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D’var Torah: VaYakhel- Our Tabernacle, Our Community, Our World

03/06/2024 09:28:24 AM


Rabbi Rudin

This Week’s Torah Portion Speaks About the Needs of Our Day

This week’s Torah portion describes the actual assembly of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), or wilderness sanctuary, which served as the spiritual center of the Jewish encampment on the way to the Promised Land. A project created solely through donations, I remember that for years, I struggled to find any relevance to what seemed to be a text that had more in common with an Ikea instruction booklet than anything spiritual that I could relate to.


But now, as I reflect on the past decades, I am drawn irresistibly to seeing building the Mishkan as a metaphor for building community.  The inner and outer chambers, the various implements and ritual objects, the courtyard and the incredible detail of the construction of all of the above cry out to be interpreted.  Tent pegs - what are the things that ground my family/community?  Eternal light: what gives light to our eyes and spring to our steps?  The curtains: what boundaries do we set and how do we ensure that we are welcoming and inclusive without losing our identity?  Each artifact and detail leads to a whole set of questions and reflections. 


Isn’t the whole narrative a way of getting the readers - and I mean all of us who are connected to Jewish life - thinking about the house we build, the family and community we create?  Maybe that’s the whole point of all of these chapters.  Jewish life at its heart is so much about creating community. 


But while that is true, we are all also parts of the wider general community.  Growing up in the sixties, my father always told me that my religious identity and life were private.  He was encapsulating the saying of the Maskilim, the creators of the 19th-century Jewish Enlightenment trying to figure out a way to be both Jewish and a part of general society.  Yehei Yehudi b’oholecha, adam b’tzeitzecha, “In your tent you can be as Jewish as you want, but when you go out in the street be like everyone else.”


But one thing I think we have learned since then is that to live authentically, you can’t leave your Judaism at the door of the tent.  We are not spiritual crypto-Jews, seeking acceptance through hiding who we are.  In fact, the hallmark of the American Jewish community is being comfortable being exactly us without shame or hesitation.  Living in an open society means that we can expect our non-Jewish neighbors and fellow citizens to not only place no obstacles to our full participation in the general community without paying the price of belonging to the Jewish people, but to ask that our Jewishness be embraced, shared, and celebrated. 


And for the most part, for all of our lives, that has been the case.  The Tabernacle of the Jewish community was allowed to embrace our whole society.  American life has been enriched, informed and infused with Jewish culture, Jewish values and even Jewish humor and cuisine.  A nation of immigrants with an open heart and mind to the willingness of those of all cultures, ethnicities and religions to come together to build a Tabernacle of democracy; that too is part of what our community has brought.


But now there are those who speak about that openness and embrace coming to an end.  The Atlantic Magazines April cover will feature Franklin Foer’s chilling article, “The Golden Age for American Jews is Ending.”  Citing the meteoric rise of antisemitism on the right and the left, Foer’s contention is that the values of tolerance, fairness, meritocracy and others that Jewish Americans helped establish are in danger of being subverted by reckless hyperbole, conspiracies and political violence.  Foer darkly proclaims: “The rise of antisemitism threatens the American experiment itself.”


I do not know if these dire warnings are true.  I pray they are not and that we can realistically hope for a return to the tolerance and peace that we have enjoyed.  But at this moment, as we read our Torah portion we must ask: And what of our Mishkan?  How does our community engage, confront, and adapt?  How do we move beyond responding and into being proactive in shaping the future?


Let us read the words that open our Parsha: Gather together the Congregation of Israel- 


Are the answers really in the scroll that we treasure and read on Shabbat?  Maybe not- but the conversations that the ancient texts can spark, should spark, can begin the journey beyond worry to action, from standing our ground to moving forward, from anticipation to renewal and from fatalism to activism and hope. 

Shabbat Shalom

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784