I would like to dedicate this D’var Torah to the memory of Yehudit Miryam, Zichrona L’vracha, my mother who passed away two weeks ago this evening. My mother was a true Ashet Chayil, a woman of valor, who loved Hebrew, studying and teaching Torah, singing and praying, and being involved with acts of hospitality and chesed. May these words of Torah allow her soul to be even more comforted and uplifted.
Parashat Vayakhel is the classic example of a Torah portion that at first glance seems boring and devoid of any relevant teachings, but after deeper examination includes profound messages. The content is the description of the building of the Mishkan and almost the entire portion is a repeat of what we read three weeks ago in parashat Terumah. To understand this, we need to put this Torah reading in the context of the last two months of readings.
Five weeks ago we read Yitro, the story of the Aseret HaDibrot, the 10 statements better known as the 10 commandments. This mass group revelation of the purpose of the Exodus from Egypt and the purpose of life itself concluded with a description of how the people were to worship God with offerings on a simple mound of earth and rocks.
The following portion, Mishpatim, continued with additional teachings and civil laws and concluded with a mystical vision as Moshe ascends the mountain for the purpose of receiving the “hard copy” of the 10 commandments engraved into stone which the people had already heard orally.
The following week’s reading, Terumah, has such confusing content that many rabbinical opinions state that the Torah is not in chronological order here. Terumah describes the building of an elaborate shrine, the portable Mishkan Tabernacle Tent, to be constructed out of gold and silver, wood and cloth. Worship plan Version 1.0, the simple earthen altar, was replaced with version 2.0 made out of precious metals and even gems with highly complex design details. You can imagine poor Moshe scratching his head in confusion. He was expecting to receive tablets of stone and/or perhaps the explanations of the Oral Torah, and instead is given virtual blueprints for a Temple in contradiction to the instructions at the end of Mishpatim.
The next portion, Tetzaveh, continues with the accounts of the decorative wardrobe for the Cohein Gadol who will serve in the Mishkan: the Holy-to-God headband, the breastplate with gems, a fancy turban, sacrificial apron, linen garments, cloth Rimmonim and golden bells.
Ki Tissa, the third portion with the instructions of the Mishkan, begins with the laws of the flat tax that will go to the construction and maintenance of the shrine, the anointing oil that will cover the vessels of the Tabernacle, the sacred incense to be burnt, and finally the commandment of Shabbat. As holy as it is to fulfill the commandments to build this structure through 39 different labors, it is even more holy to rest every seven days. And then, finally, the ultimate reason for the Mishkan is revealed. In an almost split-screen presentation, we learn that while Moshe is on top of the mountain receiving these elaborate building instructions, the people are down below, making a golden idol and declaring it to be the god that brought them out of Egypt. At the same time that the people are desecrating God, Moshe is receiving the antidote for their mistakes.
In parashat Terumah, God said: “Asu LiMikdash V’Shachanti B’tochum”; “Make me a Holy Place that I will dwell in their midst”. It’s as if God is saying, if you want to play with gold and the objects of the physical world, don’t make a god, make a Godly place, a shrine to our relationship, a means of us feeling close and connected. Seemingly, Version 1.0, the earthen altar, was replaced with Version 2.0, the Mishkan, because of the golden calf: the people’s desire for a tangible object and place to focus their devotions. The remainder of last week’s Torah reading is Moshe smashing the tablets that he is finally given, his successful pleadings with God to forgive the people, and his ascension back up the mountain to get the replacement set of tablets.
Vayakhel repeats all of the commandments from Terumah about building the mishkan but with one crucially important change. In Terumah, the text repeats over and over again: “Tell the people to make, to do, to build…”. Here it repeats over and over again, “And they made it, did it, built it as God had commanded.” The people were so eager to be forgiven, they not only build the Mishkan exactly as they were told, but they donated so many supplies as free-will gift offerings, they were actually told to stop giving. Has there even been a time, since this moment, that a capitol campaign or a fundraising effort was terminated because the people gave too much? This portion represents one of the true highlights of Jewish history, if not world history. When else has it happened that hundreds of thousands of people have worked together, on a holy project, with every last person being involved, and every small and large detail being successfully done with perfection, intention, and cooperation? At the end of next week’s Torah portion which concludes both the stories of the Mishkan’s construction and the book of Exodus, we are told that when the Tabernacle was completed, God’s presence filled it, in the tangible form of a fire and a cloud. God’s presence, the Shechinah, dwelled in the midst of the people. Why is all the content repeated for these two parshiot? To celebrate the people getting it right, to draw our attention to these words, unfortunately rare in the human experience: “they did it exactly as God had commanded”.
