When Moses gathered the Israelites in this week's Torah portion, the foundations for community and synagogues were laid.
This week’s Torah portion begins with Moses convening the Israelites to give them instructions for the construction of the mishkan. This building project brought the individual Israelites together and helped transform them into a community.
Va-yak-hel is the verb that denotes the act of Moses gathering the Israelites. The root is k-h-l. Two nouns formed from this root are kahal (congregation) and kehillah (community). Today, the synagogue, ideally, has the effect of welding individual families into a tighter community.
In last week’s Torah portion, the Israelites committed their gravest sin. When Moses stayed up on Mt. Sinai a long time, they became impatient. They manipulated Aaron into making the golden calf. In Exodus 32:1: “The people gathered themselves together.” The verb to describe this gathering is va-yi-ka-hel. Notice the root k-h-l. It is used in a reflexive form; they gathered themselves together without any mention of a leader.
It was a gathering that turned into a rebellion against God through the building of an idol. At the very beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Moses gathered the people (Exodus 35:1). The verb used is va-yak-hel, a transitive verb with an actor and a direct object.
In last week’s episode, when the Israelites gathered themselves, they committed their worst sin by making the golden calf. In this week’s episode, they made atonement because it was Moses who gathered them for the purpose of building the mishkan.
The call Moses issued for bringing donations for building the mishkan reads: “ … everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them — gifts for the Lord” (Exodus 35:5). What followed? The Israelites showed — perhaps out of guilt — utmost enthusiasm in giving contributions. In nine verses, one verb for bringing gifts is used 10 times. This repetition gives the impression of a stream of people coming forward and bringing gifts.
The result was that there were too many donations. The Torah says that all the artisans engaged in the tasks of the sanctuary came and said to Moses: “The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Lord has commanded to be done. ” (Exodus 36:4-5). Then Moses proclaimed: “‘Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!’ So the people stopped bringing; their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done.” (Exodus 36:6-7)
Why build a mishkan when God can be found anywhere? The golden calf embodied the idea that a divine essence could inhere in an idol of human craftsmanship. It symbolized all those things created by human beings that become objects of human worship. The mishkan is not an idol; it is only a building. But God promised the Israelites that when they built it and gathered for worship, God’s presence would dwell among them. The mishkan recognizes the limits of human understanding but it becomes the focus for the idea of God’s indwelling.
Having a synagogue helps to mold a gathering of Jews into a community. As a community, Jews can accomplish more and thus extend God’s work in the world. In a Midrash, God says to Moses: “The mishkan does not make Me less. It is the place where human beings have the opportunity to be more.”
Rabbi Fred Davidow is the Chaplain at Glendale Uptown Home. Email him at: RabbiFVD@aol.com.