Offerings of the Willing Heart

The second half of Exodus is largely concerned with the construction of the tabernacle. For me, the most evocative aspect of all the detailed descriptions is this:

And Moses spoke to all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying: “This is the thing which the Lord commanded, saying: Take from among you an offering to the Lord, whosoever is of a willing heart, let him bring it, the Lord’s offering.”

Genesis Rabbah points out that these instructions begin in the plural but continue in the singular and explains this grammatical oddity by means of a conversation between Moses and God:

When the Holy One, blessed be He, spoke to Moses concerning the tabernacle, Moses responded: ‘Lord of the Universe! Will the Israelites be able to construct it?’ God replied: ‘Even a single Israelite will be able to make it.’

This contrasts with the manner in which we are told the permanent Temple was constructed by Solomon, a king who used forced labor, as we are told in the Haftarah to this week’s portion, at 1 Kings 5:29:

And Solomon had threescore and ten thousand that bore burdens, and fourscore thousand that were hewers in the mountains; besides Solomon’s chief officers that were over the work, three thousand and three hundred, who bore rule over the people that wrought in the work.

The moveable tabernacle in the wilderness is made from voluntary, free-will offerings, but the permanent institutional Temple required a levy of conscripted labor.

What are the characteristics of offerings “of a willing heart”? They are, first of all, not offerings that are felt to be sacrifices. They are unguarded gifts of one spirit to a loved other, such as the gifts of parents to an infant child. Even while the child is still in the womb such gifts are given, as Greg Delanty, an Irish poet whose “Collected Poems 1986-2006” has just been published by Carcanet, records:

For months your crib is docked waiting for you,

laden with a shower of gifts:

hand-knit boots with suede soles, mounting drifts

of rompers, bibs, hats and a slew

of other offerings laid on your ship of birth

with the ark story embroidered all about.

When I mull on a topic thrown up by the portion of the week I usually talk it over with friends, and this week one friend, Gail Warhaft, was by coincidence writing a poem about gifts from a type of willing heart I would never have thought of. She was remembering milking a cow when she was a child:

For my father the bucket never fills.

A city man, he can tickle a car

into life but not coax milk

from the pretty Jersey who came with the farm.

To me she gives what she refuses him,

unburdening herself freely to

a child’s hands, a calf’s pull

on swollen teats, its pain so sweet

she draws a breath, drool glinting

above the chaff.

So the difference between “offerings of the willing heart” and reluctance to offer where some positive sense of connection isn’t felt may be embedded deep within our animal nature.

And what of the offerings in Exodus? We are told, in Exodus 36:5, that the Israelites brought “much more than enough for the service of the work, which the Lord commanded to make.’ This overflow — a snowdrift of rompers, bibs and hand-knit boots in the Delanty case quoted above — is caused by lack of calculation, and is surely another characteristic of all true examples of giving by willing hearts. In another poem, “The Alien,” Delanty addresses the child he had seen by ultrasound:

Our alien who art in the heavens,

our Martian, our little green man, we’re anxious …

to say Welcome, that we mean you no harm, we’d die

for you even …

In the case recorded in Exodus, however, there were overflowing offerings to Someone unseen and unknowable. Is there some analogous offering of one human being to another? Robert Frost, in an early poem, “The Tuft of Flowers,” records such an offering made by a mower with a scythe, like the standard image of Death:

I went to turn the grass once after one

Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen

Before I came to view the level scene.

His eye was led to look at

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared

Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,

By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him,

But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

This understanding is perfectly applicable to our portion and its concerns: the Israelites are described as giving from sheer gladness, and this is the type of overflowing offering out of which the moveable tabernacle was to be built and that we use to build the best parts of our selves. The freewill offerings of the sacrificial cult were called terumah, a word coming from the root meaning “to elevate.” And from this we learn that the gifts of the willing heart give uplift.

David Curzon is a contributing editor at the Forward.

This story "Offerings of the Willing Heart" was written by David Curzon.


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