Is each person a world unto himself? Or is the whole greater than the sum of its parts?
This week’s Torah portion, one of the few times that neighboring sections are “doubled-up,” comes to teach that not only are both statements true, but that the collective nature of Jewish peoplehood requires the maximizing of everyone’s potential.
Vayakhel begins with Moses descending from Mount Sinai and assembling the entire people to transmit the commands that he received from the Almighty. The verb used here is interesting, because it indicates more than merely “summoning” or “collecting.” It literally means to make a kehillah, to craft a community.
Moses tells them two things: Keep the Shabbat, and, using a collection of precious materials derived from every person, build the Tabernacle.
More than a unifying communal building project, the Tabernacle existed as the Divine dwelling place in the physical world. Like the Holy Temple in Jerusalem that came after, it was the place where the people atoned for their misdeeds, offered up sacrifices to give thanks and from where the Almighty spoke.
In Jerusalem, the Temple and its courtyards served as both the high seat of justice, and as the National Archives, the place where the Ten Commandments were kept.
In a sense, the entire national ethos revolved around the Tabernacle and its iterations. And when the Temple was destroyed, it sent a shock wave rippling through the people. When we exclaim next month at the end of our Pesach seders, “Next year in Jerusalem!” we won’t be directing our hopes to the city, but to the crumbling stones of the Temple that once stood there and, we pray, will be rebuilt speedily in our own days.
But there’s something unique about the Tabernacle. When Moses first receives the command to build it, the Divine imperative is somewhat of a grammatical mystery: “Make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” The word used for “among them,” “b’tocham,” can also be translated as “within them.”
Aside from its communal quality, the Tabernacle also served a private role. Thousands of years of scholarship have served to explain that concept, noting that while neither the Tabernacle nor the Temple exist today, every person can and should build a dwelling place for the Divine within his or her heart, body and mind. Just as in the desert, where the Jewish people focused outward towards the Tabernacle in order to connect with the Holy One, in today’s world, the Jewish people should focus inward to purify their emotive and intellectual attributes to know the Divine.
That brings us to the “second half” of the story, the portion of Pekudei, whose name connotes the inherent worth of each item.
To build the Tabernacle, every person had to be devoted to the cause. Those who excelled at weaving wove. Those who excelled at carpentry fashioned articles made out of wood. Those who excelled at metalwork crafted gold, silver and copper utensils. And when it came to erecting the sanctuary, it all came down to one man, Moses, who had the supernatural ability to piece it all together.
In the final analysis, there can be no Jewish people without the Jewish person. Like a body, where every limb plays a crucial and vital role, the vitality of Judaism depends upon the contributions of every individual. By working together, we can turn the Pesach hope into a promise.
Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. E-mail him at: jrunyan@ chabad.org.