Vayakhel, the name of this portion is a wonderful, fascinating word. It is the verb form of the word Kahal, meaning a community. Vayakhel means “he made a community out of the people” “and he communitied the people”, or “community-tized them”. The portion can be understood as a handbook of how to transform a group of people into a community, how to build community and give people a spirit of belonging. The Torah teaches us that this is done through giving people a common goal, a sacred, meaningful task, that involves every person being offered opportunities to help in their own ways. We are also taught that it is not words alone that inspire, but physical actions. That we need leaders, both spiritual and architectural, and we also need a spirit of giving that permeates the entire group.
As it says in 35th chapter of Shemot: “Each person whose heart lifted him up came forward. Each one who wanted to give brought a donation to God for the making of the Ohel Moed, all its contents and sacred vestments. The men and the women, those who wanted to make a donation brought bracelets, nose rings, finger rings, and jewelry made of gold…every person who had sky-blue wool, dark red wool, or hides brought them. Whoever donated silver or copper brought it as a divine offering; and anyone who [only] had acacia wood that could be used brought it. The tribal leaders brought precious stones… Every man and woman among the Israelites who felt an urge to give something for all the work that God had commanded through Moshe, brought a donation to God.”
So may it be with us in our community.
Community is a sacred enterprise. The Talmud, through the story of Choni the Circle Maker, teaches us that without companionship we can not live. We not only have a need for food and shelter, we have a need for the company of other people. Hillel in Mishnah Avot 2:4 instructs us: Al Tifrosh Min HaTzibur – do not separate yourself from the community!” A community is more than just a group of people, it is a collective with a common goal or purpose. Think about what brought you here today. We come in search of connection to others, to be sustained and nourished by the melodies, teachings, familiar words, a tasty Kiddush, a sense of being needed. We all want to count and have a sense of purpose in our lives. As the Midrash in Devarim Rabbah teaches us: “A community is too heavy for anyone to carry alone”. We are all in this together.
And we are to honor in whatever way people contribute to the group.
Parshat Vayakhel is noteworthy for it’s lack of commentary by Rashi. Page after page of the chumash is missing his familiar extensive notes because as Rashi writes about verse 5 in the beginning of the portion: “I have already explained the contributions to the Mishkan and it’s work in the place where they were [first] commanded.” Where he does comment in this portion, it is when some detail is mentioned that was not originally mentioned in Terumah, Tetzaveh or Ki Tissa. For example, in chapter 38 verse 8, in describing the Kiyor, the wash basin, the texts adds: “made out of the mirrors of the women who had gathered at the entrance of the Ohel Moed.”
Rashi explains: The daughters of Israel possessed mirrors into which they would look when adorning themselves. Even these they did not withhold from bringing as a contribution for the Mishkan. However, Moshe found them repulsive, since their purpose is to incite the Yetzer HaRa, physical passion. So God said to him: ‘Accept these mirrors, for they are dearer to me than everything else, because through these mirrors the women raised huge multitudes in Egypt! When their husbands were exhausted from their crushing slavery, the women would go out to them and bring them food and drink and feed them. They would then take the mirrors and each one would look at herself and her husband in the mirror, and entice him with words, saying: “See! I am more beautiful than you!” thereby awakening their husbands’ desires and they would cohabit with them. They conceived and gave birth there, as it stated in Song of Songs: “Under the apple tree did I arouse you.” And this is the meaning of “made out of the mirrors of the women.” ’ And Rashi adds, the wash basin was made out of these mirrors for the wash basin served to bring peace between a husband and wife by giving to drink from it the Sotah waters inside it to anyone whose husband expressed jealousy.
We all have something to contribute to the community and no one’s offering should be looked down upon or discouraged.
My mother’s 36th wedding anniversary to my step-father was just 4 days before she passed away. While laying in bed, practically unable to speak due to her ALS condition, she asked my sister-in-law to buy her some lip stick, which she was out of. It was very important to her to look nice for her special day. Showing her love for my step-father and connecting with people was vital to her. My mother was a big fan of community, supported dozens of causes through charitable contributions, and was an active member of a number of congregations. She taught me, from a very early age, to be involved with community and find a way to give back to others.
This portion teaches us the same. “Vayakhel”, Moshe made them into a community. Through our participation, our leadership, our involvement, our contributions, our hard physical work, our spiritual labors, each person helping in their own ways, we build, maintain and grow our sacred communities, and do what God has commanded us, and make the world a more complete and holy place.