Vayakhel: When Enough Is Enough

V’ham’lacha hai’ta day’am l’chol ham’lacha la’asot otah v’hoter

And their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done. (Exodus 36:7)

Moses has descended once again from the mountain, face aglow, carrying the tablets with the restored covenant in his arms. God has forgiven the Children of Israel for their transgressions with the Golden Calf. They are finally ready to begin creating God’s dwelling place in the heart of their community. Moses asks the Children of Israel to now donate and craft all of the elements that God has instructed them to make, and they respond with an overflowing outpouring of gifts. So much so that an unprecedented decree is announced:

All the artisans who were engaged in the crafting of the holy sanctuary, every single one of them, stopped their labors and said to Moses, “The people are bringing more than is needed for the work that God has instructed us to do!” Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp: “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” So the people stopped bringing. Their efforts had been more than enough for all the work to be done. (Exodus 36:4-7)

The Children of Israel were finally able and ready to allow their creativity and their love for God to flow without stint. Yet it appears that sometimes even expressions of love and generosity need to be curbed. When is our overflowing love too much?

Maybe this is a question I particularly face as a parent. My love for my daughters truly knows no bounds. Yet so much of the time I find that the most loving action I can offer them is to restrain myself and let them live their own lives and figure things out for themselves.

Our Sages understand this paradox, and describe the need for restraint as inherent in the very integrity of Creation. As they reflect on the creation story that begins our Torah, they note that had God’s unbounded creative energy poured out unchecked, the boundaries and distinctions that make our world possible could not exist. Had God not set boundaries between the sea and the dry land, or the sky above and the waters below, the world would return to chaos. Like a painter or sculptor, God needed to know when to put the brush or chisel down, to know when to step back, rest, and enjoy God’s creation. In fact, our magnificent creation only exists because God knew when to say “Dai – enough.”*

The 3rd century sage Resh Lakish offers a play on one of the divine names, El Shaddai, to make this point. El Shaddai is usually translated as “God Almighty”, but the actual meaning of this ancient name is obscure. Resh Lakish sees the word dai – “enough” embedded in El Shaddai, and so he reads the name as El She-Dai ­– “The God who knows when to say, ‘Enough!’” (Talmud Chagigah 12a)

The later Kabbalists express this truth with a variety of evocative images. In one version of the process of Creation, God’s Divine Light was so overwhelming no vessel could contain it – instead when the light poured in to any vessel, the vessel would shatter. God needed to learn how to contract and withhold enough of God’s light so that it could be received at an intensity level appropriate to the vessels God wished to fill.

In another description, God’s attribute of unbounded love, known as Chesed, in order to have any useful impact on the world, must be mediated through God’s attribute of discipline and judgment, known as Gevurah or Din. This is another way of saying that our most effective creative and loving acts are those that are accompanied by our ability to discern when and in what measure to offer them. Our tradition teaches that even God must learn these lessons, and act as El Shaddai, the God who knows when to say “enough”.

And so, as the Children of Israel pour themselves into creating the Mishkan, the holy sanctuary in their midst, they too must learn this lesson: our unbounded desire to love is most effective when we pour it out with awareness and care, knowing when to let it flow, and when to hold it in reserve. We learn that sometimes the most loving act we can perform is to wait, to watch, and to know when enough, at any given moment, might be enough.

Shabbat Shalom and Love,

Rabbi Jonathan


*Many of us will be familiar with the Hebrew word dai from the Passover song Dayenu. Dayenu means “that would have been sufficient for us.” Ilu hotzianu miMitzrayim, dayenu! – Had God merely taken us out from slavery, that would have been sufficient for us!