I Kings 7:40–50
“Beneath the opening pleasantries of meetings and workshops lies the very threatening question: Who is the real Jew in this room? [Is it the] Orthodox Jew? The Holocaust survivor? The one who lived on a kibbutz for two years? The one who speaks Yiddish? Hebrew? Ladino? The one who knows the shabes prayer? The heterosexual? The Ashkenazi? The sabra? The one with the Jewish mother? The convert who learned what most born into Jewishness never bothered with? We don’t dare ask questions about references or unfamiliar rituals. Some of us will feel embarrassed, even terrified, that any minute we will be exposed as frauds.”
It’s an epidemic in Judaism to believe that each of us stands outside of some inner sanctum, peeking in. As author Irena Klepfisz writes above, in “Dreams of an Insomniac: Jewish Feminist Essays, Speeches and Diatribes,” many share this uneasy feeling that we will be found out. It will be discovered that we don’t know what’s going on during services, that we don’t have the right parentage, that we don’t know the Yiddish or Hebrew that is tossed around in conversation. That we aren’t wealthy like other Jews.
Sometimes my instinct is to tell the self-proclaimed frauds among us that there is no such thing as “the community” outside of ourselves. Each of us is part of this beautiful, complex web of Judaism. And we need to harness the confidence to stand up and take our rightful place within it rather than being fearful that we don’t know enough or might not have anything to offer.
And yet, I know that we come by these fears honestly. Many have received the subtle or not-so-subtle message that we weren’t enough. That we didn’t know enough or didn’t fit some stereotypical image of what a Jew should be.
There is a deep lesson in this week’s parashah that radically challenges this notion of an internal Jewish hierarchy of belonging. The Israelites are wandering in the desert when they receive instructions from God through Moses that they are to build a Mishkan, a dwelling place for the Divine. The lead builder will be Bezalel, but God commands the entire community to bring gifts that will be used in the construction and decoration of the portable ark. “Everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring gifts for God” (Exodus 35:5). The text further explains that “All among you who are skilled, come and make all that God has commanded” (Exodus 35:10), including the Tabernacle itself, its tent and cover, the planks, down to the table within it. And, indeed, the people came. They heard these words and scurried to discover their particular offering. “Everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved him came” (Exodus 35:21). They brought tangible gifts, but they also brought their talents. In fact, they brought so much that they had to be told to halt their contributions.
What strikes me about this teaching is that each Israelite was appreciated for the unique gifts she or he could offer. In an age in which so many are fearful that they will be judged from within Judaism’s walls, an important message is contained here. We are so concerned that this person or that shouldn’t be accepted as part of the Jewish community, can’t be part of our leadership or shouldn’t stand on our bimahs, that we lose out on the gifts these individuals and groups might have brought.
Are we still all invited to contribute gifts if our hearts are so moved? As I picture how the Mishkan must have appeared after the gifts were brought and the artistry rendered, it is a vibrant, colorful image. How can we begin to thank people for the gifts they bring rather than scrutinizing their credentials to contribute them?
If you have had the comfort of experiencing only the warm embrace of Judaism, may you listen to the stories of those who have not been so fortunate. If you are one who has ever felt yourself to be a Jewish fraud, stop and think about what gift you bring. What treasured object, skill or story do you need to share in order to contribute to the holiness of the Mishkan? Without it, the sacred dwelling place of God can’t be built.
Rabbi Mychal Copeland is a rabbi and senior Jewish educator at Hillel at Stanford. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.