The tabernacle needed to be built, and the people came forward eagerly to participate in the work. Cloths and coverings were needed, and the people willingly made them. Precious metal was needed, “and they came, men and women, all who were willing-hearted, and they brought clasps, and earrings, and signet rings”.
So much was brought that Moses had to announce that the donors had actually brought more than enough and the giving should stop. (Modern fundraisers dream that one day they will be able to say the same thing!)
The story, with its reference to golden earrings, is reminiscent of a verse in last week’s sidra concerning the golden calf: “And all the people broke off their earrings of gold and brought them to Aaron” (Ex. 32:3).
Earrings in one story, earrings in another. But what a difference. In one case the people are committing a transgression, in the other they are performing a mitzvah. Is there a connection?
The Midrash is not slow to find one. It quotes the verse from Shir HaShirim, “I am black but comely” (Shir HaShirim 1:5), and says, “When Israel made the golden calf the nations of the world said to them, ‘You black ones! What have you done?’ Israel replied, ‘If I am black in my deeds I am also comely… I was black at Horeb (Sinai) when I provoked the Lord (Deut. 9:8), but I was comely at Horeb when I said, All that the Lord has spoken will we do and hear (Ex. 24:7). I was black with the gold that I gave to the calf, and I was comely with the gold that I gave to the tabernacle.’ Thus it is with Israel: the nations of the world scorn them, but acknowledge that they are as full of good deeds as a pomegranate.”
The Midrash pays Israel a great compliment in this passage. It also points to a crucial element in the Jewish concept of repentance. A person must make amends with the same thing with which they committed the sin. If one sinned with money, one must make amends with money. If one sinned with speech, one must make amends with speech. If one ran to carry out questionable deeds, one must make amends by running to do mitzvot.
It is said that what made Jacob Epstein a sculptor is that as a child he used his hands to squeeze a bird to death, and realising what he had done he resolved that thereafter his hands would be used for constructive, creative purposes.