Rabbi Stephanie Kolin – Shabbat Vayakheil-Pekudei 5783
Rabbi Kolin reflects on the Mishkan.
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Not Some Gift, Just You
Rabbi Stephanie Kolin
Imagine that our ancestors are sitting in their tents near Mount Sinai. It still smells a little like burnt up Golden Calf, but life has moved on and they learn that it’s finally time to build this thing they’ve been hearing about. It’s called a Mishkan, and they’ve been told that everyone will help build it, everyone will contribute. So they look around their tent and in their pockets and wagons and baskets for what they can give. And the text tells us:
Yavo-u ha’anashim al hanashim, the men and the women came with their gold jewelry. V’chol ish asher nimtza eeto t’chelet v’argaman, and everyone who had blue, purple, and crimson yarns and fine linen and goat’s hair, and of course, dolphin skins, hevi’u, they brought those. V’chol meirim t’rumat kesef, everyone who had silver or copper, or acacia wood – hevi’u – they brought them. And the skilled women spun with their own hands, v’yavi’u mat’veh, and brought what they had spun.
And together, in what may amount to the earliest and most profound team effort, the Mishkan is built and comes to life and is filled with God’s presence. And it is a stunning and inspiring example of what a community can do together.
And that’s a great way to tell that story. But what if there’s something else happening here? The scholar, Aviva Zornberg, reminds us that these people were very recently enslaved people. Their lives were not in their own control and their worth was tied singularly to what they could produce, what they could do for Pharaoh. In essence…their value was measured not by who they were, but by what they brought. Here, with this Mishkan, perhaps it felt the same. That their worth was based on their gift, such that without their gift, they might believe they had no value beyond that.
Now, we might say – eh, so what – the giving mattered, the outcome is beautiful, and it’s an essential part of our journey. But I think more often than not, we know that this question matters. It’s a question that many, maybe most, of us live each day even in this post-mishkanic world.
We also wonder if our own worth and value is found mainly in what we can do for others, in what we produce, in how we are useful.
It can show up somewhere simple, like when kids sit at a lunch table and one might give another their dessert, so that they will like them. Or a teenager who feels they have to get an A to prove their value. Or it can be when we show up at work really early and stay until the lights are turned off at night. To prove ourselves and our product worthy. Or in a group of friends, maybe we always bring the jokes and the lightheartedness, and never share when we’re down or upset, because we bring the fun, that’s our gift, and if we don’t, maybe people won’t want to be around us. And so our identities become what we bring or what we can produce. Not our job success, not our social ladder rung, but our identities. Who we are, we fear, is what we can give.
And we worry that if we don’t give up our dessert, or pass the test, or work the hours, or deliver the humor, maybe we won’t be seen as valuable or even loveable.
And then, when we can no longer heivi’u, bring our gift…maybe we age or get sick or run out of that gift…if our worth is tied to that thing, then what are we? Who are we? How can we know we still matter if we don’t bring the thing we think everyone expects us to bring?
In case you’re wondering if other people think about this, there’s an entire Disney movie about it. In the movie Encanto, Abuela, the leader of the family, out of her own pain, has come to see her children and grandchildren as valuable only for their gifts: Luisa for her strength, Isabella for her floral creations, Julieta for her healing powers. And the pressure to deliver those things has become so great that they and their home are literally falling apart. In one of the last songs, Abuela finally sees how destructive that’s been and she sings: the miracle is not some magic that you’ve got. The miracle is you. Not some gift, just you.
Because what we do, what we bring, what we give – is a part of who we are, but it’s not meant to be the sum total of who we are.
In a book entitled Mindfulness, An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World, there’s a discussion about burnout, and it traces how we can go from being passionate, whole, satisfied selves to being exhausted, empty, joyless, and hopeless selves. Professor Marie Asberg explains: “those who continue downward furthest are likely to be those . . . whose level of self-confidence (or self-worth) is closely dependent on their performance at work.” And we might add, or school, or in social settings. Our performance, our output, replaces our identities. And it’s exhausting.
But in order to keep producing that thing, to retain that identity, we start to give up the things that nourish us. Spending time with family, cooking, exercising, art, hobbies, rest and sleep, laughing, nature. To chase the thing we’ve tied our worth to – our gift – we lose ourselves.
Have you ever felt like this? That your worth is tied to what you produce? Your usefulness? It doesn’t feel great. But we also don’t have to live like that.
The story of the Mishkan comes with its own corrective.
There’s a midrash in which we learn that the women want to bring their mirrors to donate to the cause. And Moses refuses them and says no! Mirrors are things of vanity and pride. They don’t belong in a place as holy as the Mishkan! But God tells Moses: “Accept them. These mirrors are dearer to Me than all the other contributions.” See, in a mirror, a slave in Egypt who had explicitly been told that their worth was their product, could see that in fact, that was not true.
They could look into their own eyes and see kindness. They could look at their jawline and cheekbones and remember their parents. Their crows feet and know their wisdom. Their smile lines and cherish their laughter. They could see themselves – not their output. Just their humanity. With no prize or price attached to their labor.
And in this week’s Torah portion, we learn that these mirrors were used in the Mishkan to make the wash basin in which the Priest would wash his hands before talking to God. A place for the Priest to see his own true self reflected, free from his utilitarian merit, to just be himself when he came before God’s presence.
Now, far too often, when we gaze into a mirror, we have the impulse to fix ourselves, to grimace or judge what we see. But that’s not what a mirror is for. Our reflections remind us that we are not our grades, our pudding pack, our hours spent at the office, our humor, but that we are our stories, our loves, our minds, our choices, our bodies, our breath, without the need to produce or impress or perform to see ourselves as enough.
There is nothing wrong with being of use, showing up for one another, bringing our gifts and creating things together. That is a huge part of being in community, being empathic, and loving each other. Being of service can be a blessing. It’s just that that is not your identity or why you are lovable.
The people who brought their gifts to the Mishkan were n’sa’o leebo…their hearts were stirred, elevated. In the end, their gifts were not measures of their status or worth, but were extensions of their identities and manifestations of their hearts.
May we each know that our gifts are not replacements for ourselves, but that your holy mirrors reflect a person worthy of love, respect, attention…worthy even of standing as your whole self before God.