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Capacity to Receive is A Limited Resource

The Torah reports Moshe's assembling the people to call for contributions toward the building of the mishkan, an earthly "dwelling" for God. The people respond with overwhelming generosity. "The men came with the women; all who were carried by their hearts brought bracelets, rings, all sorts of gold ornaments, turquoise, purple and scarlet wool, linen, and goat, hair." Exodus 35:22-23. The description of the offerings brought by the people goes on for another six verses. In Chapter 36 we learn from the artisans that "the people are bringing more than enough for the work and craft that Adonai has commanded us to do." Exodus 36:5 The people were then restrained from giving any more.

How powerful is the human desire to give to something that has meaning! But what is given must find a meaningful purpose. Several of the classical Torah commentators are troubled by the verse, "There was just enough; there was extra." Exodus 36:7. Are not "just enough" and "extra" in contradiction? And if there was indeed "extra," doesn't that mean the whole-hearted contributions of some of the donors were wasted? Ramban (13th century Spain) suggests that the extra was put away for future repair work. Sforno (16th century Italy) proposes that the "extra" allowed them to carry out their work without skimping on the raw materials. The Or Hahayim (18th century Morocco) writes that that every contributor's gift would be used for the mishkan so as not to be embarrassed by the return of the gift. He said a miracle happened and everything that was "extra" was incorporated into the Tabernacle and its parts without changing God's specifications for the mishkan. The need for the Or Hahayim (17th Century Morocco) to solve the problem by proposing the occurrence of a miracle emphasizes the truth of the problem itself: donations not appropriately utilized constitute a mistreatment of the donor.

In the overwhelming generosity in the days immediately following the tsunami, there was a concern by many that the gifts wouldn't be able to be used properly. Though people love donating clothes and other tangibles, relief organizations asked for money because it can purchase the precise materials and staffing needed to provide the appropriate assistance. In an unprecedented move, resonant with Moshe's call to stop the donations, Doctors Without Borders stopped taking donations for tsunami relief at the peak of the donations.

Closer to home, there are times when synagogues and agencies cannot appropriately coordinate the efforts of their volunteers. This can lead to the alienation and confusion of some of their strongest supporters? Leaders appoint volunteers to committees without giving them a job description. Volunteers are often at a loss as to the appropriate procedure needed to "sacrifice" their "time-offering" at the "alter" of the organization's mission in order to produce "a pleasant fragrance for God" (real work done in the world combined with satisfaction and efficient use of available skills).

On May 24, 1987 I participated in what was supposed to be a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, CA. The original plans had the bridge closed to vehicle traffic from sunrise to sunset. I imagined an aliyat ha'regel, a pilgramage for those wanting to celebrate a sacred spot. It is a place where dramatic nature and dramatic human engineering share space. The residents of the Marin County side of the bridge protested the planned closing of the bridge. They complained that it would be an inconvenience. A compromise was struck. The bridge would be closed from 6 A.M. until 9 A.M. only.

By 6:30 A.M.the crowds from San Francisco and Marin had met in the middle of the bridge with more people behind trying to get on the bridge. There was human gridlock. No one could move. By 9 AM, according to the California Highway Patrol, 800,000 people had descended toward the bridge, with roughly 300,000 fitting on the bridge itself. It was not fun on the bridge. The bridge was swaying, making it feel like a never-ending 6.5 earthquake. It is amazing that so few people panicked. People had come to celebrate. People were edgy but generous.

The middle of the bridge flattened out. Usually the roadway arches up but the weight of the pedestrians caused the middle of the bridge to be seven feet lower than it usually is. Engineers got nervous and made calculations. What would they have done if the calculations told them that the bridge was at risk? In the newspapers the engineers admitted that the bridge had carried its heaviest load ever, but that it was only at 75% of load capacity. The bridge was re-opened for vehicle traffic at 1 P.M., four hours after the planned re-opening time.

Besides being scared, I felt frustration about a missed opportunity. The San Francisco Bay community had assembled (vayakhel) in honor of a human and God-made place. The political leadership had underestimated the desire of the public to give its time to celebrate and be close to something larger than itself. That oportunity for a communal celebration was sullied by fear and physical discomfort.

Thank goodness the bridge did not fail. The debacle-that-could-have-been-a-tragedy exposed some important wisdom. People have great energy to give of themselves, to participate, to be present. When those energies are underestimated, both danger and missed opportunity emerge from the place where the desire to join and the desire to give are cut off.

Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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