Just before today’s parashah opens we read in Chapter 32 of Exodus about the Golden Calf that the Children of Israel demanded of Aaron and that he made and they then worshipped.
Moses could have been forgiven for giving up on the Israelites right then and there and letting God destroy them as He wanted to, but he didn’t – just as he hadn’t in the past, when Israel’s sinfulness nearly brought them to disaster. This time too Moses pleaded with God to forgive them and he sort of succeeded: instead of annihilating them God just sends a plague to torment them.
Moses then ascends Mt Sinai again and has a vision of God’s self appearing to him – at least he sees God’s back (forgive the anthropomorphism which is in the text!) – and then is instructed in some of the most important mitzvot before he copies out the Ten Commandments onto a second set of tablet that he has already prepared at the foot of the mountain.
And he comes back down the mountain and our parashah begins. And so does the work of healing Israel.
Moses assembles the people and begins to speak to them about the construction of the Mishkan, the Sanctuary which is to be God’s dwelling place among the people. First of all , though, he gives them the Shabbat commandment once again – this time to remind them that they must not work on the Sanctuary on Shabbat, that Shabbat rest takes precedence over even this important task. Then he asks for donations for the building of the Mishkan and gets the best craftsmen together so that work can begin, with Bezalel and Oholiav as the chief craftsmen who are to be in charge of the project and all the people who will work on it.
This is the way that Moses counteracts the negative effect of the Golden Calf episode. He is ‘repairing’ the damage – ‘tikkun’ if you like: ‘making good again’. So, he gets the workforce together, with the best craftsmen in charge, and they all go off, each person to undertake the sort of task he or she is best at.
As at the time of the Golden Calf all the men and women donate their finest possessions for the work of the Mishkan: but now they give of the time and labour as well. The women spin and weave fine fabrics and sew curtains and coverings of the finest materials. (In recent years women rabbis have pointed out to us that this is about the only time we hear of women’s work in the Torah and how it is as important in this critical venture as that of the men). The leaders of the people donate gems to be set into Aaron’s vestments – the Ephod and the Breastplate with a gem for each of the twelve tribes – when he officiates in the Sanctuary; and under the leadership of Bezalel and Oholiav everyone works together in the construction of the portable shrine that is the Sanctuary.
‘Together’ is the critical word in all of this. The Israelite people had fallen apart into a terrified rabble when they saw Moses coming down the mountain while they were worshipping the Golden Calf and they realized he was not dead and that God would make them pay for what they had done.
But see what happens next: by deliberatetly focussing them on an important piece of communal work, Moses is able to re-unite them, make them all work for a common cause. And no ordinary cause, at that. The Sanctuary is quite literally at the heart of the community. Whenever the order is given to encamp it will be the Sanctuary that is set out first. And the tribes always encamped around it in the same order, so that wherever the encampment it was possible to find your way around – a principle much later adopted by the Romans for their army camps.
The Mishkan itself is the home of the Shechinah, the Presence of God among Israel. In my thinking the Shechinah is the formal Presence of God in Israel, whereas the Divine Itself makes a home in each one of us – as long as we make room for our God in our hearts.
So in this construction project Moses is rebonding the community to God and to each other. The first word of the parashah – Vaykhel, is from the same Hebrew root as the word ‘Kehillah’ or ‘Community’. It is this project that gives all these splintered and petrified individuals some self-respect, bonding them once more into a collective identity, a real community, perhaps for the very first time.
Up until now they had moaned and whined and complained either to God or to Moses: ‘we can’t cross this river’ [could they not have constructed rafts or coracles or even swim for it?]: we’re hungry’ [could they not go out and hunt?]: ‘we’re thirsty’ [perhaps send out scouts – or just follow the wild animals to water?]. But like good parents, either God or Moses sorts it out for them!
But here, building the Mishkan, they are finally doing something for themselves, something that will be transformative, turning them from whining ex-slaves to mature adults, working together as one for a common end – a House for God in their midst. And this, I think, is what we all do today, in our various synagogue communities. We come together to worship and we find we are sharing our lives with others. I would take a bet there are lots of links between all of us: some between just one or two people; some a few families; some covering most or all of us perhaps. Because we not only worship together; we celebrate festivals (Pesach especially comes to mind, and Succot) and we celebrate B’nei and B’not Mitzvah and weddings and in bad times we help each other through deaths and illnesses and any of the problems that flesh is heir to.
Research in the United States has shown that people who regularly come together for worship are significantly more likely to be active members of their wider communities – to form or join groups with one social aim or another; to be active in a trade union or professional group perhaps, or to work for sick children or the elderly. It seems to be a fact that people who come together for worship on a regular basis, are people who are more community minded. The question is, why?
I think the answer must be that when we come together regularly to pray, over time we develop a moral and ethical sense that informs our lives beyond the prayer space itself.
We find God in the community we pray among and in the one – or ones – we live among the rest of the week. And we take God’s ways with us from the synagogue and use them elsewhere, in endeavors that range from the miniscule to the mega. We humans are – or can be, if we choose to be – the hands of God in this world.
It is my hope that we will all be able to continue this work as long as our lives last.
Student Rabbi Roberta Harris-Eckstein
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.