One of my absolute, hands-down, all-time favorite teachings comes out of this week's Torah portion*. In Parashat Vaykhel, we continue to receive instructions about the building of the Tabernacle — the portable sanctuary in the desert. And then, after hearing what was needed to build this holy structure, the people begin offering gifts — donating whatever they had towards the construction. It was Judaism's first Building Fund.
* I learned it, as I learned so much, from Rabbi Larry Kushner. He learned it from his student, Daniel Lehrman.
But, this one goes differently from most. Because, the people actually bring too much – it gets to the point were Moses has to make a proclamation, demanding that people stop bringing gifts*. That episode ends (Exodus 36:7) with the comment, "their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done."
* It's enough to bring tears to the eyes of synagogue presidents everywhere…
But, that's not exactly what it says. The Hebrew, if read literally (over-literally, really), actually reads, "their efforts have been enough, and more…" A teacher by the nickname Sihot Tsaddadkim notices a problem with this phrase, "enough, and more." Which was it? Did they bring enough, or did they bring more? The Torah (so rabbinic thinking goes) is always precise, saying exactly what it means, never wasting a word, or even a letter. So, this can't be mere idiom — but, how else can we understand it?
His answer? They only had enough because they had more than enough.
Imagine for a moment that they collected precisely enough for the building. Take away one gold coin, 1 yard of fabric, one dolphin skin,* and they wouldn't have enough. The project couldn't be completed. That would mean that each and every person who donated could look at the final tabernacle and say, "It couldn't have been done without me." It would have been a recipe for arrogance, self-importance and ego gratification.
* don't ask...
And then it wouldn't be a holy building.
True holiness demands (among other things) a minimization of ego, and a smallness of self. An understanding that, in the grand scheme of things, we ain't all that impressive. Or, to put it a bit differently, we're only going to be able to worship one thing in this Tabernacle. And, we want to make sure that we're worshiping God, not ourselves.
Each person who contributed to this sacred project knew that they were important, but also knew that they weren't essential. That the project could have been done without them. Therefore, when they entered the Tabernacle, they couldn't possibly think of themselves as essential. They were forced to be, in a word, humble. Then, and only then, would they have any hope, any prayer, of approaching God. Arrogance and holiness are mutually contradictory. We really do have to choose — are we going to worship ourselves, or we going to worship God?