February 27, 2003
Parshat Vayakel (Exodus 35:1-38:20)
Our Torah portion begins after a tragedy -- the tragedy of the golden calf. Moses assembles the entire Israelite community in order to renew the covenant between God and Israel. Vayakel -- "and he brought them together" -- he made them one community.
It is not so easy to be one community, particularly at a time of tragedy.
I thought about this a great deal over the past few weeks when I was in Israel with Rabbi Eli Herscher of Stephen S. Wise Temple, Rabbi Bill Berk of Temple Chai in Phoenix and 22 members of our congregations. We were there to study Torah at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Our learning focused on the "Ethical Challenges to Israeli Society at a Time of Crisis." The study was extraordinarily powerful -- with master teachers like Rabbi Donniel Hartman and Rabbi Rachel Sabath, not to mention our unforgettable session with the founder of the Institute, the brilliant philosopher Rabbi David Hartman. They led us through the study of Torah and sacred texts that raised thought-provoking questions about what the ethical obligations ought to be of a state that calls itself Jewish.
Our Torah study was enriched by a day in Tel Aviv where we visited some of the projects supported by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles' Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, including the Shevach Mofet School, a high school in which the majority of the students are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. This was the school that lost many of its students in the Dolphinarium bombing. Instead of being defeated by the tragedy, the students have recommitted themselves to excellence. We heard from several of the students who have joined with their counterparts at the Milken Community High School in different kinds of partnerships, connected by the Internet and summer seminars.
Then we met with Rabbi Meir Azari and learned about the groundbreaking work of the Reform Movement's Beit Daniel, which is reaching out to teach Israelis about religious pluralism and offers alternatives to the traditional Israeli notion that to be religious means to be Orthodox. We also visited the wonderful program for elderly Holocaust survivors called Café Europa.
Finally, we met with social workers from the municipality of Tel Aviv to learn about the problems faced by foreign workers in Israel and the challenges to a city in dealing with victims of terror.
It was both inspiring and deeply troubling -- inspiring because it seemed as though everyone we met was a hero, but troubling in that there were hardly any other American Jews in Israel. Wherever we went, after Israelis thanked us for coming, they asked us: "Where are all the American Jews? Aren't we all in this together?"
Vayakel: "And Moses brought us all together" to make us one community.
The Torah portion goes on to describe what God commanded: "Take from among you gifts to the Lord; everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them. So the whole community of the Israelites left Moses' presence and everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved him came bringing to the Lord his offering for the Tent of Meeting ... men and women, all whose hearts moved them ... came bringing objects of all kinds.... Thus, the Israelites, all the men and women whose hearts moved them to bring everything for the work that the Lord, through Moses, had commanded to be done, brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord."
Building the tabernacle, the sacred place that symbolized our connection with God, was a communal effort that required the whole community to work together. Different people had different tasks -- the Torah describes the artistry of Bezalel and Ohaliab and the special skills of the women who spun with their own hands. But the work belonged to everyone -- so much so that there was even an overflow of effort and gifts.
The work of building Israel belongs to all of us. Whatever our politics, whatever our view of what ought to be done in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel is central to the Jewish story. It is our story.
We heard two different versions of that story from the Israelis we met. Each has implications for us as American Jews. One version is that our mishpacha is in trouble -- and when your family needs you, you drop everything and you go. You don't just send money. You don't just pay the medical bills. You go, you sit, you visit.
The other version is different. It is not just the story of members of our family in trouble. It is the story of our Torah portion, of members of our family, our people, who are builders, willing to live through difficult times because they are engaged in the very important work of building a more just world. Their work is to make certain that Israel can survive the challenges of power and live up to its promise to truly be a Jewish State, a country animated by the highest ethical values of Jewish tradition.
That task is a sacred task and, like the building of the tabernacle, it requires the entire Jewish community to work together. May we each bring our skills, talent, resources, energy and, most important, our presence, to nurture the holy place that is so central to the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
Laura Geller is senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.