Parshat Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1-38:20)
(Translated from the Hebrew original)
After the sin of the golden calf, Moshe ascends Mount Sinai one final time, beseeching Hashem to forgive the Jewish People. Sure enough, on Yom Kippur, Moshe comes down from the mountain, holding a new set of tablets that would replace the ones he had broken.
Moshe comes to the people with a new message: the Mishkan – the Holy Tabernacle – now needs to be built. He gathers the people, informing them of the commandment to build a Mishkan out of the “generosity of their hearts”.
The text does not mince words when describing the tremendous excitement that seized the nation, as well as the spirit of generosity exemplified by the outpouring of donations of all kinds, given by everyone. In fact, there were so many donations that a group of wise men comes to Moshe, saying “the people have exceeded in bringing” (Shemot / Exodus 36:5). It was too much, and Moshe is forced to command them to stop contributing!
The verse reads “and the nation was held back from bringing” (Shemot / Exodus 36:6). It could have read “and they stopped bringing”, but the Torah wishes to emphasize how eager everyone was to continue contributing their property and talents to the building of the Mishkan. The words “and the nation was held back from bringing” imply that the people had to be physically restrained, to prevent them from contributing any more.
It is only natural for us to be impressed with the people’s generosity, but our sages read this verse and refused to get excited. They remembered the previous parsha, where we read of the sin of the golden calf. There, too, everyone had contributed – or rather, nearly everyone – with great enthusiasm. In the Jerusalem Talmud, our sages stated, “You cannot determine the nature of the people. When they are summoned for the golden calf, they give. When they are summoned for the Mishkan, they give.”
Many have tried to reflect on the very nature and character of the Jewish People. They are asked to contribute to the golden calf. They do. They are asked to contribute to the Mishkan. They do, again. How could they contribute to such diametrically opposed causes? This conduct could be compared to someone contributing to both the Temple Mount Faithful and Peace Now. So, what are we to make of this unusual nation?
We learn from this story that the Jewish people possesses a uniquely Jewish trait – a propensity for getting excited. Hundreds of Jews may flock to the grand opening of a brand-name retail store, or race to a new jogging track in Central Park. We may be excited about a particular brand today, but tomorrow, this excitement may suddenly shift to something completely different.
It should come as a surprise to no one that Jews have been at the forefront of the most influential revolutionary groups in the world, or that they are members of social movements in the most unlikely of places. This is because when Jews get excited, they do so to no end.
The Talmud relates the story of a Jew who passed by a statue that had been traditionally worshipped through the act of defecation. The Jew wiped his behind on the statue, whereupon a priest from the idol-worshipping cult stopped and exclaimed: “No one has ever worshipped our god so elegantly!” This teaches us that when Jews do something, they do it thoroughly and with great enthusiasm and creativity.
This trait can prove rather virtuous, since it can cause someone to reach goals that might have been otherwise unattainable. It takes great energy and enthusiasm to achieve great things. However, the same trait can also put us in great danger. The excitement we feel now can quickly dissipate. If we grow excited without taking the time to deeply reflect on the cause of the excitement of the moment, we are prone to substituting the object of today’s excitement with something entirely different tomorrow – which may even have the opposite meaning.
We and our leaders must not get swept away by the excitement of the masses, because this excitement can vanish instantly and be replaced with excitement for something else. Leaders must reflect deeply on the courses of action they choose. They must not let themselves be drawn in by an awestruck public, but rather carefully consider the reasoning behind those emotions.
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