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D'var Torah: VaYakhel

What do we do when our community becomes fractured? How do we heal a nation whose seams have been torn by political and social division? How do we find our way back to the comfort of neighbors who bring each other dinner despite whom the other voted for, to the constructive dissonance of different minds working together toward a harmonious solution, to a place of love and trust where the common good is worth seeking? In today’s parashah, VaYakhel in the book of Exodus, Moses himself faced these challenges after his people betrayed G-d by constructing and worshipping the golden calf. Through Moses’ leadership, G-d instructs the Israelites to build a tabernacle – a meeting place for G-d and his children. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that building the tabernacle is a “restoration” for the Israelites; it transforms them from a disjointed and errant group into a community unified by purpose and action. He writes, “The best way of turning a diverse, disconnected group into a team is to get them to build something together.” And while the construction of the tabernacle is indeed a means for restoring community, we see the building process and product itself as a metaphor for how a strong community functions. 

It takes people of many different skills to build a community. The same was true of the tabernacle. Moses tells the entire Israelite community that, “Every naturally talented individual among you shall come forth and make all that G-d has ordered.”  Now, this does seem to imply that some people have natural talents, which are to be used to build the tabernacle, and other people do not have natural talents. If this was all that Moses said to the people, that some are talented and others are useless, it would be an awful team-building exercise. But it is not only the naturally talented people that will help to make the tabernacle a reality. Moses is addressing the entire Israelite community after all. Some people may not be talented, but that doesn’t stop them from being generous. This section of the parashah stresses that each person may give materials, even if they do not possess the necessary talents for the actual construction of the tabernacle. This is true of community as well, ours specifically. If the roof of this building collapsed, how many of us would be able to get on top and fix it? Some of us have the necessary skills, but not most. I have no doubt, however, that most of the rest would donate something. Someone would design and send out a newsletter asking for funding. Many would receive that newsletter and contribute funds. Some would bake treats for whoever was working on the roof. Moses knew that the Israelites, even then, were not a monolith. They came from different tribes, with different values and beliefs. In fact, the two men selected by G-d to lead construction of the tabernacle, Betzalel and Aholiav, were from different tribes. This diversity is as important today as it was then. If all of us were roofers, we could easily fix our roof, but who would run the religious school? For our community to function, it is necessary for us to have a diversity of skills and inclinations. It is important that we find our own ways to contribute to our community just as the Israelites contributed however they could to build the tabernacle.

As with the building of the tabernacle, a strong community depends on its members’ willingness to join it. Something interesting about this torah portion is how often the voluntariness of labor and giving is stressed. Chapter 35 verse 21, “Each person who was ready to volunteer then came forward. Each one who wanted to give brought a donation to G-d” and again in verse 29, “Every man and woman among the Israelites who felt an urge to give something.” The communal act of building the tabernacle was bolstered by the Israelites’ willingness to give and participate, and their opportunity to do this of their own volition. As we can all agree, the best way to smother someone’s urge to do something is to demand that they do it. Moses knew that the motivation and effort to build a tabernacle that unified his people must come from the hearts of the people themselves, and not from the dictates of their leader. Rather than mandate how materials were to be collected and used, Moses trusted his people to recognize the myriad needs and be moved to fill them. This trust was rewarded as so many voluntarily gave that they even exceeded what was required. This reminds us that true communities are not forced on a people, but rather built on a willingness to join together across differences and give of ourselves toward a common goal. Just as a community needs diverse members, its strength as a unit is fueled by these individuals willingly sharing the different skills and resources they possess. If the wisest among us do not offer any of their wisdom to the group, we as a community are no smarter than we were before. If the artists among us keep their talents to themselves, our community will be without art and music. The voluntary nature of community underscores the point that forming and maintaining one requires intention. We didn’t come into this room by accident, just as this building wasn’t built by accident, nor was it by chance converted into a synagogue. Each of these steps took willful effort and intention. We form a cohesive community by willingly engaging in the work that needs to be done, and it’s our community’s purpose that guides what this work will be.    

