The Latest from BZBI

Assembling Together

Vayakhel 5779 / 2 March 2019

March 4, 2019

The poet David Whyte once observed that “All long friendships are rooted in mutual forgiveness.” Think about the most meaningful relationships in your life; is there one that has not suffered some kind of rupture, disappointment, or deep wound? Whyte suggests that every relationship will eventually endure some breach or betrayal. Some of our relationships are too shallow for it to matter; some are too fragile to survive. But our deepest, longest relationships have weathered these storms – a feat possible only through the mechanisms of forgiveness.

In last week’s Torah portion we faced the sordid tale of what may be the all-time worst act of spiritual infidelity: the Israelites, still camped at the base of Mount Sinai where they entered into covenant with God, worshipping a Golden Calf. It was the ultimate betrayal, as if our ancestors altogether forgot their sacred vows while still in the very place where they were uttered. And yet this morning’s parashah, Vayakhel, opens with a moment of reconciliation.

A common – and vexing – question on the parshiyyot about the Mishkan centers on the apparent repetition of items. Parashat Terumah lays out the plans for the Mishkan; and then parashat Vayakhel itemizes the things that were made. Why have both? If we had only parashat Terumah, wouldn’t we reasonably assume that the people went ahead and did what God instructed? And if we only had this week’s portion, couldn’t we easily infer that they made these things as they did because God ordained it?

One answer takes into account the sequence of events – and the fact that the Golden Calf incident falls square in the middle of the Mishkan parshiyyot. The Israelites betray God’s trust in the time just before construction was to begin. God’s anger, as we saw last week, ran so hot that the people were nearly wiped out. Moses, at the last minute, managed to avert catastrophe – but what would become of the covenant?

This morning’s Torah reading begins, וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה אֶֽת־כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, “And Moses assembled the entire community of the Children of Israel.”[1] According to tradition, this is the very next day after Moses returns from the top of Mount Sinai with the second set of tablets[2] – having smashed the first set. And although these second tablets outwardly resembled the first, in their essence they were not the same. Where the first were carved by God, the second were engraved by Moses; the first represented the pure commitment of a new covenant, while the second were forged in the aftermath of a profound breach of trust.

Moses calls this assembly to reassure the Israelites that the work of the Mishkan would go on as intended before their idolatry; notwithstanding the fundamental differences, the second tablets reflected a renewed covenant on the same terms as the first. God still desired to dwell among the Children of Israel. The divine love once again radiated through them. The relationship was restored.[3] But that is only half of the story.

The word וַיַּקְהֵל at the beginning of our parashah is only the second time this verb appears in the Torah – but the first use has a very different meaning. At the beginning of the Golden Calf story, we are told, וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַֽל־אַהֲרֹן, “The people assembled against Aaron.” On either side of the Golden Calf we find the same root, קהל, used with opposing meanings: וַיִּקָּהֵל, to assemble against something or someone; and וַיַּקְהֵל, to assemble people for some constructive purpose. A fascinating midrash describes the Israelites making twelve Golden Calves, one for each tribe.[4] To me, this suggests that their antagonism was not limited to the people’s assembling against Aaron; the whole enterprise involved pervasive strife and division. In violating their covenant with God, they also dissolved the bonds holding the human community together.

At the moment of revelation, the Jewish people stood at the base of the mountain “as a single person, with a single heart.”[5] Now their faithlessness had divided them, pitting tribe against tribe. Now, as the people begin to reconcile with God, וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה אֶֽת־כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, “And Moses assembled the entire community of the Children of Israel”[6] – he brings them together to effect a reconciliation within them, as well.

I am always inclined to see the relationships described in the Torah as paradigms through which we can understand our own relationships. But if we take that approach here, what do we make of the internal divisions within B’nai Yisrael? Perhaps the Torah suggests that, when our relationships suffer a breach or injury, we also endure rupture and division within ourselves. Again, each of us can look to our own experiences: how did I feel within myself at a time when my actions, or my neglect, brought harm to a relationship? And when that relationship healed, when I reconciled with the other person, did I automatically feel soothed within myself as well? Or did my internal wounds continue to ache?

Most of the time, I personally experience the latter. Being forgiven by the other person doesn’t fully resolve for me the regret, blame, and self-doubt that swirls in the aftermath of whatever breached that relationship. וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה אֶֽת־כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל – there is work I must do to bring the fractured parts of myself back together again, to become whole within myself.

And so, this morning, we hear all about how the Israelites built the Mishkan just as God had stipulated, because it turns out that it’s not obvious from the mitzvot of parashat Terumah that the Israelites would have gone on to carry out God’s design. What if God had not reconciled with the people? What point would there be in building a sanctuary if the Shekhinah would not come to dwell in it and among them? And even if we believe that a loving, compassionate God would inevitably seek to restore the covenant, could the Israelites have built a truly sacred space if they were divided against themselves?

וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה אֶֽת־כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, “And Moses assembled the entire community of the Children of Israel.” Moses needs to bring everyone together in this moment – to reassure them that God has taken them back, with love, into a renewed covenant; and to bring wholeness back to the community, filling in the cracks that formed between them during the breach. In our own relationships, I think we often focus on the first paradigm – our reconciliation with the other party – and give less attention to the second, the reconciliation that must happen within ourselves. But I don’t believe we are any different, within ourselves, than our ancestors were as a community. Our missteps fracture us, divide us against ourselves. How long will we continue to bear the pain of those cracks? When will it be time to say to ourselves, וַיַּקְהֵל, let’s come back together?


[1] Ex. 35:1.

[2] Ramban, Ex. 35:1.

[3] Ramban, ibid.

[4] Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10.2 (28b).

[5] Rashi, Ex. 19:2.

[6] Ex. 35:1.