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.

This I Promise You – Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5780

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When I was preparing to go to Guatemala last year I was reminded that we weren’t supposed to bring any jewelry or anything flashy or expensive with us. The crime rate is high; theft is a problem. We were told not to wear our wedding bands or engagement rings for fear that they might be stolen while we showered or slept. This caused me a minor moment of panic. For 10 years I’ve worn these rings on my fingers, ever-present reminders of my wedding vows. Not only that, the words on my wedding band are the same as those on my parents’ bands, and the diamond on my engagement band belonged to Duncan’s Bubbe. These rings are more than jewelry; they bind my spouse and me to our past and hold in them the promise of our future. Not having that with me made me nervous. 

In the Torah there are many covenants made up of words and very few of physical items. However, one of those items is the “Tabernacle of the Pact” as we read about in our Torah portions this week Vayakhel and Pekudei. The narrative continues with the requirement to observe Shabbat and then includes the request to bring gifts to build the Mishkan. 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 sacred space where God will dwell among the Israelites. 

This Tabernacle is the focal point of the entire covenant with God. Everywhere the Israelites traveled, the covenant – through the Tabernacle – was there to help remind them of the pact they made. Today, we don’t have a Tabernacle, or even a daily reminder that we’re in covenant with our community in different ways. We don’t wear a ring to show that we belong to a synagogue or are on the board of the food bank. We don’t walk around with nametags every day that list our many contributions, although for a while cause-based bracelets were a thing.

So, as we read Parshat Vayakhel and Pekudei, we are gently nudged to ask ourselves, what is the reminder of our covenant that we carry each day? For the covenant I made with Duncan, my Guatemala solution was to get silicone rings to wear for the eight days of the trip. Today, I believe that our covenant with God is shown in our words and our actions. Our society has evolved that we don’t necessarily need a separate physical reminder in our community to be good; the reminder is how we act toward each other. 

Better Together – Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5778

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For the last 18 months or so, Mel Berwin, Neveh Shalom’s Director of Congregational Learning, has been working on the “Better Together” program, with the goal of more intergenerational programming and community building. As part of this initiative, Leah Conley, our Foundation School Director, and I have also started to partner and look for ways in which our congregants, while spanning varied ages and stages, can find ways to engage with one another.

One way we’ve done this is through last year’s counting of the Omer. Our Shoreshim families created and decorated an Omer counter; our daily minyan members counted the Omer using the very same chart; and Aliyah joined in twice a week marking off the days. While none of these individual groups necessarily interacted with each other in person, they still had a shared experience, a collaboration.

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

The building of this communal resource is only possible, however, when the community works together and builds together. Construction projects don’t usually involve an entire community working hand in hand, but in the building of the Mishkan, each person is responsible for something in order to arrive at the beautiful finished product.

Whether or not we’re literally building together, this idea holds true for our community. Each act, each component is valuable. From the smile of a new infant coming to Tot Shabbat to the wisdom of our oldest members, we each have something to teach and something to learn from one another. Our Torah this week from these two portions reminds us that although we may not see each other in the synagogue building every day, we thrive when we connect and collaborate and build our beautiful Mishkan together.

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.

Positive Reinforcement – Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei

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Since we moved to Portland, our dog Stanley has required a little extra love and attention. We even brought in a trainer again to help us work on some of his behavior issues. In the last session with our trainer, it became clear that just as important as having consistent expectations for him is the positive reinforcement we give him. An enthusiastic “Good boy!” should be the words out of my mouth when he does the right thing. Animals – and people alike – appreciate a “Job well done!” at the end of a task.

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 from Egypt back to the land of Israel, 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 take care of the accounting of the materials needed to build the Tabernacle and all that goes with it.   These parshiyot end with the establishment of the sacred space, with God and the people taking a good look at what they have accomplished.

Over half of the narrative in the book of Exodus, which we complete this week, has to do with building the priestly vestments, the Ark, and the Tabernacle. The building of these holy spaces and articles is important; it is the continued work of creation performed by the community.

In Bereshit (Genesis) we get an accounting of each day of creation, and at the end of it, God has the positive reinforcement, “Ki tov” – “it was good.” Up until the seventh day, the reinforcement is “good,” but on the final day of creation, God offers a blessing to the world, the blessing of Shabbat and divine approval.

The book of Exodus has the same pattern and ends the same way. “So the Israelites had done all the work. And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks – as the Lord had commanded, so they had done – Moses blessed them.” The Israelites had done more than a good job creating this space, and Moses, God’s mouthpiece, blessed them. The midrash Tanchuma supplies the words “May it be God’s will that the divine Presence rest upon the work of your hands.”

May we enter this Shabbat with not only the positive reinforcement of a week well lived, but with the blessing of using what we’ve built in the future to come.