Curb your enthusiasm

The energy inspired by a righteous vision can turn cruel and destructive.

Earth (photo credit: NASA)
(photo credit: NASA)
THE TORAH portion Vayakhel contains some 120 verses, and all are devoted to the building of the Tabernacle. Well, almost all.
The opening three verses are a reminder to observe the Sabbath, but they seem so out of context, so disconnected to anything that follows, that we can almost put them out of our mind as the text gets down to its real purpose.
It starts with Moses giving a call for offerings. And the people respond. They bring the desired gold, silver, and copper; the acacia wood and the yarns and the skins, the precious stones and the spices and the oils. In fact, in what may have been a unique event in the history of fundraising, they bring too much, so that Moses has to tell the people to stop.
Not only do they bring material goods, they bring themselves: their talents and their time and their effort. Men and women alike, all those with skill, work under the direction of Bezalel and Oholiab to make the Tabernacle, the tent above it and the screens around it, the vessels and the furniture and everything necessary for the sanctuary service.
They must have worked hard physically, as they had done as slaves.
But now there is a difference. The detailed description of all that was made on top of the repeated use of phrases like “freewill offering” and “all whose hearts moved them” serves to emphasize what was clear from the overflow of gifts – that the people take on this project enthusiastically.
Is that enthusiasm surprising? After a lifetime of backbreaking labor under their Egyptian slave drivers, who would have expected that the Israelites would turn so willingly to more difficult work? Keep in mind, too, that these same people just recently worshiped the Golden Calf; who would have expected that they would have turned so completely to the service of God? Actually, it shouldn’t be that surprising. We know that there’s an enormous difference in working for the benefit of another and working for one’s own goals and purposes, and that even (or particularly) those who have been beaten down by oppression can muster astounding resources when they are no longer alienated from their labor, and have a chance to determine their own ends.
Not only that. We know, too, that one of the great sources of motivation is the belief that you are working for something bigger than yourself, beyond yourself. Social, political and religious movements even today are powered by the enthusiasm of people who have connected themselves to a project that transcends their identity; the enthusiasm is increased when the cause promises to transcend and remake the normal rules of the world as well.
Remember this, though: history has taught us that the level of enthusiasm is independent of the wisdom or virtue of the project.
Radical evil can find eager volunteers as easily, it seems, as truly redemptive movements.
And worse, even when the initial vision is a good one, a just one, a godly one, the idea that you are engaged in a virtually messianic enterprise can lead you to believe that the normal rules do not apply, including rules of physics, law, and even ethics. The energy inspired by a righteous vision can turn cruel and destructive.
We know this from the Biblical text as well. The stories of the Tower of Babel and the Golden Calf are both instances of dangerous mass enthusiasms. The lesson seems clear – once people are devoted to a project, the energy and drive they bring can run dangerously uncontrolled.
You need some check on popular passion, a discipline that serves as a constant reminder that, no matter how transformative and noble the goal, the world should not be turned upside down, justifying all means by the cause. This discipline needs to be built into the process of the project, integrated into that transformative vision. Perhaps even pausing from the work every now and then would help remind people that the task may be great and holy, but it’s not all there is.
The reminder of the Sabbath that opens Vayakhel doesn’t have anything directly to do with the building of the Tabernacle, but maybe that was the point: to have a regular interruption of that oh-socompelling project. It is an interruption that reminds us not just of our responsibilities to God, but of our responsibilities to others, like the servants who must be allowed rest and the poor who must be fed.
It’s a reminder of our responsibilities to the world at large, to cease from trying to change things. It forces us to be just, to be kind, to be humble. And when we’re all charged up about building God’s very dwelling on earth, just, kind and humble are good things to be.
Professor Joshua Gutoff directs the Master of Arts in Jewish Education program at Gratz College in Philadelphia