Parashat Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1-38:20)
By Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld
First, a confession. I am among those already exhausted by the amount of time I am now spending in front of a screen, rather than in the physical presence of other human beings.
Please don’t get me wrong.
I am grateful—deeply and daily—for the technology that is allowing us to stay connected to one another during this period of “social distancing” and to overcome, at least a little, the heightened sense of isolation and anxiety that can come with it.
I am grateful—deeply and daily—for the abundance of generosity and good will with which I see people everywhere undertaking the tremendous effort to, suddenly, strangely, learn to live so much of our lives online. To work, to meet, to study, to pray, to care for each other, to sing (I am particularly touched by the number of emails I’ve seen from people trying to find a way to sing together in this new virtual reality).
Of course, this has been happening in many quarters for a long time, but it feels like there is something undeniably, qualitatively different about the scope and scale of what we are experiencing now. I tend to believe those who say we are only in the first mile of a long-distance marathon. I tend to believe those who say the world will be forever changed by this experience, by this grand—involuntary—experiment in virtual connection, in virtual life.
So, how to orient ourselves to this new and unsettling reality, in which we find ourselves alone, together? Personally, when I feel that my world has been turned upside down, I am temperamentally inclined to look to wisdom that feels timeless. And so I am drawn back to this week’s parasha, to the fertile soil of Torah, to do as one of our sages invited millennia ago—“turn it, and turn it”—and see what emerges from that holy ground that speaks to me in this moment.
This time around, there is one word in particular that has grabbed hold of me and won’t let go.
That word is: “Enough.”
It shows up in Exodus 36:7. The people have responded to Moses’ call to help build the tabernacle, to bring gifts for the Lord—gifts of gold, silver, and copper, a rainbow of colored yarns, fine linens and animal skins, woods, oils, spices, and precious stones. In fact, they have responded with such an abundance of open-hearted generosity that the artisans charged with leading this holy building project come to Moses and say, “The people are bringing more than is needed for the work that the Lord has commanded to be done.”
And so Moses makes the following proclamation to the entire camp: “Let no one make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” And then we are told, “So the people stopped bringing. The work was enough for them, for all they were to do, and more.”
What a breath-taking—or maybe breath-giving—moment.
The work was enough. They had brought enough. They had given enough. They had done enough. Actually, more than enough. How often do we allow ourselves to say this, to really believe this, about our own efforts?
And, particularly in a moment such as this, when the challenges facing us are so vast, not even fully fathomable to those who know enough to know how unfathomable they really are.
The word “enough” here, of course, takes us back to the very beginning of the parshaand shines a light on why the building of the mishkan begins with the reminder to rest on the Sabbath day. “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest.”
In other words: For six days, you may live in the awareness that that there no limit to the work that needs to be done. There is truth in that awareness, in that incessant knocking on the door of our hearts, asking us to step up to the task, asking us to give more than we thought we had in us, asking us to be generous and brave. But this is not the whole story. There is another truth, the truth embodied in the mitzvah of Shabbat, the truth of “enough”: We have to bring our offerings, and we have to know when it is time to stop bringing, stop building, stop giving, stop doing.
We have to learn this not only for ourselves, not only to keep from burning out—though that’s important. We have to learn this because it is a form of idolatry to think that our gifts are so important—that everything and everyone depends so greatly on us—that we can’t stop bringing them, for even a moment.
The Hasidic master, the Kedushat Levi teaches that when the verse says, “Their gifts were enough, and more” the Torah is also hinting at a deeper truth about our own mortality. In that moment, he suggests, the people understood that their gifts were sufficient, and they left room for the gifts of generations yet to come.
Shabbat allows us to practice every week saying, “enough”—I’ve done enough, I’ve given enough, I’ve brought enough”—so that when we reach the end of lives, whenever that may be, we can also say, “I’ve done enough, I’ve brought enough, I’ve given enough.” There are others who will follow, there are others who will bring their sacred gifts.
When we sing the Psalm for Shabbat this week, may we bring this awareness into our hearts—the awareness of enough.
Tzaddik katamar yifrach k’erez balvanon yisgeh
Shetulim b’veit Adonai b’hatzrot eloheinu yafrichu.
Plant yourself exactly where you are
For wherever you are is the House of the Holy One.
Everything you need is here.
You will grow tall like the palm,
You will thrive like the cedars of Lebanon
You will flourish and be refreshed,
You will bear fruit in your time.
Set aside your tools
Stop your work and your wanderings
For six days you are the gardener
But on this day you are the garden.
Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld is President of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Mass.