Rabbi Karen Citrin
March 13, 2015
Most of us here are familiar with certain nursery rhymes that have stuck in our heads over the years. These rhymes also teach certain truths.
There’s the rhyme that speaks to the mundane routines of daily life: “One, two, buckle my shoe. Three, four, open the door. Five, six, pick up sticks. Seven, eight lay them straight. Nine, ten, do it a-gain.”
There’s the rhyme that became a song, which speaks to the mystery of the universe: “Twinkle, twinkle little star. How I wonder what you are. Up above the world to high. Like a diamond in the sky.”
And there’s the rhyme that speaks to the inner meaning of this week’s Torah portion that goes, “Here is the church, and here is the steeple, open the doors, and there are the people!”
Our Torah portion, Vayahel, begins with Moses convening the entire people. “Vayakhel Moshe et kol adat b’nei Yisrael…. Moses gathered the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that the Eternal has commanded you to do” (Exodus 35:1). The portion opens immediately following the incident of the golden calf. In the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “What do you do when your people has just made a golden calf, run riot and lost its sense of ethical and spiritual direction? How do you restore moral order – not just then in the days of Moses, but even now? The answer lies in the first word of today’s parsha: Vayakhel.” “And he gathered…”1
Moses gathered the people together to build the mishkan, the tabernacle that would house the new tablets of the commandments. Moses called the people to bring forth gifts and offerings for the construction. The response from the people was so generous and enthusiastic that all the men and women whose hearts moved them brought items to help build the portable sanctuary in the wilderness. The offerings were so abundant that Moses had to order the people to stop giving. Imagine that.
Tonight, I would like to look at this one word, “Vayakhel” – “And he gathered.” What does it mean for a people to gather together in community? What does “Vayakhel” look like? Let’s look at three possibilities.
One: Vayakhel looks like the Hasidic teaching that the mishkan was only completed because of a sense of unity and common purpose. In the building of the tabernacle, all Israel joined in their hearts; no one felt superior to his fellow. At first, each skilled individual did her own part of the construction, and it seemed to each one that her own work was extraordinary. Afterward, they saw how their contributions to the service of the tabernacle were integrated–all the boards, sockets, curtains, and loops fit together as if one person had done it all. Then they realized how each depended on the other. Then they understood that what they had accomplished was not only by virtue of their own skill alone, but that the Holy One had guided the hands of everyone who had worked on the tabernacle. They had joined in completing its master building plans, so that “It came to pass that the tabernacle was one” (Exodus 36:13).2 In their joint effort, the Israelites created not only the mishkan, but a strong sense of community.
Two: What does “Vayakhel” look like? Vayakhel looks like people coming together in solidarity of values, a cause, and mutual respect. Vayakhel looks like the OU students who have rallied together to protest the recent racist video from a campus fraternity. Vayakhel looks like the University of Oklahoma football team linked arm-in-arm holding a silent protest in place of practice. Quarterback Trevor Knight said, “This is an instance in which we feel like we have the opportunity to step up and promote change. “It turned our stomachs and our hearts,” added linebacker Eric Striker. “It really hurt us all.”3
Vayakhel looks like the rally for unity that was held in Tulsa yesterday. Over 100 people gathered on the Williams Green downtown and put feet to pavement during the 10-block Walk for Unity. At the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, activist and author Clifton Taulbert called it a “forever march” toward building community. Individuals and organizations including the OCCJ, the Tulsa Regional Chamber’s MOSAIC diversity business council, Tulsa’s Young Professionals, Oklahomans for Equality, and the Say No to Hate Coalition, all stood together against racism and discrimination in our state.4
And three: What does “Vayakhel” look like? Vayakhel looks like the people in Temple Israel. The meaning of synagogue, or in Hebrew “Beit Knesset,” means house of assembly. The synagogue is where people go to gather, pray, study, and do good deeds. The mishkan, the tabernacle, or today’s synagogue is a place where God dwells. But a midrash teaches that it is only though the meritorious behavior of humanity that God’s Presence become noticeable (P’sikta d’Rav Kahana, Piska 1:1).
I see Temple Israel, our place of gathering, making God’s Presence noticeable. Every time I see the members of our congregation reach out with a loving embrace, with hot meals to neighbors who are hungry, or gentle words to a family walking in the valley of the shadow of death, I see our temple making God’s Presence noticeable. Every time I see congregants awaken to a new insight of Torah, I see our temple making God’s Presence noticeable. When our Jewish teens will travel on Sunday to Miami to meet with Holocaust survivors, and to strengthen their bonds with one another, I see our temple making God’s Presence noticeable. When we welcome in Shabbat on Friday night, and even the people who are struggling with Hebrew or the melody are moved to sing along and add their voice for L’cha Dodi, I see our temple making God’s Presence noticeable. When I see people sharing a meal and getting to know each other around the table, I see our temple making God’s Presence noticeable.5
Although our portion this week Vayakhel is about the constructions of the mishkan, it is ultimately less about the physical outcome, and more about the peoples’ contributions and presence within. In other words, you can have a gathering place, but without the energy, connections, and relationships formed between the people, you are really looking at empty walls.
What does Vayakhel look like? Vayakhel is from the same Hebrew word as kehillah, meaning community. To return to Rabbi Lord Sacks, “As Jews, it is as a community that we come before God. Vayakhel was no ordinary episode in the history of Israel. It marked the essential insight to emerge from the crises of the golden calf. We find God in community…. When Moses gathered the people, he turned an unruly mob into a kehillah, a holy community.”
Vayakhel is when we work together in shared purpose. Vayakhel is when we stand together in support of shared values and vision. Vayakhel is when we make God’s Presence known through our actions.
In the words of poet Ruth Brin, 6
To devotion God set no limits,
and to dedication of the spirit
God set no bounds.
Not because of the gold on the walls
does the light of the sanctuary shine forth,
but because of the spirit within.
Those who worship carry away with them
more than they bring
for they find there the light to illumine their lives.
Vayakhel is coming together in holy community. And Vayakhel is making each of our lives a sanctuary, so that God’s Presence shines forth.
Lord prepare me, to be a sanctuary
pure and holy, tried and true
and with thanksgiving, I’ll be a living, sanctuary for you.
1 “The Spirit of Community” (Vayakhel 5775). Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.
2 Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica. In Sparks Beneath The Surface. Lawrence S. Kushner and Kerry M. Olitzky.
4 From Tulsa World. March 13, 2015.
5 Inspired by Dvar Torah by Rabbi Jonathan Blake. “What is the Purpose of the Synagogue?” ReformJudaism.org
6 “They Build the Tabernacle”. Ruth Brin. In The Torah A Women’s Commentary