March 1, 2011
Recognizing a Community
Parashat Pekudei (Exodus 38:21-40:38)
When looking for biblical themes on the importance of community, one needs look no further than those portions at the end of Exodus that deal with the construction of the mishkan (Tabernacle). This special structure represents the collective spiritual power of the Jewish people, which is far greater than the sum of the individual parts. Separately, the individual Jew does not have enough spiritual energy to bring the Divine Presence, the Shekhinah, into this world. But when the Jewish people join in the construction of a communal edifice, a structure that represents their collective worship and spiritual energy, the Shekhinah eagerly embeds Itself within the people.
A curious midrash relates that when Moses was making an inventory of all the donated materials for the mishkan, he couldn’t account for 1,775 silver shekels that had been donated but were nowhere to be found in the final construct. He began to panic and thought: The people will accuse me of being an embezzler! At that moment, God enlightened him and he saw the silver hooks, meant to hold up all the mishkan tapestries, hanging on the beams of the mishkan. This was where the missing silver had gone.
The midrash has profound meaning, as do all midrashim of this genre, because it tells us something vital about community. The word “hook” in Hebrew is vav, which also happens to be the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. This letter is actually shaped like a vertical hook; it’s a simple straight bar with a protruding head. Not coincidentally, the letter vav serves the same function as a hook: it attaches two things together. Just as a hook attaches a tapestry to a beam or a wall, so does the letter vav serve in Hebrew as the conjunction word “and,” which conjoins phrases and ideas in a sentence.
Sometimes we look at a community and we see a disjointed and disconnected group of people. We fail to see the vavs, the vital ingredients that hold these people together and make them a community. This blindness is potentially disastrous, for without knowing about the hooks, we have no way of knowing how to keep the community together should a crisis strike that threatens to tear us apart.
Sometimes the vavs of the community are a common organization; sometimes they are a common edifice; sometimes (and hopefully most importantly), they are Judaism and Torah themselves. But we must remember those things that bind us or we are doomed to be torn asunder.
When Cain killed Abel, God cursed Cain and consigned him to be a wanderer for the rest of his life. But he also gave him “the sign of Cain,” which was some insignia on his forehead that would remind everyone who he was. What was this symbol? According to the Zohar, it was the letter vav. Why? Rabbi Meir Shapiro (d. 1933) aptly surmised that any person who could ask, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” needed to be reminded that there are other people in the world. The letter vav, Hebrew’s “and,” needed to be permanently emblazoned on Cain’s head to constantly remind him that he is not the only person — there’s me and my brother; there’s me and my sister; there’s me and the rest of the community. Cain had lost sight of the vavs, and he paid the ultimate price of living the rest of his life with the remorse of having destroyed his brother.
The Shulhan Aruch — the Code of Jewish Law — states that when writing a Torah scroll, it is customary to start each new column of words with the letter vav. The vav reminds us that the Torah is not a disjointed set of disparate ideas, but one unified corpus of Divine literature. The vavs in the mishkan reminded Moses that the Jewish people are not just individuals. Surely, every Jew has an individual tapestry that is colorful and uniquely beautiful. But in order for the tapestry to radiate its beauty properly, it must be hung upon the Tabernacle hooks and become part of the larger edifice, the larger community of the Jewish people.
It is so easy to lose sight of the vavs in our community, especially when each of our voices is so passionate, so unique and so different from the other voices. But without the vavs, we are merely just individual voices; together, our collective voice — if we dare to find it — can bring the Divine Presence back to our community and, ultimately, to the entire world.
Rabbi Korobkin is rosh kehillah of Yavneh in Hancock Park, a community mohel and provides synagogue services for the Orthodox Union.