We see this potential in the building of the tabernacle. "Gold, silver, crimson yarns, linens, incense, gemstones," Moses declares to the people of Israel in reminding them of what to bring for the building of the mishkan, the tabernacle of the desert (Exodus 35: 4-5). And in his next breath he insists that these are the tasks of the whole people -- all of whom are responsible to contribute to God's dwelling place.
He instructs each person "whose heart so moves him" to bring gifts for the construction. The text goes on: "and everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved him came, bringing to the Lord his offering ... Men and women, all whose hearts moved them ... came bringing brooches, earrings, rings, and pendants -- gold objects of all kinds."
We learn what people brought and how they contributed their skills: "And all the skilled women spun with their own hands..." We learn the colors and textures required, the primacy of detail with all guidance under the aegis of Bezalel, the master artist whom name means "In God's shadow." A bracing model of leadership: to exercise authority and yet be aware of one's place in the shadow of something larger than oneself.
The Etz Hayim comments that whereas the Golden Calf had created "divisiveness and disillusionment," Moses gathers all the people "to restore the sense of unity and shared purpose that had existed at Mt. Sinai" (552).
I'd like to suggest that the emphasis on "the whole of the people" teaches that we are all worthy, we are all able to contribute -- we all live within a community of interdependency. When Pharaoh tells Moses to leave Egypt, Moses replies, "We will all go, young and old" (Exodus 10:9).
Moses' response reminds us that we are a people who believe in our youth as well as our elders. While one can look to Jewish texts to scaffold most arguments -- and there are verses that point to the frailness and loss of capacity among the elderly -- a great many texts speak of the aged as vessels of holy wisdom. Jewish tradition is replete with verses about honoring and revering the elderly (honoring and revering describe different responsibilities) and about how elders "shall bear fruit even in old age; they shall be fresh and fragrant" (Psalm 92:15).
But America -- even Jewish America -- is a youth-driven culture, with emphasis on and attention to the "next generation." We often hear the "allocation conversation" as a zero-sum game. Such does not necessarily have to be the case, even though resources are limited and tough decisions -- economic and otherwise -- will have to be made in the near future. "Gauge a country's prosperity by its treatment of the aged," said Nachman of Breslov (Sefer Hamidot). Too bad he doesn't now serve in Congress!
Judaism understands the onset of responsibility to begin with bat or bar mitzvah. But responsibility has no endpoint; there is no retirement from a life of mitzvot. The elderly, for the most part, continue to grow, as does their capacity to give; they have a long view of life's experiences to share and time to offer. Perhaps it's time to rethink how we see ourselves as "everyone" communities, where we are all givers -- to our full capacity -- and where we all reap the benefits of our interdependence on one another.
VaYakhel is one of several double Torah portions (parshiot), separated when the calendar marks a leap year. Its partner portion is Pekudei, the portion that restates that each person above the age of 20 is to bring a "half-shekel" (described earlier in the portion Ki Tissa, which teaches that we need each other -- our other "half-shekel" -- to be whole).
The term "vayakhel," to assemble, is only used to convoke people (other words would be used to gather or herd animals). Calling on the people -- reminding them of a shared purpose, building the sacred dwelling place we call home, or community, or our country -- is a holy task. And it is one where we all contribute, as fully as we can.
ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.