Sermon: Shabbat Va-yakhel – P’kudei – HaChodesh (Rabbi Maurice Michaels)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 25 March 2017

Following several chapters of instruction, this week we read about the people who set about making the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that accompanied the ancient Israelites on their forty years of wandering through the wilderness.  Although we only learn of two by name, B’tzalel ben Uri of the tribe of Judah and Aholi’av ben Achisamach of the tribe of Dan, the text tells us that there were many others, women and men, who had skills in a variety of crafts and who supported them in the work.  In addition, everyone who wished could bring the different materials that were needed for the mishkan and the priestly garments: precious metals, coloured threads, linens, hides, wood, oils, spices and semi-precious stones.  Indeed, we read that there was an abundance of donations, so it clearly was a communal endeavour.  Each of the Israelites contributed according to their possessions and their talents and, with the exception of the two named craftsmen who were given overall responsibility, the Torah assumes that each individual contribution was equally acceptable.

How do we explain this readiness to be so open with their gifts of time and possessions?  Of course, some commentators suggest the guilt factor comes into play here; the desire to atone for their sin in seeking a god to lead them when Moses didn’t return from his ascent on to Mount Sinai.  However, I think the generosity came from the lovely expression that Moses used when he told them that God had said that gifts for making the sanctuary should come from them.  ‘Kol n’div libo’, which can be translated as: ‘whosoever is of a willing heart’ or ‘everyone whose heart so moves him’ is somehow programmed to ensure a positive response.  The importance of this, as compared to what we read last week in the Torah relating to the giving of the half shekel, is the voluntary nature of the gift for the mishkan.  This is a gift from the heart.

But is there any limitation on a willing heart?  We talk about a person having a big heart, but, in fact, the heart is about the size of a fist and while they might differ by the odd millimeter or two, everyone’s heart is about the same size. When we refer to someone being big-hearted, we’re really talking about their capacity for generosity, not just in monetary terms, but also with their time and their feelings.  N’div lev, this beautiful biblical term, can only be bounded by the value of material possessions, by the number of hours in the day, by the limit of emotional resources,

But there’s more to come.  In addition to the materials, there is a need for people who can construct the sanctuary, and make the fittings and fixtures, and the special clothing for the priests.  Again Moses asks for volunteers to do this work in a parallel phrase, ‘Kol chacham lev’, literally ‘all who are wise-hearted’, and also in this context meaning ‘all who are skilled’.   The response is overwhelming.  The text goes on to report that men and women, all with a willing heart, brought all of the materials that were required.  So much so, that the artisans in all the different aspects of the work came to Moses, each telling him that the people were continuing to bring each morning their freewill offerings until they had more than enough for their task.  And Moses had to issue a proclamation to the effect that no further gifts should be brought.  Similarly, the women and men who were skilled in the various tasks necessary came to Moses freely offering their abilities.  They did their work as chacham lev, which suggests not just with skill, but also from the heart.  One additional point on that is that when the text talks about, in particular, the two master craftsmen, B’tzalel and Aholi’av, it says that God had endowed them with the knowledge, the skills and the abilities; these were God-given and so those having them recognised this and put them to work in God’s service, as it were.

I came to Alyth at the beginning of 2012 for a sabbatical cover for Rabbi Mark, that should have been completed at the end of March, so five years later I feel rather like the title character in the movie, ‘The Man Who Came to Dinner’ and while I don’t think I have caused as much trouble as he did, I have certainly had the opportunity of doing my own thing.  So my stay here has been, at least for me, a happy, constructive and positive time, especially as it came just as I was anticipating retirement from the pulpit rabbinate.  The experience convinced me that I was no way ready for that and has enabled me to prepare myself for the challenge that I took up two and a half years ago at Bournemouth, although that was also intended initially to be just for a few months!

During my time here I have had the great pleasure of working alongside many people, Rabbis Mark and Josh, the other members of the professional team and a host of lay leaders and Synagogue members.  I have learned from so many of them; I have enjoyed sharing with them; I have been enabled and empowered by them. Whether leading services, officiating at life cycle events, teaching, representing Alyth in interfaith and other programmes, visiting the sick, consoling the bereaved, or undertaking the myriad of other rabbinic tasks, I have felt a warmth emanating from this community that has made all that I have done a pleasurable and satisfying experience.  It has really been a privilege to be a part of this wonderful Alyth congregation.  It is a community that is positive, and forward looking, that has a can-do attitude,  that is more than the sum of its many parts.  And just like we learn from this week’s sidrah, each individual’s contribution is equally acceptable; the n’div lev, those willing of heart, provide a tangible difference to the activities of the Synagogue; the chacham lev, the talented and skilled people give of themselves unstintingly in a variety of leadership positions and voluntary tasks.

The story of the building of the mishkan, culminates in the following sidrah P’kudei with everything being brought to Moses and he sees that everything has been done exactly as God commanded him.  Moses then blesses them.  The Hertz chumash, in a play on Rabbi Tarphon’s saying in Pirkei Avot, comments: “[Moses] expressed his thanks by invoking a blessing upon them.  The time had been short, the task great and arduous, but the labourers, fired by holy enthusiasm and zeal, had joyfully completed the work they had undertaken.  Moses does not pronounce his blessing at the beginning of the sacred enterprise.  Beginnings are easy; completions are as hard as they are rare.”  The Torah doesn’t give Moses’ blessing, but tradition has it that he composed Psalm 90 for the occasion.  This psalm concludes with the words:  וִיהִי נֹעַם אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ עָלֵינוּ, וּמַֽעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנָה עָלֵינוּ, וּמַֽעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנֵֽהוּ:, May the favour of the Lord our God be upon us, let the work of our hands prosper, O prosper the work of our hands.  As I conclude my regular work with Alyth, my blessing, my prayer is a paraphrase of Moses: ‘May God look upon you with favour and may the work of your hands prosper’.