Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei: It Matters If It’s One Pocket or the Other
I was thinking recently about pockets. As every woman knows, we shouldn’t assume our clothes come with pockets. We definitely assume that men’s clothes come with pockets. Anyone in the United States knows that a woman could carry a pocketbook to put all her things in, but in Canada it would be called a purse. At least a ‘pocketbook’ acknowledges the missing pockets in her clothing. Recently, a new mother told me that her newborn son has pants with pockets, but the same pants on the newborn girl side has no pockets. She didn’t understand what the newborn boy would put in his pockets so she concluded it must be ‘pocket training’ for all the male clothing in his future — baby girls should learn to navigate without pockets, it’s never too soon.
When we start thinking about pockets, it is inevitable that we’ll think about the things we put in them. I can only put material things in my pockets, tangible objects. No memories, no perspectives or philosophies will ever be in my pockets. But, from a Jewish point of view, not all material things are created equal.
Most of us have spent this last year primarily in our homes. We’re surrounded by our things, and those things will speak to us of our memories. Where did I get that thing? Do I actually even like it? Maybe it’s time to donate it and reduce the stuff that’s around me. But then we inevitably come across something we would never part with. When we find that something, it’s usually not the monetary value of it that strikes us, it’s more often going to be a memory it triggers. I recently came across a nightgown my grandmother gave me when I was little. It’s not a little girl nightgown, it was actually her nightgown and I remember it being huge on me. I loved it because it was soft, it smelled like her and it was so big I could tuck my feet up into it and feel surrounded by her. I told her I loved that nightgown and she gave it to me. Today it’s quite thin and I would be afraid to put it on because I don’t want to damage it, so perish the thought that I would ever wear it, but I will never give it up. When I look at it, I think of my grandmother but even more, I think that I now have grandchildren and so I look at that nightgown and my thoughts move forward, not backward. That nightgown will be seen with the eyes of five generations of one family. To me, I look at that nightgown and I see a blessing.
In Judaism, materialism speaks to us in many ways. There is certainly the utility of something, how it serves us, how it benefits its user. Then there is the meaning of the object, how it triggers us, how it inspires us.
All of these thoughts intersected for me when I read what seemed like an insignificant part of this week’s Torah portion, parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei. Israel is ready to build the Tabernacle, the place of holiness and ritual. God tells Moses that everyone of a ‘giving heart’ should offer fine and beautiful linens, precious metals and jewels so those of a ‘knowing heart’ can fashion holy objects. While it lists all the beautiful and precious objects, it neglects to remind everyone where all these objects came from.
Anything of any value that the Israelites have is something they got in Egypt. Before leaving, the Israelites were told to ask their Egyptian neighbours for finery and goods. It was understood that nothing would ever be returned. It is interpreted as Egypt paying the slaves for all the work they were forced to do, and it would close the door on any future claims. It is a reparation settlement.
God has now suggested to them that they offer those very goods toward creating a place of holiness, expression and community. It is not the material wealth that is crucial, it is the history that attaches to those objects. The nature of reparations goes to the very meaning of the word: to repair. It is not compensation, and it is not an assessed amount based on hours worked or pain suffered. To repair an injury, to heal a transformative pain, doesn’t come down to how much money is paid, it comes down to what happens to that money.
The Torah has created the scenario of two pockets. The material things I earn will go into one pocket, and I will be commanded to give some to charity, provide for my family and enjoy the world. That money is for utility. My other pocket is reserved for the material things that have meaning to me. It is my choice whether I keep it, gift it, cherish it or pack it away. This week, the Torah suggested that I could use my reparations (those material gestures of repair and healing) to create larger places of holiness and community. Offering a reparation, and accepting one, creates an agreement that both sides are committed to healing. The materialism of that moment, the actual monetary amount, pales in comparison to the turning point two people reach when they agree to move forward and repair.
I’m touched by the irony that results: ancient Jewish holy objects are made from the riches of Egypt. But God does not command anyone to use their reparations to contribute to a greater cause, that can’t be commanded. Transforming reparations, moving them from one pocket to the other, now that requires a giving heart that joins with a knowing heart.
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