Too Much of a Good Thing
Why there's no Jewish Mardi Gras
This week in New Orleans, Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, and in other cities around the world, people are donning masks, dancing, calling out suggestive and sometimes crude greetings to strangers, and imbibing huge quantities of liquor in celebration of Mardi Gras. Don't get me wrong; I'm not disapproving. Mardi Gras is a lot of fun, particularly when one is young and single. There's something wonderful in a whole city declaring itself one grand party for a relatively short period of time each year. Traditionally, the excesses of Mardi Gras precede Lent, in which (theoretically at least) a lengthy period of deprivation in preparation for Good Friday is seen as atoning for any indiscretions of the previous week. Why doesn't Judaism have a holy day similar to Mardi Gras?
The answer can be found in this week's Torah portion, which lays out the Jewish position toward excess, even in regard to a good thing. The Hebrews are wandering in the desert after the revelation at Sinai. They need to build a portable holy space in which to conduct religious services and continue their encounter with the Divine. Moses puts out a call for materials for the sacred tabernacle (themishkan,
literally the "place of God's indwelling").
Moses says, "Bring from among you gifts to Adonai; everyone whose heart is so moved: gold, silver, and copper; blue purple and crimson yarn, fine linen, goat fleece; tanned skins; acacia wood; fine oil, spices, and aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other fine stones" (Exodus 35:5-9). Remember this isn't a tax. It is a free-will offering. The Torah teaches that the people, far from being stingy or hoarding their valuables, brought everything they had. From morning to night people lined up to give their goods to build the mishkan. Huge piles of gold and gemstones rose in the barren desert. There was so much stuff, the people in charge of building the sanctuary didn't know what to do!
Moses then proclaimed throughout the Hebrew encampment, "Let no man or woman make further effort for gifts for the mishkan." The people stopped bringing gifts; their efforts had been more than enough for all that needed to be done (Exodus 36:6-7). Notice that Moses didn't say, "Okay, we have more and more material--let's make a bigger tabernacle!" and Moses didn't say, "Wow, look at all this wealth, let's divide it among the chieftains and the priests, so we can all live like the princes of Egypt." It is clear from the story that the people would have kept bringing goods willingly, even enthusiastically, for some time to come. But Moses declared that enough was enough, and it was time to put an end to the fervor of giving. It was too much of a good thing.