Plant-Based Torah: Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei: Moved Hearts, Simple Tents

February 24th, 2022

By Alex Weisz

In this week’s double portion, the Book of Exodus concludes with the Israelites donating materials to aid in the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in which G-d dwells. How beautiful! How powerful! In a book that begins with the Israelites enslaved, God gives and gives, time and again, to the Israelites. Throughout Exodus, not only do they, at times, lack gratitude – they go so far as to blatantly violate one of the most important laws, the prohibition of idolatry. Nevertheless, through Moshe’s leadership, God forgives them, and continues to give. They receive the Ten Commandments, they receive the covenant at Sinai, they receive liberation from slavery. The book of Exodus concludes with the Israelites giving in return to God.

HaMelech Melachim, HaShem Tz’vaot, HaKadosh Baruch Hu, Whose glory, might, and compassion we Jews exalt multiple times daily, in Whose wisdom the universe was fashioned, does not ask for a glorious, elaborate palace! No – the Ruler of Rulers asks for a humble tent, fashioned by two skilled craftsmen out of what little materials these newly emancipated slaves took with them. God does not require them to help supply the mishkan, instead asks that any Israelites “whose hearts have moved them” in response to the dozens of divine miracles they have witnessed to give what they can.

With humility and awe I wonder – perhaps this is God at God’s most glorious! 150 Psalms praise God’s name, and nowhere is God’s mighty humility recognized. Humility is recognized numerous times in Jewish literature as an extremely meritorious trait, nevertheless it is often adjacent to divinity, rather than explicitly connected. How powerful is it that God asks for little more than a tent! One that is high-quality, given by loving folks, but a tent nevertheless. God resides within and beyond all places, and yet chooses to manifest among the Israelites in a tent that they built, above them in a cloud. 

The lesson here is an eternal one, but is especially moving today. Physically and spiritually, let us seek simplicity, sturdiness, and quality. If a beautiful tent is good enough for the Creator of the World, HaShem Yitbarach, there is certainly no need for us to spend our lives toiling for illusions of security – giant homes, fast cars, yachts, and fine luxury goods. There is no need to hoard the world’s finite resources at the expense of others. In the book of Amos, a damning statement is made about this horrid act: “they have sold the righteous for silver, the poor for a pair of shoes” – how true this is in our time, as children are torn from their parents seeking asylum, as billions of animals are needlessly slaughtered each year while the butchers poison God’s world and demand bailouts, in which funding for SNAP (food stamps) and school lunch programs are slashed to make room for corporate bailouts and tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy.

Each day we experience God’s miracles, yet too few of our hearts are moved to open our hands and eyes. This is ultimately the lesson of Vayakhel-Pekudei – one is not rich from how much they have beyond their needs. As the great sage Ben Zoma taught: “Who is rich? One who rejoices in their lot1 ”, who is grateful for what they have – which, with their heart moved with gratitude, leads them to give what they can.

In the last year, we have seen the Amazon rainforest and much of the continent of Australia burn; now we are locked down to stay safe during a global pandemic that is overwhelming medical systems worldwide. All of these tragedies, all of these lives lost, the destruction of countless souls with divine origins – in the name of the consumption of animals. May our hearts be moved towards action, our eyes opened to recognize that we do not need to slaughter or torture other living beings for the sake of our appetites, for the sake of wealthy mega-corporations who lobby their way beyond the laws of economics. Let us return to the diet that God intended, beyond the lust to destroy and to hurt, to serve in harmony with our Creator.

Each time we conclude a book of the Torah, we recite the words “Hazak, hazak, venithazek!” literally, be strong, be strong, and be strengthened. Let us return to Ben Zoma’s teaching from above to understand true strength: “Who is strong? One who subdues their lusts.2 ” May we move into the book of Leviticus purified from the lusts of wealth, violence, and greed that plague our society.

Hazak, Hazak, Venithazek!

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