J.J Gross

Parshat Vayakhel: 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 the esthetic and iconographic character of the various components of the Mishkan 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 of the fourth commandment;

שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, תֵּעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי יִהְיֶה לָכֶם קֹדֶשׁ שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן, לַיהוָה
“Six days shall all work be done but on the seventh day you shall have kadosh, a day of complete rest to the Lord” (Shemot 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 is to labor for six days. The second 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 Shabbat requires one to work during the weekdays. Labor 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. In all likelihood, when such a person makes kiddush on Friday evening it is a ברכה לבטלה (a wasted blessing), having been made over a non-occurrence.

In Israel there are today tens of thousands of men who do not labor at all from Sunday through Friday.  Hence, their Shabbat is conceptually meaningless as there is no juxtaposition with the weekdays.  Perhaps this explains why cigarette smoking remains so endemic among such people, as the act of lighting a cigarette is considered labor. Hence desisting from Marlboros for 26 hours would, a t least technically, validate their day of rest. And where would halacha be without “technically”?

(Let no one accuse me of not being דן לכף זכות)

We are then told in verse 10 of Vayakhel;

וְכָל-חֲכַם-לֵב, בָּכֶם, יָבֹאוּ וְיַעֲשׂוּ, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה
And every wise hearted personamong 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 God’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 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.

וְכָל-אִשָּׁה חַכְמַת-לֵב, בְּיָדֶיהָ טָווּ
And every wise hearted woman spun with her hands… (35:25)

The חכם לב is personified by, and defined through, the character of Bezalel whom God …

רְאוּ קָרָא יְהוָה בְּשֵׁם, בְּצַלְאֵל בֶּן-אוּרִי בֶן-חוּר, לְמַטֵּה יְהוּדָה
וַיְמַלֵּא אֹתוֹ, רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, בְּחָכְמָה בִּתְבוּנָה וּבְדַעַת, וּבְכָל-מְלָאכָה
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 textiles, 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;

קְחוּ מֵאִתְּכֶם תְּרוּמָה, לַיהוָה, כֹּל נְדִיב לִבּוֹ, יְבִיאֶהָ אֵת תְּרוּמַת יְהוָה:  זָהָב וָכֶסֶף, וּנְחֹשֶׁת
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”  ranging 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;

וְכָל-חֲכַם-לֵב, בָּכֶם, יָבֹאוּ וְיַעֲשׂוּ, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה
And every wise hearted person among you shall come and make everything that the Lord has commanded.

Indeed: Philanthropy is voluntary, creativity is imperative.

I would suggest two possible explanations for this need to coerce 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 their creation with which they are totally satisfied. It would be both presumptuous and out of character for a true artist to suggest him/herself for the fashioning of such a significant monument of human creativity.

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 God 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 Almighty.

For all other other humans, their endeavors and generosity are plentiful commodities. The everyman’s general lack of self-consciousness and inhibition (often enhanced by a strong dollop of entitlement) is such as to make their material contributions almost reflexive.

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. All genuine artistic and musical talent having been 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 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 vessels and weavings.

I would like to suggest that these five descriptions refer to different personality types; people 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 with no expectation of nor desire for recognition.  (Dr. Ruth Gottesman, the 90 year old woman who last week gave $1 Billion to the Einstein Medical  School to fund student scholarships is the paragon of this third category, the נדיב לב. She wants no buildings or institutions named after her, and would have preferred the entire donation to be anonymous.

The fourth חכם לב is, as an artist, 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 pointed out, 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 also an artist, but one with an ego – the Picasso if you will. He is both gifted artistically, and carried away with his sense of self-importance. While this does not diminish from his talent, it doesn’t 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.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.