained, even imprisoned, from bringing more.

[As I pointed out, this comment seems somewhat obvious to us. I noticed and reviewed it because I am interested in the underlying message, the Jewish people’s best intentions can be misplaced, and redirected only with some force. No one doubts the Jews here were showed admirable enthusiasm for the building of the Mishkan, seemingly for all the right reasons. Still, they did not know how to express it in the fully right ways, went too far with their urge to bring more.

The Torah does not tell us what they did with all that great energy once this avenue of involvement was finished. An important question: when we decide we want to give to Hashem’s service this way, and that ends, where do we go next?]

Creative Labor

The Torah’s list of Betzalel’s capabilities includes the phrase la’asot bechol melechet machshavet, 35;36, the various translations coalescing around the idea he was skilled in various forms of artisanship and crafts. R. Hirsch insists the phrase says what it means, work involving thought. It was the essential element of building the Mishkan, design, planning, and execution.

The Mishkan was the product of the highest forms of human creativity, their melechet machshevet, so those became the standards for what we are to put aside come Shabbat. Some of the examples of what is excluded from counting as Biblical violations shed a light on the nature of Shabbat different than we might always notice. Mit’asek, an action we do without noticing (like brushing against a light switch and turning it off); davar she-eino mitkaven, an unintended aspect of an action (digging a furrow in a lawn as we drag a chair across it); melachah she-einah tzerichah le-gufah, where we do not intend the violation part of the action (we dig a hole to have dirt, not to create the hole). [In all these, there are still de-rabbanan prohibitions, and many details of how they apply in halachic practice; we are here for R. Hirsch’s insight into the way the Torah presented the issue.]

His linkage and examples offer a new perspective on both the Mishkan and Shabbat. For the former, in addition to being how we earned the Divine Presence in our midst, the endeavor apparently called on all our most human talents, the reason those would be the Torah’s paradigms for Shabbat observance. Instead of Shabbat being about rest or desisting from creativity, R. Hirsch’s phrasing deepens our picture, we are called to desist from those forms of creative labor that best express our human excellence in creativity.

Spirit and Heart

Shemot 35;21 has two types of people bringing donations for the construction of the Mishkan, those whose hearts lifted them, nesa’o libo, and whose spirit moved them to generosity, nadevah rucho. The two seem very similar, almost redundant, leading some translations on Sefaria to re-read the first, the heart lifting. Malbim instead notes he had already considered the issue in his commentary on Mishlei, where he viewed the heart as the external expression of one’s will, the ruach the internal experience. In the general case, the spirit is moved, and it sends a message to the heart, which Malbim viewed as what controls our choices of action.

[We no longer think the heart has any actual psychological or emotional role, it seems just to pump blood. Yet in English and Hebrew, and I bet other languages, the heart is the seat of the emotions. Malbim is saying it is the physical spot where emotions are translated into action.]

The Separate Generosity of the Two

Donations, from Malbim’s perspective, can start with either, be stopped by either as well. Some have the urge to be generous, a spirit matter, but their hearts love money too much [he doesn’t clarify where the heart gets its emotions, how those differ from the spirit’s]. Others have no urge to assist those in need, but still give freely because they do not care about money, and enjoy the experience of giving.

[He again doesn’t quite explain fully, but I suggest he means something like the following: some people would like to be good, but it’s hard because it means they have to give up something. I just recently had a skilled fundraiser tell me that no one gives up their second car or their vacation to give tzedakah. True or not, imagine someone of limited means who would really like to give, but cannot overcome his/her attachment to a particular element of their standard of living.

Alternatively, imagine someone with no deep generosity, but who gets a thrill out of the oohs and aahs of throwing money around. You get a car, you get a car. For Malbim, that giving comes from the heart, not spirit. Of course, a person might do both, give ostentatiously for the fun/heart thrill of it, and also give out of a sense of generosity.]

The Torah was saying donors to the Mishkan came of both types.

Wanting Can Be Good Enough

He then adds a derash (he calls it that, telling us he doesn’t think it is the simple meaning) I find remarkable for its premise. The Torah referred first to those whose spirits moved them, nadvah rucho, because that was the essential goal, to be moved to give. Even those without the means to give, as long as they wished they could, would be credited for participating in the donations to the Mishkan.

The idea assumes there were already poor Jews, a couple of months after they left Egypt, when we were told the Jews all took gold and silver from their neighbors, and at least according to Midrashim got even more at the Sea, when the Egyptians’ bodies and chariots washed ashore.

Two main options: most likely, Malbim meant this purely sermonically, to encourage the poor of his time, to reassure them Hashem notices their good intentions, regardless of whether they can bring them to fruition; or, Malbim thinks even back then, there were rich and poor, even as the Jews left Egypt some took great wealth from the Egyptians, others did not manage to. While I think the first was what he intended, the second would be a fascinating consideration of how economics works in societies, a topic for another time.

For now, we have a Mishkan overflowing with donations, a forced stoppage of Jews’ good intent, the kind of intent to be used at the highest levels of creativity to build the Mishkan, with donations of finance and of goodwill. According to our three commentators.

About Gidon Rothstein

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