“Straying from Lofty Spiritual Moorings”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayakhel, Moses speaks to the entire nation of Israel and reviews with them the detailed instructions for constructing the Tabernacle. Reiterating his call for donations of the various building materials, Moses again enumerates the Tabernacle furnishings and its vessels.

The great Nehama Leibowitz points out how forthcoming the people of Israel were in their generosity to the Tabernacle, noting that the Hebrew verb “l’hah’vee”–-to bring, is repeated nine times in Exodus 35 alone. The Israelites were so generous, in fact, that the craftsmen informed Moses that the people had brought too much. Moses commanded to proclaim throughout the camp (Exodus 36:6): “Eesh v’ee’sha, ahl yah’ah’soo ohd m’lah’cha lit’roo’maht hah’kodesh,” Let no man or woman do any more work toward the gift for the sanctuary. And for the first, and probably the last time in Jewish history, a united Jewish appeal was called to a halt.

Not everybody, however, was impressed by the people’s generosity. One Talmudic sage, cited by Nehama Leibowitz, Rabbi Judah ben Pazi (Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim 1:1), maintains that the people gave far more willingly to the Golden Calf than to the Tabernacle. Expressing his dismay, he cried out, “Can we read these verses and not shudder?!” Comparing the peoples’ responses in both instances as recorded in the biblical texts, he shows how much more openhanded the people were when donating to the Golden Calf. With respect to the Tabernacle, the Bible records in Exodus 35:22, that “every person with a willing heart brought.” But when it came to donating for the Golden Calf, the Torah states, Exodus 32:3, “all the people broke off their ornaments” to give.

Apparently, only those who were moved contributed to the Tabernacle, whereas for the Golden Calf all the people donated their ornaments.

Professor Leibowitz strongly argues against Ben Pazi’s conclusion, pointing out not only the nine expressions of bringing, but also noting how every segment of the community of Israel contributed to the Tabernacle. “Every man whose heart stirred him, and every one whose spirit made willing” (Exodus 35:21), “…every willing heart” (Exodus 35:22), “…every wise-hearted woman” (Exodus 35:25), “…every man or woman whose heart moved them” (Exodus 35:29). Furthermore, Professor Leibowitz concludes that the expression “breaking off” the ornaments implies anarchy and a loss of discipline. What moved all the people to participate at the Golden Calf was the free-for-all nature of the circumstances. On the other hand, the donations that were given to the Tabernacle were given with a full heart, and not because the people were caught up in the frenzy of the moment.

The great depths to which the people of Israel plunged that culminated in the worship of the Golden Calf is very troublesome to the rabbis and the commentators, old and new. How could the Children of Israel, who had witnessed the Ten Plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, and the revelation of G-d at Sinai, sin with the Golden Calf? How could these same exalted people stray so far from their lofty spiritual moorings?

In response, Nehama Leibowitz cites a fascinating Midrash in Terumah 26. The Midrash reads:

“And thou shall make curtains of goats wool.” To this the following verse (Song of Songs 1:5) refers: “I am black* but comely.” Is it possible for black to be comely? To what may this be compared? To a maiden whose father was a king, who had misbehaved in her father’s house. Said her father: “Send her out to glean ears of corn after the reapers.” So they did, and the girl’s face became black from the sun.

Afterwards, her father conducted an investigation and discovered that it was not she who had misbehaved, but one of the maidservants. He promptly made it up to her, and reinstated her to greater favor than previously. The wives of the nobles came to visit the princess and mocked her on seeing her dark countenance. Whereupon she said to them: “Why do you stare at me? A little oil, a few baths, and I shall become fair again. But you, who are black, all the oils and all the baths of the world will not make you fair again.”

So it was with Israel, when they made the Golden Calf, the nations of the world said to them: “You black ones! What have you done?” To which the House of Israel replied: “If I am black in my deeds, I am also comely in my deeds. I was black in Egypt…and I was comely in Egypt…I am black at the sea…and I am comely at the sea…I was black at Horeb…and I was comely at Horeb…I was black with the gold that I gave to the calf…and I was comely with the gold I gave to the Tabernacle of Testimony.” Thus it is with Israel, the nations of the world scorned them, but are aware that they are as full of good deeds as a pomegranate and of Bible, Mishnah, Rabbinic Law, and lore.

With this Midrash, the rabbis wish to drive home the lesson that although the people of Israel frequently backslide, they soon repent and return. Their sinfulness is not genetic. Israel’s sins may be washed away–because the people of Israel are eager to cleanse themselves. Others, however, are not so fortunate. They have a deep and abiding commitment to sinfulness, making it almost impossible for them to be cleaned.

It is in this manner that the hopefulness of Israel’s destiny is underscored. Despite their backsliding, they repent. Despite their sinfulness, they mend their ways. Despite being stained with muck and mire–distanced and estranged from G-d, they clean themselves off and begin afresh. “Sh’chorah ah’nee v’nah’ah’vah b’not Yerushalayim,” I am black, but I am beautiful, daughters of Jerusalem. These are the people of Israel, the ever-repenting children of G-d.

May you be blessed.

*Please note: “Black” in this context means sinfulness, not skin color.