The gifts of women

By Rabbi Holly Levin Cohn
Parashat Vayakhel

So many congregations and non-profits have fundraisers, capital campaigns, annual giving campaigns, special projects/programming requests, etc. Some set a goal for the end of the year or fiscal year. The hope is that people will be motivated to give generously of their resources. It is a mitzvah to give tzedakah and a mitzvah to ask for donations. This is often critical to producing the good works of these organizations. So, when has anyone ever said “Stop, you have given too much?” NEVER. Giving is always appreciated and welcome.

In Vayakhel, this week’s Torah portion, Moses is doing the ask. He is reiterating what is needed to build the mishkan (Tabernacle) which will travel with the Israelites through the wilderness.

First Moses asks all whose hearts so move them, men and women, to bring that which is most precious to them. And people do step up and give generously. So much so that those tasked with collecting the donations had to say to Moses, “The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that Adonai has commanded to be done.” (Exodus 36:5) In response, Moses orders a proclamation saying that no man or woman should make further gifts for the sanctuary — best fundraiser ever.

In “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary” (edited by Rabbi Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Ph.D. and Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, Ph.D. and commissioned by The Women of Reform Judaism, published by URJ Press: 2008) we learn that women contributed their valuable possessions because their hearts moved them to do so. They were not told what to do but chose what to do. At this time in our history women could make decisions independently of their husbands or fathers and did.

“The English translation “men and women” obscures the Hebrew (ha-anashim al ha-nashim), which seems to say that the men came “in addition to” the women, perhaps indicating the primacy of women as donors.” Rashi and Ibn Ezra translated this as “the men came with the women” while Nachmanides explained that “the men followed the women’s example.” Women were the initiators of the giving in this great building campaign.

What I find significant in this text is that it mentions women not in relation to a man but as a skilled group of talented artisans acting of their own volition. In fact, there have been archeological finds which confirm the vital role of women in textile production. A very important role in the creation of the mishkan. Only six times in Exodus is the plural nashim (women) used and one in this week’s parasha (Exodus 35:22). Typically in Torah, women are incorporated under collective “masculine” terminology.

Here “women are able to discern when a cause is worthy of their generosity.” And the mishkan could not have been built, according to our sages, without the wisdom that Miriam passed down to Bezalel, who was singled out by God because he had been endowed with “a divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge in every kind of craft.” (Exodus 35:30) The contributions women made were important to communal life. This gained them the respect of others for their work.

In Jewish life and elsewhere, women are leaders and change agents, making significant contributions to society as their hearts so move them. They are skilled and talented, generously giving their resources and time. Men and women — each contributing when asked. Fulfilling the mitzvah of tzedakah. Women lead the way in creating beauty and establishing holy space. Their giving and skill serve as an inspiration.

Rabbi Holly Levin Cohn is hospice chaplain and bereavement coordinator for The Legacy at Home.

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