Give Us a Heart of Wisdom

Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

Give Us A Heart of Wisdom

There’s something interesting going on in this week’s double Torah portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei. Nestled in between the meticulous detail of building the Tabernacle and its instruments, between descriptions of gold and silver, linen and wool, purple, scarlet and blue, we learn a number of things about human psychology. 
Taking place not long after the unfortunate incident with the Golden Calf, the people give eagerly and generously to the building of the Mishkan. This spirit of volunteerism and fundraising is of course often cited by rabbis and lay leaders alike as a prompt for our congregations to do the same—after all, there’s no better fundraising pitch than one that comes directly from God!

Yet, this is not what I want us to take a look at today. There’s another aspect of human psychology that gets a lot of airplay during this parashah and that is the notion of ‘chochmah’, wisdom. The word wisdom, in various permutations, and often mentioned in conjunction with ‘heart’, gets mentioned nine times in Vayakhel (yes, I counted). We learn that the artisans, both male and female, come to possess a ‘chochmat lev’, a ‘wise heart’ so that they may carry out their artistic duties. Bezazel, of course, is the paradigmatic representative of the wise-hearted artisan as he leads on building the Mishkan.

Normally, we seek to understand this type of wisdom as a creative force and I have focused on that in past sermons. Surely there are lessons to be learnt here about the dignity of creative work (as well as rest from said work; the parashah opens with the commandment to keep Shabbat) and by omission, the indignity of alienating and harsh labour. Yet, that’s not where I want to take us this Shabbat. Let’s zoom out and look at this concept of wisdom, which is not only dominant in the portion but which is ubiquitous in the Hebrew Bible.  

Both the Book of Proverbs (Prov. 9:10) and the Book of Psalms (Ps. 111:10) tells us that ‘reishit (or ‘techilat’) chochmah yirat Adonai’ - ‘the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Eternal’. Perhaps ‘yirah’ can be better translated as a knee-buckling awe rather than a soul-crushing fear. We also know that like Bezalel, Solomon was given wisdom when he prayed for it as he prepared to build the Beit haMidash, the First Temple, opening it up as a house of prayer for all people, the Israelite and the foreigner alike. In fact, Solomon starts his prayer with contrition, acknowledging his inexperience as a leader and seeking God’s perspective. He prays for a ‘lev shomea’, a ‘listening heart’ and is given a ‘lev chacham v’navon’, a ‘wise and understanding heart’ (1 Kings 3:9-11). 

Psalms also tells us to ‘Limnot yameinu ken hoda, v’nivah levav chochmah’ - ‘number our days that that we may acquire a heart of wisdom’ (Ps. 90:12) while Proverbs compels us with images of wisdom personified as a sagely woman standing by the crossroads, speaking truth that we often fail to hear. In short, what is this connection between the Divine, awe, inspiration and wisdom? 

Perhaps it’s about perspective. Perhaps it’s about the ability to take the God’s eye view, the ability to take a step back, breathe deeply and see the bigger picture. Perhaps it’s about reminding ourselves to be sanguine in our judgment; to be measured in our response and to pursue integrity. Maybe it’s about slowing down rather than speeding up, holding fast rather than being driven by fear and steadying ourselves in our tradition and values. But most of all, it’s about seeking a ‘lev shomea’ – a listening heart - and ‘yirat Adonai’ – awe of the Eternal -, that leads to wisdom. 

At a time like this we all need that. As the Book of Job states, we often feel ‘as a driven leaf’ (Job 13:25), battered by turbulent winds of change. Time and time again, we find our lives and worlds disrupted by momentous change and we dare not think of what the future may hold. Only four days ago, there was a terrorist attack at the heart of British democracy, birthing the monstrosity of our fears that this would happen in Britain. 

As we seek to bring justice to the perpetrator, as we bind the wounds of those who are suffering and mourn our dead, it is also our religious duty to seek the greater and deeper perspective. There is a place for passion and anger at the destruction wielded in the name of toxic ideology – as we saw in last week’s parashah where Moses smashed the tablets of the law in response to the worship of the Golden Calf. There is a need to acknowledge deep pain and worry. But more than that, we are called to have a heart of wisdom. 

The power of wisdom is that it is universal. It was God’s Self Who carved out the letters in the sapphire tablets of the law. Yet it also was Bezalel, a person of no particular lineage, as well as the ‘wise-hearted women’ who blessed the community with their holy work. Wisdom knows no bounds and permeates through all levels; paying no heed to hierarchy or status. All of us are called to be wise in this so-called ‘post truth’ age. And all of us are called to listen.

As Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain wrote in The Independent:

“Our response needs to be both on an emotional and practical level. The way to overcome our feelings of fear and anger is to remind ourselves that we are not the beleaguered minority but the vast majority. One man chose to kill, but hundreds chose to save and comfort and help medically.
The way to overcome this is by attempting to stabilise society – by making it stronger. If we have never got to know properly someone in our street or at work who is of a different faith or colour, now is the time to bridge that gap and invite them round for tea or out for a drink. The ripple effect of thousands of small acts can have a massive impact in changing perceptions and forging bonds.”

This is the portion of wisdom, but it is also the portion of gathering, ‘Vayakhel’. May God bless the work of our hands to talk, speak truth, share, listen, comfort and build; as we gather people of good will and build community and face down cruelty and root ourselves in what ennobles us all. 

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