The Torah in Parashat Vayakhel tells of Benei Yisrael’s enthusiastic and generous response to God’s command to donate materials for the construction of the Mishkan. We read that the artisans assigned over the project informed Moshe that the amount of materials that were donated exceeded the amount needed for the Mishkan, and so Moshe issued a call for the people to stop donating.
The Sefat Emet suggests an explanation for the message which the Torah may be seeking to convey by relating this incident. Based on the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the Sefat Emet comments that excessive giving and performing can oftentimes undermine the desired effects of a mitzva. Mitzva observance is intended, among other things, to bring us to humble subservience to the divine will. Immoderation, even in the realm of mitzvot, can lead to arrogance and can also at times reflect impure motives, such as the desire for recognition. The solution to this dilemma, the Sefat Emet writes, is to occasionally pause when involved in a mitzva to introspect and determine whether one’s motives are pure, whether he acts sincerely out of a desire to serve his Creator. This way, he ensures to avoid the kind of excessive performance that either leads to or reflects unholy goals.
The Sefat Emet suggests that this is the message conveyed through the story of Benei Yisrael’s donations to the Mishkan. The artisans perceptively feared the ill effects of excessive donations, which could undermine the people’s sincerity and purity of motives, and the people were therefore urged to stop. Citing his grandfather, the Chiddushei Ha-Rim, the Sefat Emet notes that the word “va-yikalei,” which the Torah uses in reference to the people’s discontinuing their donations (36:6), relates to the word “kil’ayim” – “mixture.” The people needed to stop donating materials because this would otherwise indicate the presence of impure motives “mixed” together with idealistic motives.
The Sefat Emet here teaches us that more is not always better. If we feel driven to extend beyond the strict call of duty and pursue more ambitious goals, this could reflect a sincere drive for moral and religious excellence, but might also reflect the selfish desire to distinguish ourselves and earn respect and recognition. It therefore behooves us to carefully and honestly examine our motives to ensure that the special efforts we invest stem from a genuine desire to achieve, and not from less noble ambitions.