Community as a Verb – Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5781

It’s been a year. A year of mask-wearing, a year of Zoom meetings, a year without physical gatherings. Has the word “community” changed for you over the past year the way it’s changed for me? 

The thing is, global pandemic or not, there’s no denying that part of being Jewish is being in community. In fact, from our earliest communities spoken about in the Torah in this week’s double portion, being together is tantamount. This week we read Vayakhel and Pekudei. The narrative continues with the requirement to observe Shabbat and then includes the request to bring gifts to build the Mishkan, the sacred space that God will dwell among the Israelites. Following that, Betzalel and Ohilav are appointed as the taskmasters of the construction project, and we hear about the abundance of gifts the Israelites brought to the Tabernacle. Parshat Pekudei deals with the final judgments about who will work on the Tabernacle and what the priests are supposed to wear. Finally, the text takes up the building and establishment of the Mishkan

The word va’yakhel (where one of the parshiyot gets its name) is translated to mean the verb “convoked,” but in modern Hebrew the root is the same as the noun kehillah, community. This verb is only used for a gathering of human beings. The text teaches that Moses communitied, as it were, the entire body of Israel and spoke to them. Why and how did he “community”? 

The Israelites are still healing emotionally from the incident of the Golden Calf. They are a fractured nation. In this moment as the Tabernacle is being finished, Moses is trying to rebuild community. He wants to gather the people together, despite their differences, to rebuild trust and unity. While each individual has their right to be alone, or even have some privacy, in this moment, after a national tragedy, Moses understands the need for everyone to be together. 

One of the first mishnayot I have a memory of internalizing is from Hillel: “Do not separate yourself from the community.” In moments of strife or conflict or even loss, it is easy to separate yourself and hold back. However, Hillel and Moses remind us that we are meant to work through our problems and grief in community. It’s the same reason why you need a minyan to say Kaddish, or why we hold sheva brachot for a wedding. I don’t have to tell you this past year has made community (whether a noun or a verb) challenging. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less of a part of who we are. Judaism is full of big emotional moments, whether in celebration or in mourning, and we’ve always held each other up because we go through these moments together. We may have redefined togetherness, but we will never stop holding each other up, even if it’s from a distance.

Beginnings and Endings – Parshat Pekudei 5779

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I begin and end each week with our students in Foundation School doing Havdalah on Monday mornings and Shabbat on Friday mornings. I LOVE that my weeks are punctuated by these moments of chaotic exuberance and joy. When a Monday follows a lazy weekend, it can be a challenge to rush to get out the door and get ready for the week. Some Fridays are filled with both the anticipation of the upcoming rest from the chaotic week and also a mad dash to the finish line of everything that needs to get done and prepared for the weekend.

Beginning and endings. Sometimes they mirror each other and all seven days are hectic; other times the week begins in a roar and ends with peacefulness. Either way, it is a part of the story of our lives and a reminder that everything is cyclical.

This week we read Parshat Pikudei, which details the building of the Mishkan, the artistry involved, the outpouring of gifts the Israelite people bring, and the artists who fashion the piece together. For the construction of this precious piece, God has singled out Be’tzalel to be the builder. We learn about the gathering of the Israelite nation and the cloud that will henceforth guide them as they make their way through the desert.

This is the final parshah in the book of Exodus. The book begins with the narrative of misery and oppression, then details the struggle and challenges of the nation making it on its own in the desert. We read about infighting and betrayal, freedom and law creation. And now, we stand at the end of the book and see that the nation has triumphed. The chaos of their Monday to Friday has evened out as the divine spirit hovers over Israel, guiding their journey through the wilderness.

We end the reading of each book of the Torah with the words hazak, hazak v’nithazek. Let us be strong and be strengthened. Let us go from strength to strength. This is a recognition that in our lives we have periods of positive and negative, uplifting and depressing, chaotic and peaceful. Sometimes this punctuates entire decades of our lives, other times it is just one week to the next. But ultimately, we learn, God is always with us.

As we end the Book of Exodus, the Israelite nation is strong, vibrant, and prepared. There will be chaos ahead, but under the guidance of God and leadership from the community, they will go from strength to strength. And so too will we.

