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 Old Mishkan – Parshat Vayakhel 5779

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While undergoing a major construction project at our house about a year ago, I found myself enthralled with the way things were taken apart and put back together. I watched as they tore the roof off of our garage, and then from scratch put together framing for new rooms, a new roof, electrical, HVAC, plumbing, walls, flooring, paint. Every day I’d come home and see another change in what they’d done, and my house slowly but surely came back together as a seamless unit. If I’m really looking for it, I can still feel the spot in the floor where the original build connects with the new build, but for the most part, anyone walking into our home for the first time probably wouldn’t know there only used to be three bedrooms instead of four. It feels like one complete entity, even though I know it is all held together with wood and metal joints.

This was perhaps the closest I’ll get to experiencing what it might have felt like to build the Tabernacle. We read Parshat Vayakhel this week, where the narrative continues with the requirement to observe Shabbat and then includes the request to bring gifts to build the Mishkan. After 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. But within the construction are very specific details of how everything should fit together.

In particular, there are many sockets necessary for the poles and arms to attach. The Hebrew word for sockets is adanim, which sounds similar to the name we use in prayer for God, Adonai. Rabbi Menachem Nochum Twersky of Chernobyl comments that just as those sockets served to hold the upper and the lower sections of the Tabernacle together, the divine presence holds the upper and lower worlds together. Our spiritual “upper” world and the material “lower” world are held together through our faith in God and the glue of our society.

The moral of the story? We’re all a little screwy. And by that, I mean we are like the screws that hold the pieces of our tradition and our community in place. As we read this text, we are reminded that just as there are so many little bits and pieces that go into creating a structure, there are so many different individual people that go into creating the Jewish people.

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.

Gifts Please – Parshat Vayakhel 5776

Gifts Please

Maimonides, our great Jewish legal expert from the 12th century, created a hierarchy of giving. It’s a series of eight levels, the order of which is based on the relationship between giver and recipient, with level one being the purest form of gift from one human to another.

If you’ve heard me tell Shabbat stories, you know I have a few favorites. One of my favorites stands out as a prime example of Maimonides’ second level of giving, in which neither the giver nor the recipient knows the other.

There once was a very generous baker, who found himself with a few extra loaves of challah one particular Shabbat evening. He decided the best solution would be to sneak into the shul, place the extra loaves in the ark, and leave them in God’s hands, hoping something good would transpire. On Shabbat morning, the man found the challah had disappeared. Clearly, God had found a use for them, so he made extra the next week as well. Week after week he did this, and week after week by Shabbat morning, they were gone.

At the same time there was a very poor man in the town who was too embarrassed to ask for help. Week after week he went to shul for Friday night services to pray. For weeks he stood in front of the ark, praying to God that there would be food on his table when he made it home. One week on a whim he opened the ark, hoping to bring himself nearer to the holiness of the word of God. Lo and behold, inside were beautiful challot for him to bring home. He tried it again the next week, and there they were again. Week after week he prayed, and week after week the scrumptious bread appeared as an answer to his prayers. One Shabbat, the synagogue caretaker caught a glimpse of both men in this weekly routine and orchestrated a meeting between them. They feel foolish at first, but it is the rabbi who convinces the men that they have shared the ultimate gift in this weekly exchange.

I love this story because it exemplifies the pure joy of giving simply to give. This same concept is present in our Torah portion this week, parshat Vayakhel. The narrative continues with the requirement to observe Shabbat and 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.  

The Torah teaches that the Israelites brought gifts morning after morning. In fact, the word “morning” is repeated, which is interpreted to mean that the people brought their gifts at first light, a time during which individual faces could not yet be distinguished from one another. This suggests that the Israelites were contributing not out of obligation to each other or for any sort of recognition, but out of love for God.

Like both the baker and the recipient of his kindness, the mitzvah of the Israelites and the Mishkan was in the anonymity of the act. Too often in our world we are looking for acknowledgement of the work that we’re doing because it “feels good,” when in fact the good feeling we get should be a side effect of doing the charitable work in the first place.

Below for your reference, I’ve included the full series of giving levels as formulated by Maimonides. Where does your giving to others fall on the spectrum? Perhaps we can all strive to work less for the credit and more in the dim light of morning.

Levels of Giving