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D'var on the importance of Community

This D'var Torah was originally given by member Alison Harris during the Temple Israel Kabbalat Shabbat Service on 28th of Adar I 5784, aka March 3, 2024. 

This week’s parshat is Exodus 35:1 – 38:20, “Vayak'heil”.  After Moses convinced God to forgive the people for the building of the Golden Calf, he gathers the Israelite community to share all that Adonai commanded on Mount Sinai. Moses first says to the people: “These are the objects which God commanded to be made. On six days work may be done, but the seventh day, they should observe a Sabbath for God by refraining from work; whoever does work on the Sabbath shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day.”

Here, Moses interrupts his instructions about the Mishkan to remind the people that Shabbat is to be kept holy.  It was so important to follow God’s law of not working on Shabbat, that the penalty for breaking the law was death, even for working on the Tabernacle. The Israelite community served God in both time, when they observed Shabbat, and space, when they constructed the Mishkan and followed the laws concerning it.

Moses then goes on, “Everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring gifts for Adonai–gold, or silver, wool or linen, wood or oil, spices or stones, anything to make the Sanctuary more glorious for God,” said Moses.

“And let all among you who are skilled come and make all that God has commanded for the Sanctuary: the Tabernacle, its tent and its covering, the Ark and its poles and utensils, the lamp stand and the oil for lighting, the oils for anointing, the altar for burnt offerings, and the sacred garments for Aaron the High Priest and his sons who are to officiate in the Sanctuary.”

The whole community of Israelites left Moses’ presence to find gifts for the Holy One. Everyone whose spirit was moved brought offerings for the Dwelling Place of Adonai. Men and women, moved by their hearts, brought all kinds of golden objects, jewels, colorful wools, silver, copper, and acacia wood for the Mishkan. Men and women worked together using their skills to make the sacred Sanctuary for God.

Moses then says to the Israelites, “See the Lord has called Bezalel. God has filled Bezalel and Oholiab with the spirit of God, with wisdom, insight, knowledge and talent for all manner of craftsmanship and the ability to teach.” Moses then gives to Bezalel and Oholiab the gifts of the Israelites so they could begin to lovingly craft the holy Sanctuary.

Still, the Israelites continued to bring more offerings. Finally, Moses proclaims, “Bring no more gifts for the Sanctuary.” But the gifts had been enough for all the work, and there was extra.

Then, with precise instructions given to Moses by God, the Tabernacle was built.  I will not go over all the instructions – they are pretty detailed as to what materials should be used for what parts of the Mishkan, how the altar should be built, what utensils needed to be made for worship, and exactly how they should be fashioned.  But, it can be said that God was giving the Israelites, a people who were more used to Egyptian idols and grand temples to those idols, a way to begin to internalize and accept an invisible God by housing God’s Presence in a glorious space.

“Vayak'heil” means “he gathered”.  Moses, after returning from Sinai with the second set of tablets, needed to gather the Israelites around the process of doing God’s will rather than giving in to their fears and old habits.  The Hebrew root of “vayak'heil” contains the same letters as in the word “kehillah” – community.  Moses wanted to make these people a God-worshiping community, a society that showed their care for one another by following Adonai’s laws.  And the people showed their willingness to become this kind of community by giving generously of what they had in order to build a wondrous tabernacle for God.

I agree with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks when he says that “Jewish spirituality is first and foremost a communal spirituality. We value the individual, but we do not endorse individualism. Ours is a religion of community. This is why our holiest prayers can only be said in the presence of a minyan, the minimum definition of a community. When we pray, we do so as a community. Hence, to atone for the sin the Israelites committed as a community, Moshe sought to consecrate community in time and place.” 

As Reform Jews, most of us do not refrain from all work on Shabbat these days.  I know, personally, that whatever work I don’t get done one day is added on to what I have to do the next.  But we can still make Shabbat a special time by trying to spend at least part of the day appreciating and improving our world and our community.  We can take walks outside, work in our gardens, do an act of tikkun olam, do an activity with friends or family– schedule just one thing to refresh yourself that you don’t do the other 6 days of the week.  Take some time to look over what you have accomplished in the past week, and then, as God did, rest from your daily tasks.  It will probably take some advance planning, but if we can each take even a part of the day to enrich our souls, our entire community will benefit.

The need to build and develop our community is still, if not even more, important today.  Temple Israel can only survive and thrive if those of us who want to be a part of the community share our skills.  There are many opportunities to do this: you can join a committee, a task force for a specific event, or even the board of directors.  Some of us volunteer our talents by helping in the school, leading services, hosting oneg Shabbats, working on social justice activities, keeping the building in good repair, running the audio/video so we can continue to reach our congregants at home, and so much more. Human beings cannot and should not act in a void.  Not any one of us can do it all.  Everyone has, like Bezalel and Oholiab, been given skills and talents that they can use to build a community. 

Rabbi Sacks also says: “These are where the kehillah lives most powerfully: on Shabbat when we lay aside our private devices and desires and come together as a community; and in the synagogue, where our community has its home... This is arguably one of the most important functions of religion in a secular age, namely, keeping community alive.” 

Shabbat Shalom.

Wed, July 17 2024 11 Tammuz 5784