Creating a Community of Inclusion
In Parashah Vayakhel we find the children of Israel in the desert freely giving of themselves. They are called to assemble, Vayakhel, and rather than given instructions to follow out of fear, the people in a moment of unity gather together and give freely of themselves to the artistic creation to be undertaken. Vayakhel is a reminder of the potential for community inherent in all situations. In Vayakhel, Moses has stepped back and so has Hashem and they have allowed the community to take over the process of building the Mishkan, with the support of Bezalel they are giving freely of their own will to a community endeavor.
I am reminded of all the times in my life I have witnessed the power of community on a collective level. There is something very special about those times in life when we feel like the efforts that we contribute to lead to something that is larger than the individual contributions we make. I think this is what the author is trying to express in this moment of Torah. In the recent past I think of the women’s march in 2017, just two months after 45 was elected it was a low ebb in the collective consciousness. I remember that feeling of having just witnessed a slow motion disaster happen to my country and the very real concern I still have for women’s rights. For a moment though we gathered as a community and across the country wearing that iconic symbol of the moment, a pink pussy hat, and marching en masse celebrating women’s lives.
That feeling of solidarity and communal effort is at the heart of this Vayakhel where the people give freely of themselves to the community effort of building the Mishkan. Not only do the people collectively gather, but the women specifically gather, being called not just as part of the collective “men” we see so often in Torah, but rather mentioned specifically as a community of women and men giving of themselves to the common experience of artistic production. The Torah records that all who were moved gave of themselves and calls out the women on several mentions through the reading of the Parashah giving gold, jewlery, spinning goats hair and bringing their copper mirrors for the lavan.
Community can go many ways, in this case the people have assembled a Kehillah Kedosh, a sacred community. Just as in Torah we have the potential every day to do Tikkun Olam and create a sacred community. It is not an easy thing to do though, which is why the metaphor of the Mishkan is a useful aid in understanding just what not only this Parashah but indeed much of Torah is aiming for. The word Torah itself means to aim for or hit the mark, it is a direction or an intention in which to guide the community.
Building a Mishkan of sacred community is an intergenerational project which requires the best of us. It requires us to step beyond our beliefs, beyond our expectations, beyond our comfort level. There are many different expressions and understanding of what community means. There is the experience of alienation, expressed so well by the existentialists, the sense of alienation from the world and from a narrative of identity. This sense of alienation which most of us feel at one time or another in life is a natural form of experiencing the world. Then there is also the joy and sense of inclusion that we feel when we are well fed, have our full rights and dignity as human beings, when we know that we are safe and have a meaningful future, when we are free to travel in community and are not encumbered by fear. This sense of community is as sacred as alienation because both spaces remind us of the other and of the potential we can feel at any point in our life’s journey.
At the beginning of Vayakhel, Moses first instructs the people to honor the sabbath and to set apart the sabbath as a sacred time. This is an interesting way to begin a Parashah that is mostly dedicated to architectural blueprints and the enthusiastic expressions of an artistic endeavor. What the Torah is trying to illustrate in its own language is that the act of setting something aside as sacred, of creating a sanctuary of time is the most important instruction that is contained in the Parashah. By holding time above all else as the most sacred part of the Mishkhan the Torah has created a blueprint for how to build a real Mishkhan, a Kehillah Kedosh in the world.
To build a true Kehillah Kedosh starts by creating a world where everyone is respected. This is no easy task and the tools needed to do it extend beyond Judaism, beyond religion, beyond nationality, beyond educational status, beyond language, indeed to truly build a Kehillah Kedosh stretches beyond the generations and even beyond our own identity as a species. A true Kehillah Kedosh requires sacred time.
The Parashah gives us some clues as to how to go about building a Kehillah Kedosh that is really deserving of a divinity, which could be seen as the manifestation of our highest self as a community. A truly bejeweled Mishkan has universal health care, it is free and universal access to education from Kindergarden through PhD. A community that has guaranteed the rights of its community and prioritized those rights over all other priorities does not spend more on tanks and guns and bombs than it spends on children, immigrants and the elderly. A sacred truly uplifted Mishkan is a sacred space where women are respected and where consent is part of all human interactions.
Another clue that the Torah gives us is to look at the wood used in building the Mishkan, Acacia. Acacia trees are hearty desert dwelling trees with long taproots that are capable of drilling down almost 100 meters to find water. This deep searching for water, for life in the desert is our instruction for how to build a Kehillah Kedosh. We are to dig deep, deep into time and into our potential as mammals, as animals, as people who live on earth with all of our competing impulses and desires, with all the instructions we have received in our life that we have listened to out of obedience or out of curiousity. We are supposed to remember the instructions of the generations, those voices that have helped to guide us from one generation to the next as well as our own instincts which we need to guide us to help move toward the future.
Judaism doesn’t offer any simple answer on how to do community, how to do religion or how to live a life. It offers a narrative, the Torah, which is an ancient document that was written by a tribal, desert dwelling people who tried to understand in their own way how to live their lives. As time went on the oral tradition of Torah was eventually written down and then that became a sacred document, the written word, but the intention, the Kavanah, the sacred intention has always remained fixed in the oral tradition which is carried forth from generation to generation. In modernity Jewish communities continue to read the Torah as part of our tradition because it helps set forth a direction in which to go, through multiple interpretations and always in the context of a living community.
Vayakhel ends with the women, as it has in so many ways been about women’s unique contributions as artists spinning goats hair and dyeing rams skin, weaving and giving of the gifts of their hands and bodies and hearts, women are central to everything about Vayakhel as indeed women are central to the story of human life itself. Without women and the gifts that women uniquely bring to the human story there would be no humanity, there would be no story to tell. So the women bring their copper mirrors to make one of the most sacred parts of the Mishkan, the Lavan.
Wherever we find water in Torah women are not far behind or sometimes far ahead. Miriam danced by the water after the journey of Sinai, Rachel drew up water from the well meeting Jacob, in Genesis the first thing Hashem does is bring his self, her essence over the deep, the sea. Water is a source of mystery, it is a source of life and it is central to every part of building the Mishkan, from the Menorah which symbolizes a tree and the unity of a community to the Lavan where people sanctify themselves for an experience that is to be set aside, to the Acacia wood which digs its roots so deep to find water to the beauty of everything in the Mishkan that is covered in gold, water is the force behind it all.
All the gold on earth was formed in the heart of a supernova explosion five billion years ago before the earth even began. There is a little bit of gold in everything on earth and gold is unique in that it does not bind to anything except itself. Gold is moved around on the planet through water and during unique times of geothermal activity, volcanic activity, plate techtonic movement or other geological activities which superheat fluids gold will bind and clump with itself only to be buried again under mountains or buried in deep ancient seabeds miles underneath the earth. Gold is rare and its value is universal, but it is actually incredibly common. It is in everything in everyone but it is also rare, and it only gathers in clumps enough to even see let alone to assemble under very special circumstances that are only made possible with water.
Community, truly sacred community that is gathered up into the intentions of uplifting every possible member is the final instruction of Parashah Vayakhel. We are reminded through the acts of creativity, through the deeper state of awareness that is a metaphor of the sabbath, through the incense and smoke of the burning acacia wood, through our own senses and instinct that building a Kehillah Kedosh is an intergenerational endeavor of the entire community. We are working on a project that started long before us and will continue long after we have gone, but it is our responsibility to help build it, each in our own way offering our unique gifts to the sacred experiencing of contributing to this amazing world we find ourselves mysteriously born in to. What will be your contribution?