February 21, 2014 | Parashat Vayak’heil
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One night I was reading my then 6 year old son a bedtime story. It had been a really long day and I was ready to get to bed myself. As I stumbled to get the words of the story out, he quickly interrupted me, “Come on dad, read with some feeling!”
Oh man, I thought to myself, he’s on to me—and he’s not going to let me off easy, so I asked him, “so how do I do that?” and then he said,
“I don’t know, just read from your heart.” Of course, I was blown away and completely inspired by his response, and when I read his bedtime story, it was easy to read with lots of feeling. But in thinking back on the experience, I realized that the way in which I read the words could completely change the effect of the story for him. I could read words hurriedly, impatiently, and carelessly, or I could read them with feeling, intention and movement, and, like my son suggested, I could read them from my heart.
When you compare last week’s Torah portion with this week’s, you see just how much of a difference doing something from the heart can make. Last week in Ki Tisa, the Israelites don’t really work together when they make the Golden Calf. They run around in a panic and cry, “Where is that man Moses?” and demand that Aaron find new gods for them to worship. Aaron panics too, and we can imagine him saying,
“Alright, alright! Just get me some gold and I’ll give it my best shot.” So the people toss some earrings to Aaron so he could make something, anything; they didn’t really care what. And maybe Aaron did his best, but he was a priest, not an artist, and I’m betting the results weren’t much to look at. But never mind how it looked, it definitely didn’t inspire good behavior: actually, it was a complete disaster. And no wonder: the people hadn’t contributed any time or talent to the project. They didn’t take any pride in the thing that had been made. Instead, they let fear and panic get the best of them and, as a result, they made something which led them to sin, acting in selfish and immoral ways.
Now contrast that with what happens in this week’s Torah portion, Vayak’heil. The people are instructed to build a home for the covenant they have just received. God tells them, to take gold, silver and copper; wool, fine linen, ram skins, seal skins, acacia wood, oils, spices, and onyx, but most importantly, God tells them that these offerings must come only from those whose hearts move them to give. Only those who are moved can give.
The people started lining up with their finest possessions until they had donated so much, they had to be turned away. And when they had gathered all their materials and got down to work, the portion says again that “everyone whose heart uplifted them came and brought the offering of Adonai.”
Under the direction of a few master artisans, the people worked together to create an elaborate and portable structure. The ark was made of acacia wood and gold, it was decorated with two angels made of solid gold. Around it rose the Mishkan made of colorful linen and woolen curtains. They were embroidered with beautiful designs and joined together with gold clasps. Columns of wood and gold were capped with silver sockets, and the Mishkan was protected by a tent made of woven goat hair joined with copper.
So are you all following me? Can you picture this perfectly in your mind? Me neither! How about a picture? [Picture] Ah, so much better! This was taken with Moses’ iPhone 3000, BCE. Yes, now we can see it!
It turns out there are lots of pictures of the Mishkan described in this week’s Torah portion, but I liked this one best because it depicts the closeness of the people. It shows how the tents were snug up to the Mishkan, how the people went on with their lives around the Mishkan, and how they gathered inside of it, too. As the Torah tells us, this was an act of love, one done from the heart, and the final product inspired love and togetherness too
Now as far as I know, none of us here has ever made curtains out of goat hair, and we’re sitting here in NYC. It’s not the Sinai desert, and it’s a few thousand years later, but you know what? We are here in our own Mishkan, just like that first Mishkan of our ancestors, and this is where we keep our covenant. This is where we read and learn from our Torah. This is where we come to be reminded of what it means to live up to these words.
The material contributions that make our Mishkan and the Mishkan of old are really important, but, at the end of the day, without feeling, without caring, without engaging our hearts, it’s all just stuff. Without listening to each other, without truly trying to uplift one another, this is just a beautiful room.
What made the Golden Calf different from the Mishkan? The Italian commentator Sforno says that the command from God to give from the heart meant that the contributions could not be forced as in, brought about by fear, indifference, or anger. They had to come from a free space with only love in it. THIS is how you can create sacred space and community.
Rabbi Buchdahl and I, and members of Central Synagogue’s board just came back this morning from a leadership trip to Israel. Over the course of 7 days, we took a deep look at the issues challenging Israel today and the continuing miracles of Israel’s resilience and innovation. We explored the challenges of religious pluralism, the question of the tens of thousands of asylum seekers, the settlements, the state of the Palestinian people, and some of the more challenging economic and social issues.
We also saw a miraculous device called Orcam developed in Israel that enables the blind or seeing impaired to be independent and live full lives. We saw how the new Beit Hatefutzot is rethinking what it means to be part of the Jewish people. We saw how an organization called Start Up Nation Central is bringing the Arab and Ultra-Orthodox populations into the high-tech workforce, and how another called Etgarim has empowered people with physical and emotional challenges through extreme sports including a competitive blind sailing team.
As we witnessed all of these one thing became clear: that love for Israel can only truly come about by opening one’s heart to all of Israel, to learn and experience all that it is, from the fun, to the heroic, to the sad and–especially today–the uncomfortable. To love Israel is not simply to protect it from danger, or to celebrate its accomplishments. To love Israel is to see Israel for everything it is, so that we can then give with all of our hearts. THIS is how we will build a sacred community, from America to Israel and create a space between us, where perhaps God can dwell.