A Change of Heart

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Joshua Blau

Several weeks ago, at the beginning of Parshat Terumah, G-d commanded the Jews to donate gold, silver, and many other precious goods needed for the building of the Mishkan. The realization of this command in our parsha yields a more elaborate description in which men and women donate not only those goods but also personal items and skills to the cause.

The Torah emphasizes both the continuity and the differences by using  a leitwort in VaYakhel that builds on a word from  the initial command in Terumah: לב, “heart.” In addition to being paired with the root נדב (meaning “donate” or “contribute”) as in Terumah, לב is now used in conjunction with the roots חכם, “wise,” (a wise heart, referring literally to skill in crafts) and נשא, “lift” (literally an uplifted heart, referring again to skill in crafts). The commonality in meaning of the phrases is the intersection of motivation and ability that leads to donation.

Why does the Torah make לב the leitwort here?  One might assert that such a commonality is meaningless because these are simply the idioms. However,  I suggest that these idioms may exist because of the very overlap in the words and the use of the phrases together in this very location. This being assumed, the best way to uncover the thematic thread connecting these words is to parallel this section to another section that shares the same leitwort.

The section that immediately comes to mind as containing an abundance of instances of the word לב—and indeed is the only other concentration of the word in the chumash—is the events of the exodus from Mitzrayim, and specifically the plagues. One recalls that Pharaoh’s heart is “hardened” several times throughout the story, and that this point is both thematically and narratively important to the exodus arc. It is of note that there is very little variation here in the accompanying root; almost every instance is paired with the word חזק (“strong” or “steadfast”), with a couple of exceptional כבדs (“hard” or “heavy”).

The thought that first surfaces when comparing these two sections is that the לב is taken in two opposite directions. In Pharaoh’s case, the characteristic of the heart symbolizes obstinacy, while in Israel’s case, the various descriptions of the heart paint a picture of generosity.

Analyzing the לב’s accompanying words directly and their relationships can shed light on the underlying mechanism of these two directions of the heart. נדב, חכם, and נשא share a certain sense of mobility. Donation entails a transition of ownership from one party to another, lifting is a physical movement from one space to another, and wisdom may perhaps be described as an open commitment to truth, inherently requiring that one be flexible in one’s assumptions of what is correct. חזק, on the other hand, is an expression of steadiness that, although it can be positive at times (such as in the case of Yehoshua), can also lead to a certain rash stubbornness. כבד is likewise by nature a word that connotes immobility and an opposition to change.

Thus, the words used by the Torah in these scenarios result in a connection between generosity and flexibility on the one hand, and obstinacy and inflexibility (the more obvious pairing) on the other.

But this is not the end of the contrast between Pharaoh’s role in the exodus and Israel’s role in the building of the Mishkan. The two stories also contain diametrically opposed underlying themes. Both Pharaoh’s obstinacy and the people’s generosity are, after all, directed towards God. And if Pharaoh’s perspective is one of denial of God, then this contrast would direct us to assume that the people’s generosity with respect to the materials for the Mishkan comes from a need to affirm God.

With this, Vayakhel is simultaneously conveying Israel’s underlying motivation to be generous and the mindset required to do so. After the chet ha’egel, those who remained alive must have been devastated and eager to correct the mistake they had made. Whatever their miscalculation was, even a minor blunder can have disastrous consequences when it concerns a subject so fundamental as the role of God and His relationship with His people. Pharaoh also suffered as a result of his misguided notions of God and His relationship with His people. But the primary difference between Pharaoh and Israel—what allowed Israel to turn around and correct themselves while Pharaoh continued to doom himself—is the capacity to change. A willingness to have a change of heart spelled the difference between sharing space with God and being miraculously smote to make an example for the world.

 

Joshua Blau (SBM ‘17) lives in Brookline, MA with his wife, Hodaya, and daughter, Eliya. He teaches STEM classes in Yeshiva Ohr Yisrael and writes software on the side.

 

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