We know that the Israelites who were moved to do so, gave items and labor toward the construction of the tabernacle. In fact, we know exactly what they gave. In chapter 35 verse 5, Moses tells the community what specific materials G-d wishes for them to donate. “Gold, silver, copper, sky-blue wool, dark red wool, fine linen, ram’s skins” and the list goes on. Then Moses tells them what skills are needed. Skilled workers are to make the tent and its roof, the fasteners, the planks, the utensils, etc. Since the text writes out G-d’s complete Amazon wish list of items and skills, it may seem redundant for the text to then say precisely what actually ended up being provided. But that is exactly what the text does. (35:23) “…sky-blue wool, fine linen, reddened rams’ skins…others provided gifts copper and acacia wood.” And so on. This is boring. We’ve heard enough about wool and skins. But the text doesn’t stop there. Later in the chapter we are given explicit details about Betzalel’s use for everything that was donated. The tapestries were made with sky-blue, red, and crimson wool.  The ark was made with acacia wood and overlaid with pure gold. Seemingly every item that was donated is accounted for. This may be uninteresting to the reader, after all, do we really need to know exactly how many loops of yarn were on the outer edges of the tent cloth (50)? It may be uninteresting but it is far from pointless.

We guess that there are two primary reasons for this repeated listing of the donations and their uses. The first is as an instruction manual. Ikea may not use cubits as measurements, but if they wanted to release a line of tabernacle construction kits, parashat Vayakhel would be a good place for them to start. The second reason for these lists is transparency and accountability. If the Israelites are going to give up their jewelry and other valuables for this project, they are going to want to know that their donations are being put to good use. It is for this reason that when Moses tells them what is needed, he also tells them what they are needed for. It is for the same reason that we read, play-by-play, what Betzalel and Aholiav do with each of the materials. Not only do the Israelites then know what is happening with their donations, they also know that they are not being wasted. In fact, during construction, the craftsmen inform Moses that more materials are being donated than are needed. In a functioning community, it is important to have transparency and trustworthy leaders. Moses, Betzalel, and Aholiav were honest about what was needed for the tabernacle and chose not to continue receiving donations after their Kickstarter goal was met. In this story we find leaders who know the limits of the people they lead. They do not ask their followers to overextend their resources and they show the people how their resources are put to work. If a community, any community, is to have leaders, those leaders must be trustworthy and transparent.

Moses and the Israelites are traveling through the desert, in search of the land promised to them. Therefore, the tabernacle is made to be portable. It has been designed by Betzalel and carefully constructed according to his directions. But let's remember it is also a tent that is repeatedly broken down, carried across land, and pitched in a new place. Dust will collect on the ram-skin roof. Over time, the desert sun will fade the threads of the tapestries. As the beams are carried, sweat from the hands and shoulders they rest on will smooth and darken the acacia wood. As the Israelites continue their journey, the tabernacle will change. It will be marked by both the terrain and the people it encounters. Like the tabernacle, a strong community can be picked up and moved to a new place. While geography may play a role, it does not solely define it. Rather, community is in us, the people. It is in our hearts and in the strings that tie our hearts together and, like the Israelites carrying the tabernacle, we set it up wherever we land. Thus community is not tied down to a single physical space.

If KI lost this building, we might mourn, but then we would seek another, carrying our community with us until we found a new place to ground it. As the tabernacle itself changed over time, so too will our community. As we seek our own Promised Land, we must be responsive to our environment – to the social and political terrain we encounter. Along the way we will be marked by new purposes, and urged to action that fills arising needs. We mentioned that members of a community have a strong willingness to join and contribute to it. In acknowledging that communities change over time, we recognize that members of a community must also be willing to accept new individuals. Though guided by a collective vision, our community is strengthened by diversity. And so we greet new times and new people with an openness that welcomes the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, marks they make to our tabernacle. Together, we carry our vision toward the milk and honey of a land filled with peace.

And so, the volunteers have contributed and the tabernacle has been built. So what was the purpose of all this? The tabernacle is also sometimes referred to as the communion tent. It is the place where the community meets G-d. But it is only through community that the tabernacle is possible. And thus it is only through community that meeting G-d is possible. In effect, the community is itself a tabernacle – a place for communion with G-d. G-d isn’t found in a building, G-d is in our relationships with other people and G-d is in the way we work with those who are different from us.

Shabbat shalom.

—Ethan and Victoria
March 2017

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