By Rabbi Craig Marantz, Guest Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Vayakhel – Pekudei (Exodus 35:1–40:38)
There is a beautiful midrash about Elijah and his magic box. In the tale, the prophet bestows the box upon a person in need. “Let it take care of you,” Eliyahu ha-Navi would say. “But, in return, be a mentsch…and use the box’s riches to build synagogues, Torah schools and other sacred spaces.”
On one hand, we get a glimpse here of the miraculous mystical power associated with G-d via his messenger Elijah. But the “magic” of the box only achieves its true impact when it’s channeled through mentschlikeit. We learn here that one form of mentschlikeit is tzedakah, righteous giving–one that specifically lends to the construction of space that invites G-d’s glorious presence, summons iyyun tefillah (sincere prayer), and cultivates Talmud Torah (lifelong Torah learning), all of which awaken steadfast commitment for doing the right thing in and outside of these sacred G-d-filled spaces.
In a way, Elijah’s story is an echo of this week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei. Here, Moses gathers the people and tells them to live according to G-d’s commandments. And, specifically he calls on the Children of Israel to build a mishkan-an indwelling place for G-d. While our ancestors did not possess a magic box to aid them per se, they did construct—with the artist Betzalel’s help—an aron Kodesh, a holy ark: “Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high.” (Exodus 37:1)
Now I indicated the building of the mishkan and the aron kodesh was a group effort, but the text indicates Betzalel as the sole craftsman. A contradiction perhaps? Not really. As reported by Rashi, Betzalel gets credit for the work not because he worked alone but because he worked harder than his fellow artists. And in the words of modern commentary from the Jewish Deaf Multimedia page, a person’s handiwork is “a reflection of his heart and soul. Because Bezalel was so devoted to the building of G-d’s home, the Tabernacle, his passion was reflected in the Ark’s design, and the Torah accordingly names it after him.”
Although G-d’s glory may fill every cubit; although the power of the ark’s beauty may take our breath away if were ever to view it; and although the passionate artistic capacities of Betzalel and his collaborators have immortalized them, we rediscover in the original aron kodesh not simply a magic box full of mysterious, supernatural force but but a vessel of transformative, mentschlich inspiration.
Elijah’s wisdom still holds. As does the lesson in Vayakhel-Pikudei. We as human beings, as mentshen, possess a very unique capacity to build sacred space and to invite G-d’s presence. On one hand, this building process is a responsibility–an act of tzedakah, of pursuing justice in our world. On the other hand, constructing the mishkan, the aron kodesh, and other vessels of holiness is an act of volition and virtuous generosity, without which we would not have the synagogues and schools we call home. But at the end of the day, building these vessels is not quite enough–even if G-d is ever-present…even if we immerse ourselves in prayer and study inside those hallowed halls.
The life-changing mentschlikeit summoned by Elijah; the creative passion flowing from Betzalel–these are the gifts that are more precious than even the rarest of woods and stones needed for the mishkan and its aron kodesh. These are the gifts more enduring than the finest treasures of gold, silver and brass brought freely.
In Vayakhel-Pekudei, we assemble each year to remind ourselves that we are builders. Creative, passionate, mentschlich builders. Not just of sacred spaces. But of kehilla, too. Of community and human connection. And of moral imagination, as well–the kind that nurtures in each of us mutual responsibility for one another and shared empathy. And a common pursuit of justice and healing in a world torn apart by gun violence, poverty, and the unwillingness to see each other as created betzelem Elohim (in G-d’s image), full of intrinsic value.
Elijah helps us understand that through our mentschlikeit we have the capacity to make every day a blessing. And, Betzalel and his chevrei model what it means to be a collective force for good. So in the spirit of both, may we continue to present our beautiful diversity of gifts, whatever each of us uniquely offers. May our blessed resources–in whatever form they come–continue to flow freely from hearts opened and souls stirred by the ongoing opportunity to build our sacred and varied tents. And may our lives and our community, like the meaningful, inspiring and lovely mishkenot we raise, become holy vessels worthy of G-d’s presence
Rabbi Craig Marantz is rabbi of Emanuel Congregation (Reform).