Exodus 35: (1) Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: “These are the things that the LORD has commanded you to do: (2) On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. (3) You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day.” (4) Moses said further to the whole community of Israelites: “This is what the LORD has commanded: (5)Take from among you gifts to the LORD; everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them — gifts for the LORD: gold, silver and copper.”
Excerpted from The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, editor W. Gunther Plaut (NY: URJ Press, 2005). Used by permission of URJ Press, www.urjbooksandmusic.com.
ayak’heil constitutes one of the last five portions that concludes the Book of Exodus, all of which describe in meticulous detail, at times excruciatingly precise, almost obsessive, the construction of the desert Tabernacle under the direction of the divinely inspired artist, Bezalel. Sandwiched in the middle of this “pentateuch” is the infamous, tragic episode of the Golden Calf.
The Rabbis have pondered the convoluted, repetitious nature of these five portions in a text that generally is sparing in its use of words. Many explanations have been offered. On one level, the first two and a half portions set forth God’s instructions on the Tabernacle, while the last segments describe the actual construction and erection of the structure. One commentator offered that God was so enamored with having a permanent, physical presence in the midst of His people that the details were repeated.
One noteworthy feature in our portion is the use of the versatile word Vayak’heil: Vayak’heil Moshe et kol adat Yisroel, “Moses convoked the whole Israelite community.” Moses brings the people together, reiterates and emphasizes the imperative of maintaining the Sabbath and then exhorts them to bring their valuables to enable the construction of the Tabernacle. The same word, in a different mode, appears in the previous portion, Ki Tisa 32:1: Vayikahel ha’am al Aharon, “…the people gathered around Aaron.” Here the people, borne of their mounting anxiety and fear in the prolonged absence of Moses, approach Aaron and demand a god, a tangible, physical presence, that will lead them and give them comfort. The result is the Golden Calf.
Both chapters are linked by this word that at its core consists of the word kahal, or k’hilah, meaning “assembly” or “community,” a group of people brought together for a purpose. In both instances the people are driven by the need to build an expression of their faith, an objective correlative that concretizes their conception of the deity. In one instance, the people organize themselves by gathering around Aaron. In the other, they are convoked by Moses. In both cases, when asked to contribute their wealth to create the object of worship, they do so willingly and generously.
One way of explaining the parallels in these two episodes is to see them as marking the difficulties experienced by a community in accommodating to changes in ritual and worship. The Israelites, having just emerged from Egypt, where worship was directed toward a god in physical form, could not comprehend a redirection of worship to an invisible, intangible deity. The Israelites are a people in transition. In the face of all the evidence — miracles, seas that are split, hearing the voice of God at the foot of a mountain — the Israelites find it difficult to relinquish the forms of worship to which they are accustomed. Religious practice, because it is felt deeply, becomes woven into our emotional fabric. It is a great challenge to step out of this zone of comfort and open ourselves to a different mode of religious understanding.
For the Israelites, change could happen only through the cauldron of the Golden Calf experience. In our portion, we are situated in the aftermath of the Golden Calf catastrophe. Tradition has it that this episode took place on Yom Kippur, the day that has become synonymous with forgiveness, reconciliation and renewal. So the next day, after the great catharsis, Moses gathers the people and rechannels their focus. Now the people can organize themselves around the construction of the Tabernacle, the paramount Jewish institution, the precursor and model for the Temple in Jerusalem, the place where the divine meets humanity. They are now ready to execute the instructions they had received earlier. The people are asked to contribute to the enterprise. And, again, the people respond, but this time their generosity is abundant and seemingly endless. In fact, they have to be told to stop.
Therein lies the dream and the nightmare for fundraisers: the dream — to raise so much money that the donors have to be told to stop; the nightmare — to raise so much money that the donors have to be told to stop! But stop they must. Giving without self-restraint and limitation, no matter how valued the cause, destroys the giver.
Vayak’heil is about organizing the community to invest itself, with the totality of its wealth and spirit, in the new idea of worship. It underscores the significance of community in this effort of re-visioning and reinventing itself: the need for unification and harmony, the dedication to one purpose. Today, k’hila (community) likewise is a fundamental and formative part of our Jewish identity. Judaism is about community, about the life we share with others. We pray together, study together, listen to Torah together, and we do so in the synagogue we helped to build, today’s Tabernacle, the home of the community.
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