By Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks
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This week’s Parshah and its name: Vayakhel is the Torah’s primer on how to build community.
It does so in a subtle way. It uses a single verb, k-h-l, to describe two very different activities. The first appears in last week’s parsha at the beginning of the story of the Golden Calf. “When the people saw that Moshe was long delayed in coming down the mountain, they gathered (vayikahel) around Aharon and said to him: get up, make us gods to go before us. This man Moshe who brought us out of Egypt – we have no idea what has become of him” (Ex. 32:1). The second is the opening verse of this week’s parsha: “Moshe assembled (vayakhel) all the community of Israel and said to them: these are the things the Lord has commanded you to do” (Ex. 35:1).
These sound similar. Both verbs could be translated as “gathered” or “assembled.” But there is a fundamental difference between them. The first gathering was leaderless; the second had a leader, Moshe. The first was a crowd, the second a community.
In a crowd, individuals lose their individuality. A kind of collective mentality takes over, and people find themselves doing what they would never consider doing on their own. Crowds lack the inhibitions and restraints that form our inner controls as individuals.
The crowd that gathered around Aharon was in the grip of panic. Moshe was their one contact with God, and thus with instruction, guidance, miracle and power. Now he was no longer there and they did not know what had happened to him. Their request for “gods to go before us” was ill-considered and regressive. Their behaviour once the Calf was made – “the people sat down to eat and drink and then stood up to engage in revelry” – was undisciplined and dissolute. When Moshe came down the mountain at God’s command, he “saw that the people were running wild for Aharon had let them run beyond control and become a laughing stock to their enemies.” What Moshe saw exemplified Carl Jung’s description: “The psychology of a large crowd inevitably sinks to the level of mob psychology.” Moshe saw a crowd.
The Vayakhel of this week’s parsha was quite different. Moshe sought to create community by getting the people to make personal contributions to a collective project, the Mishkan, the Sanctuary. In a community, individuals remain individuals. Their participation is essentially voluntary: “Let everyone whose heart moves them bring an offering.” Their differences are valued because they mean that each has something distinctive to contribute. Some gave gold, other silver, others bronze. Some brought wool or animal skins. Others gave precious stones. Yet others gave their labour and skills.
What united them was not the dynamic of the crowd in which we are caught up in a collective frenzy but rather a sense of common purpose, of helping to bring something into being that was greater than anyone could achieve alone. Communities build; they do not destroy. They bring out the best in us, not the worst. They speak not to our baser emotions such as fear but to higher aspirations like building a symbolic home for the Divine Presence in their midst.
By its subtle use of the verb k-h-l, the Torah focuses our attention not only on the product but also the process; not only on what the people made but on what they became through making it. This is how I put it in The Home We Build Together: “A nation – at least, the kind of nation the Israelites were called on to become – is created through the act of creation itself. Not all the miracles of Exodus combined, not the plagues, the division of the sea, manna from heaven or water from a rock, not even the revelation at Sinai itself, turned the Israelites into a nation. In commanding Moshe to get the people to make the Tabernacle, God was in effect saying: To turn a group of individuals into a covenantal nation, they must build something together.
“Freedom cannot be conferred by an outside force, not even by God Himself. It can be achieved only by collective, collaborative effort on the part of the people themselves. Hence the construction of the Tabernacle. A people is made by making. A nation is built by building.”
The downsides of crowds are still with us. So too are the upsides of community, as Melanie Reid’s Scottish pub demonstrates. I believe that creating community takes hard work, and that few things in life are more worthwhile. Building something with others, I discover the joy of becoming part of something greater than I could ever achieve alone.
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks
Kol Hator Commentary – This Message comes crowning the entire series of studies that we have presented on the Tabernacle and its relation to the Final Redemption. We have emphasized in bolds those sections in the commentary above which accentuates the exalted benefit for the soul who cares to participate in this vital Final Redemption Process. Supporting the Vision and Promotions of Kol Hator presents an ideal opportunity for such participation and potential of achievement. Please write us at firstname.lastname@example.org for details of how you can participate – or phone directly +972 52 747 4834