What can the Tabernacle teach us about Coronavirus?

This week’s parsha, Vayakehl Pekudei, starts as follows (Exodus 35: 4-5): 4 And Moses spoke unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying: ‘This is the thing which the LORD commanded, saying: 5 Take ye from among you an offering unto the LORD, whosoever is of a giving heart, let him bring it, the LORD’S offering: gold, and silver, and brass;”

 The phrase, “a giving heart”, appears numerous times throughout the next few paragraphs, which expand on the list of gifts that would be useful to help build the Tabernacle. The phrase implies that the giving is optional; each person should give only if her heart desires. A person has the freedom to choose if to give, what to give, and how.

But that would appear to be in contradiction with the beginning of the story: “This is the thing which the Lord commanded”. If contributing to the Tabernacle building efforts is a commandment, then it’s not optional. The obligation depends not on how much a person’s heart feels like giving, but rather, on the fact that they were commanded to do so by God.

I believe that the tension between these two aspects of religion -commandedness and freedom -lies at the core of the challenge of being an observant Jew in the (post)modern world. But that’s not what I want to talk about right now. Because right now, hundreds of people are dying. And thousands more are sitting at home, trying to juggle their daily responsibilities while worrying for family and loved ones.

During such a time, we are all obligated to give. The public health crisis that surrounds us is a Divine imperative to contribute to our communities, and to the world. But, we are also free to choose what and how we give. This is the time when we activate our giving hearts. We look deep inside ourselves and ask: What are the unique skills and resources we can share?  The answer will be different for every person. It might be sending a food delivery, video chatting with a person who is lonely, or providing a free online yoga class. But the key is to give something.

However, in giving to others, we must not forget to give to ourselves. Sometimes, during a time of crisis, there is a tendency to give our all to those around us, neglecting to take care of ourselves in the process. Part of listening to our giving heart is listening to our own boundaries.

It is by giving to each other that we emulated the Divine trait of loving-kindness, and in so doing, transform the entire world into a Tabernacle: A place where God’s presence is felt on this earth. 

That does not mean that the virus itself, or the pain and the fear will automatically go away. The Tabernacle does not negate the wilderness around it.  But it does mean that, within the uncertainty of our own mortality, within the sadness and the worry, there is space for joy, and comfort, and a feeling of being connected to ourselves and to others.

May we all be blessed with the ability to give to others and to feel connected during these difficult times. May God grant a quick and complete recovery to all those who are suffering and help guide us to new scientific discoveries. May we feel the joy of God’s presence on earth, without the pain of the wilderness that lies outside.

Shabbat shalom.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.