March 20, 2020
This is a trying time for all of us, throughout the entire community, and this week’s double Torah portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei (Exodus 35:1-40:38) has a message for us, and that is, that we need to be ambassadors of kindness.
Vayakhel – The community is gathered – as the portion begins, Moses gathered the people to announce the building of the Mishkan, our sacred Tabernacle – the movable sanctuary in the desert. The Mishkan was designed to be the central structure of relationship between God and God’s people. It was also the center of the human community, the location of all religious activity and the site where civil disputes were heard and settled. It housed the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the core document that declares the principles of human-Divine and human-human interactions. The Mishkan in many ways exemplifies the relationship between holiness and community.
The root of the Hebrew word Mishkan, shin-chet-nun, is related to the root of the words Shechinah—God’s presence on earth—and shachen—neighbor. The physical placement of the Mishkan was also significant: once constructed, the Mishkan not only was the spiritual and civil center of the people, but also the physical center of the community as the Israelites arranged their camp around it by tribe. Through the Mishkan, the Israelites were able to structure their community around God and God’s laws. The creation of holy community thus became possible through the shared creation of a structure founded on sacred ethics.
As we have read in the Book of Exodus, the text gives detailed instructions on the design and construction of the communal structure, and names the person responsible for building it. Yet the Israelites were still invited to contribute offerings from their own hearts. Sforno, a 16th century Italian commentator, wrote that because the Jewish people wholeheartedly donated the materials to build the Mishkan, they shared in its actual construction. Even if one was physically unable to do the work of creating the Mishkan, he argued, providing support for its construction allowed each individual to share in it completely. The same is true as we work to build a holy global community.
This week, we cannot gather as a community. We are challenged by the health risks that face us. Even though we cannot be together as a community, we can still act as a community. For every single person whose hand we can’t shake, we can reach out with a phone call. For every single person whom we may not be able to hug, we can engage in a different way. When we go to the store to buy food for ourselves, let’s ask ourselves: is there someone else who needs a little extra?
Imagine the message that we give to our children and others, a message that will be much more profound than anything they can learn in school, if we show them that social distancing doesn’t mean that we ignore the other. This is the time for Vayakhel. This is the time for us to come together and honor the message of our weekly portion. Maybe we cannot come together physically, but spiritually we can connect. This is a time for us to get to know ourselves better. It’s a time for us to get to know our families better. It’s a time of Vayakhel – It’s a time to come together.
Let’s be ambassadors of kindness, to ourselves, to our families, to our children and grandchildren, to our spouses, to the larger world society. Let’s remember, that even though we can’t hug somebody and we can’t shake their hand, we can still show that we care.