 

You Done Good – Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5777

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As a student I took great pride in my work. I always wanted to make sure everything looked right, felt right, and was presented professionally to my teachers. And nothing made me prouder than to get a paper or project back from a teacher with the words “Well done” or “Great Job” or “Excellent” scrawled across the paper in the teacher’s grading pen. Now when I’m teaching, I try to pass on that sense of pride with my purple grading pen and make it a point to encourage and cheer on students for a job well done. I do the same thing as a parent when we take the time on Friday night to bless our children and let them know how proud we are of something they’ve accomplished that week (even if it’s just sleeping through the night). This is common from teacher to student and parent to child, but for some reason we’re more hesitant to offer praise adult to adult, although it can certainly make a difference when we do.

The double portion we read this week, Vayakhel-Pekudei (the final portions in Sefer Shemot), teaches about the work of building the Tabernacle. Moshe, the great leader of the Israelite people in their journey from Egypt, is given enormous responsibility. He is asked not only to lead the people and be the emissary between the people and God, but also to oversee the accounting of the materials needed to build the Tabernacle and all that goes with it.

As the Israelites work on the building of the Tabernacle, there’s a noticeable contrast between this construction for the greater good and the self-serving construction of the Golden Calf. They’re still in the desert and living through this transient time in history, yet they learn to give of themselves freely to create something with a higher purpose. As they build, Moshe takes note according to God’s command.

Chapter 39, verse 43 reveals, “And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks – as the Lord had commanded, so they had done – Moses blessed them.” In this moment when the Israelites had followed the directions, putting their hearts and souls into the creation of this magnificent project, Moshe rewards them with proper praise. The midrash teaches that perhaps Moshe shared, “May it be God’s will that the divine presence rest upon the work of your hands.” What a beautiful blessing.

The lesson in this small section of the parshah isn’t just that we should go around congratulating each other. The lesson is that people make mistakes, and they can learn from them. It’s ok to let people know when they’ve mistreated you or crossed a line as long as you recognize that they can change.

Following the Rules – Parshat Pekudei 5776

Following the Rules

My mom will confirm I have been a rule follower my whole life. I thrive on order, and I see rules as guidelines meant to keep me and those around me safe. It’s partly my type A personality that makes me a rule follower, but I honestly don’t mind following the rules as long as they make sense to me. Sometimes this means that I’m a little less daring, or I take a little more time to decide that a particular adventure is right for me, but that’s part of the cost of being a rule follower. I have fun, even if that means a slow-paced, well-thought-out kind of fun compared to someone more spontaneous. This rule following is also why I find so much inspiration in Judaism to help guide me in daily life.

Parshat Pekudei, this week’s Torah portion, brings to a close the book of Exodus. During this book we’ve read about the encounters the Israelites had with God at Mount Sinai and in the desert, as well as about the sacred spaces they were asked to create for God. The parshah itself deals with the final judgments about who will work on the Tabernacle and what the priests are supposed to wear. Finally, the text takes up the building and establishment of the Mishkan, the sacred space where God will dwell among the Israelites.

As God is presenting Moshe with the rules and regulations of anointing the priesthood, we read the line “This Moshe did; just as the Lord had commanded him, so he did.” Apparently, Moshe “did” twice? Why is the bookend necessary?

The first “doing” teaches us that Moshe was an active doer to begin with. He had the ability to make change. In other words, he wasn’t simply following orders, he was the mover and shaker among the nation. The reiteration that Moshe “did” is about his commitment to God’s words. Moshe was more than motivated; rather, he was motivated in accordance with what God asked and expected of him.

Rules are a valuable guide – they keep us safe, they give us direction, they give us boundaries. But it’s the commitment behind the rules that gives us purpose.

It’s a similar concept to one we read just a few parshiyot ago in Mishpatim. The people utter “na’aseh v’nishma,” meaning they will do and they will hear (Exodus 24:7). Judaism has long been thought of as an “active participant” type of religion. In fact, I myself am a firm believer in the power of “doing Jewish” rather than merely being Jewish. However, the understanding of those actions plays just as big a role. After all, are we not Yisrael, the nation that “wrestles” with God and our tradition?

For me, this dichotomy is the essence Conservative Judaism. We are expected to think things through and act on them, but we should be motivated to do so as an expression of our relationship with God. That is doing Jewish.