We humans have an unfortunate, but entirely human, tendency to brand others as “all good” or “all bad.” This week’s combined parshiot, Vayakhel and Pikudei, offer a response.
The Book of Exodus is divided into three sections: First, the narrative of the Exodus, from the Israelites descent into Egypt through their ascent out of Egypt, crossing the Reed Sea, and arrival at Mount Sinai, where they entered into a Covenant with God. With Matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah), Torah proceeds with the second section of Exodus to recount many of the mitzvot that comprise the Covenant. With parshat Terumah, we enter the third section of Exodus, which concerns the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle).
Parshat Terumah begins by announcing that the contributions to build the Tabernacle were voluntary. People would bring what they were inspired (אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ) to donate:
דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ-לִי תְּרוּמָה: מֵאֵת כָּל-אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ, תִּקְחוּ אֶת-תְּרוּמָתִי
Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. (Exodus 25:2)
In Vayakhel we find similar language in the description of the Israelites’ enthusiastic and generous donation of their gold to fashion the vessels used in the sacrificial service.
וַיָּבֹאוּ, כָּל-אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר-נְשָׂאוֹ לִבּוֹ; וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר נָדְבָה רוּחוֹ אֹתוֹ, הֵבִיאוּ אֶת-תְּרוּמַת יְהוָה לִמְלֶאכֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וּלְכָל-עֲבֹדָתוֹ, וּלְבִגְדֵי, הַקֹּדֶשׁ. כב וַיָּבֹאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים, עַל-הַנָּשִׁים; כֹּל נְדִיב לֵב, הֵבִיאוּ חָח וָנֶזֶם וְטַבַּעַת וְכוּמָז כָּל-כְּלִי זָהָב, וְכָל-אִישׁ, אֲשֶׁר הֵנִיף תְּנוּפַת זָהָב לַיהוָה
Everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved him came, bringing to Adonai his offering for the work of the Tent of Meeting and for all its service and for the sacral vestments. Men and women, all whose hearts moved them, all who would make an elevation offering of gold to Adonai, came bringing brooches, earrings, rings, and pendants—gold objects of all kinds. (Exodus 35:21–22)
The Rabbis note that this is not the first time the Israelites have donated their gold: they handed it over to Aaron to make the Golden Calf (as recounted in Exodus chapter 32). They further note that in other instances, the Israelites engage in specific behaviors—both for good and for ill. In the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim 1:1) we read:
R. Yehudah bar Pazzi said in the name of Rabbi [Yehudah ha-Nasi]: When we read these verses, do we not tremble?—
On the good side: כֹּל נְדִיב לֵב All who were of willing heart (Exodus 35:22).
On the bad side: וַיִּתְפָּרְקוּ, כָּל-הָעָם, אֶת-נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב, אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם; וַיָּבִיאוּ, אֶל-אַהֲרֹן So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron (Exodus 32:3).
On the good side: וַיּוֹצֵא מֹשֶׁה אֶת-הָעָם לִקְרַאת הָאֱלֹהִים Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God (Exodus 19:17).
On the bad side: וַתִּקְרְבוּן אֵלַי, כֻּלְּכֶם, וַתֹּאמְרוּ נִשְׁלְחָה אֲנָשִׁים לְפָנֵינוּ Then all of you came to Me and said: “Let us send men before us” (Deuteronomy 1:22).
On the good side: אָז יָשִׁיר-מֹשֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת, לַיהוָה Then Moses and the people Israel sang this song to Adonai (Exodus 15:1).
On the bad side: וַתִּשָּׂא, כָּל-הָעֵדָה, וַיִּתְּנוּ, אֶת-קוֹלָם וַיִּבְכּוּ הָעָם, בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא Then all the congregation raised a loud cry and the people wept that night (Numbers 14:1)…
R. Abba bar Acha said, “You cannot truly make sense of the character of this nation. When they are approached to build the Golden Calf, they contribute. When they are approached to build the altar, they contribute.”
R. Yose b. Chanina taught the following tradition: וְעָשִׂיתָ כַפֹּרֶת, זָהָב טָהוֹר Then you shall make a mercy seat of pure gold (Exodus 25:17). Let the gold of the mercy seat come and effect atonement for the gold you gave for the Golden Calf.”
First, let’s explain the three sets of verses and then explore R. Abba bar Acha’s and R. Yose b. Chanina’s comments about them. We have already mentioned the first set of verses.
In the second set, the people step forward: In the first instance, the Israelites take their places at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive God’s Torah—that is good. In the second instance, they defy Moses and God because they did not trust either to lead them into the Land, and demand that spies scout out the land before they agree to enter it—clearly this is bad.
In the third set of verses, the people speak up: In the first instance, having crossed through the Reed Sea and experienced God’s salvation, they sing God’s praises—this is meritorious. In the second instance, after the spies bring back their report, the people again raise their voices, wailing, weeping, and railing against Moses and Aaron, refusing to enter the land—this is deplorable.
The three juxtapositions inspire R. Abba bar Acha to observe that the Israelites are a confounding nation: At times they are exceptionally obedient and pious; at other times they are contentious and rebellious. They contributed gold to make the Golden Calf as readily as they contributed gold to build the altar. What is one to make of such a people?
R. Abba bar Acha’s frustration is palpable and surely reflects God’s exasperation with the Israelites, who were in turns loyal and contumacious, courageous and cowardly, loving and ungrateful. Does this characterization of Israel sound surprising? Or does it sound entirely human? Perhaps it sounds like someone you know.
How does God respond to Israel’s extreme vacillations? R. Yose b. Chanina tells us that God expressly planned for this behavior, establishing a golden seat of mercy to serve as atonement for the gold donated to build the Golden Calf. God built into the Mishkan a mechanism for forgiveness and atonement. God didn’t have to think about and consider every rebellion—God was poised and prepared to forgive Israel as soon as they repented.
It would be easy to paint the Israelites a nation of rebels and ingrates, ever trying God’s and Moses’ patience, but this passage from the Yerushalmi reminds us that one-sided views are rarely accurate. They’re more about our tendency to demonize those whose behaviors or views rankle us and a reminder of our capacity for compassion and forgiveness. Would that we could stop and search for the “good verse” when the compulsion to criticize and condemn comes upon us; then we could access the golden seat of mercy in our souls.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman