I. Philanthropy is voluntary. Creativity is imperative

Parshat Vayakhel picks up on themes that have already been introduced and developed in previous parshiot, specifically the precise dimensions and esthetic and iconographic character of the various parts of the Tabernacle structure and its furnishings.

Seemingly out of the blue, and with no apparent connection to the bulk of the Parsha, Vayakhel opens with a reprise the fourth commandment; “Six days shall all work be done but on the seventh day you shall have kadosh, a day of complete rest to the Lord” (Exodus 35:2).

I have already belabored the point elsewhere and often, but it is worth mentioning yet again. Observance of Shabbat has two components. The first component is to labor for six days and the second component is to desist from labor on Shabbat. Someone who labors on Shabbat is given the death penalty. However merely desisting from labor does not make one “shomer Shabbos”, it only means he avoids execution. The reward for keeping the Sabbath requires one to work during the weekdays. It is an essential component of shmirat Shabbat. After all, one who keeps Shabbat all week is not making the actual Sabbath “kodesh”, i.e. separate and distinct from the rest of the week. And, in all likelihood, when such a person makes Kiddush it is a ‘bracha levatalah” (a wasted blessing), having been made over a non-occurrence.

We are then told in verse 10 of Vayakhel; “And every wise hearted person

( חכם לב) among you shall come and make everything that the Lord has commanded”.

 That these two verses are the opening and closing bars to the introductory theme of Vayakhel is clear. Indeed, it is only the creative labors provided by the חכם לב – the wise of heart – that must be done during the weekdays and must be avoided on the Sabbath. Everything else that is prohibited on Shabbat is merely a descendant, a derivative of these exalted tasks which mirror and echo G-d’s work in the creation of his chef d’oeuvre, namely our universe.

The term חכם לב – wise of heart – which the Torah uses to describe the artisans engaged in fashioning the Tabernacle/Mishkan and its implements is driven home repeatedly (no fewer than seven times) at the outset of Vayakhel, and includes both men and women who are gifted in this special way. “And every wise hearted woman spun with her hands…” (35:25)

חכם לב is personified by, and defined through, the character of Bezalel whom G-d “calls by name” (35:30) “He has imbued him with the spirit of God, with wisdom, with insight, and with knowledge, and with [talent for] all manner of craftsmanship” (35:31)

It is important to note the difference between the way the Torah calls upon the masses to contribute materials, precious metals, lumber etc for the Mishkan and the way it calls upon the חכמי לב to give of their talents.

For the donors and philanthropists, the offering is voluntary; “’Take from yourselves an offering for the Lord; every generous-hearted person shall bring it, [namely] the Lord’s offering: gold, silver, and copper…” (35:5) The Torah is confident that the coffers will be filled without having to resort to coercion. After all, everyone can contribute something, and there are myriad reasons why someone would choose to be “generous-hearted” from the rare altruist to the honor-seeker who brandishes his checkbook in order to burnish his reputation in society.

By contrast, the חכמי לב are given no option. Their services, as we have noted above, are commandeered; “And every wise hearted person among you shall come and make everything that the Lord has commanded”. Philanthropy is voluntary, creativity is imperative.

I would suggest two possible explanations for this need to compel the artists to step up to the plate: For one, artists are few and far between. They are the most rare and precious human commodity, and none should be allowed to remain fallow and waste their talent.

But another explanation may be rooted in the insecure and self-doubting artistic temperament. Few artists are truly comfortable in their own skins, and rare is the creation with which they are genuinely satisfied. It would be both presumptuous and out of character for a true artist to suggest him/herself for the fashioning of the most important piece of human creativity ever. Hence the need to compel these men and women to come forward.

But one thing is clearly evident from Vayakhel and the preceding Torah portions, namely that G-d places the artist at the highest level of human necessity. Only the artist and artistic labors are analogous to G-d and the labors of the A-mighty. All other humans –their endeavors and generosity – are plentiful commodities that, with the everyman’s general lack of self-consciousness and lack of inhibition (often enhanced by a strong dollop of entitlement) make their raw contributions a given.

And so, one wonders whether perhaps the ultimate Redemption is so elusive because when that day comes, the call will go forth once again for “every wise hearted person among you (to) come and make everything that the Lord has commanded” but there will be no one in the community with the necessary skills – what with all artistic and musical talent being almost universally extirpated from our young before it is given a chance to flower and flourish.

The time has come to re-tool Jewish education and re-prioritize Jewish values. No doubt physicians, corporate lawyers and hedge-fund managers serve some purpose. But we also need artists, writers, musicians, dancers and poets. By squelching youthful talent and forcing potential artists to pursue careers that stifle their gifts we pay a vey high price indeed.

Five Generosity Profiles in Vayakhel

Parshat Vayakhel refers to five types of Israelite whose contributions make the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) possible.

  1. נשא לבו
  2. נדבה רוחו
  3. נדיב לב
  4. חכם לב
  5. נשא לבו +חכם לב

The first three refer to donors of materials needed in the construction and decoration of the Mishkan. The fourth and fifth refer to the artisans who actually executed the designs of the sacred vessel and weavings.

I would like to suggest that these five descriptions refer to different personality types, whose motives vary greatly.

The first נשא לבו is driven by ego. He carries himself high. His heart is full … with himself. His generosity is driven by a craving for recognition.

The second נדבה רוחו is generous of spirit, meaning that he has his moments when his spirit rises to the occasion. This is, of course, a good thing, but not necessarily what characterizes him at all times.

The third נדיב לב the one of generous heart is the highest level. His generosity is what defines him. His heart is predisposed toward giving.

The fourth חכם לב is also organically predisposed to do what he does. The artist really has no choice when it comes to creativity. Creativity is his oxygen; it pretty much defines who he or she is. Yet this does not necessarily reflect on their generosity. Indeed, as I point out later, they may even be likely to shrink from their obligations because of the innate insecurity that is often true of creative people.

The fifth, נשא לבו +חכם לב ,is the artist who also has an ego – the Picasso if you will. He is both gifted artistically and carried away with his sense of self-importance. This does not diminish from his talent, but does not say much for his personality.

These five character types are easily recognized even in our own times. All of them are necessary in order to build the institutions that make our community life possible. There are the donors who always give, but expect massive recognition in return. There are donors who rise to the occasion at times, but not always. There are donors who give unstintingly of themselves with no expectation of reward or recognition. There are artists and crafts people who do their jobs, sometimes putting in more than they are paid for. And finally there are those designers and architects whose creativity is exceeded only by their overarching egos.