The Art of Building Community

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By Rabbi Jason Bonder

Parashat Vayakhel 5782

In this week’s Torah portion, we meet Betzalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, from the tribe of Judah for the second time. He is God’s pick to lead the construction of the Mishkan — the Tabernacle.

The Torah says that God gave Betzalel special talents. “God has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge in every kind of craft and has inspired him to make designs for work in gold, silver and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood — to work in every kind of designer’s craft” (Exodus 35:31-33).

But this shouldn’t be news to us. Regular readers will likely recognize that the Torah says almost the exact same thing back in the 31st chapter of Exodus. Why again?

In W. Gunther Plaut’s “The Torah: A Modern Commentary,” we find an answer. “Such repetition was an integral part of the narrative style of the ancient Near East” (Plaut, 621).
But that was then, and this is now. Can we still find meaning in this repetition today?
I think so. I see two lessons for us in our times. First, a lesson about art. Second, a lesson about community.

There was inherent risk in putting an artist at the head of the project of building the Mishkan because art is subjective. Would everyone appreciate the designs that Betzalel made? Would everyone understand the symbolism? Would the design be suitable to the Divine Presence that would repeatedly descend upon that portable structure?

Judging by the Torah’s descriptions, the project seemed to be a major success. Yet I can’t avoid thinking that at least one ancient Israelite visitor to the Mishkan must have quipped, “I really just don’t see what all the fuss is about this Betzalel guy.”

I see in this imagined dissenter’s opinion the first lesson about repetition in this week’s portion. Perhaps, through telling the story twice, the Torah is talking to the critics among us. If you don’t see something in acclaimed art at first glance, look again. You might pick up something that you hadn’t perceived before.

This doesn’t only apply to visual art. It applies to our prayers, too. I often think back to when I was a rabbinic intern preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. I was just meeting this community for the first time, so I sought input from members.

“What are you looking for in the services?” I asked. “We want you to make it feel like home,” they said. To which I replied, “Great. Which home?”

Our first experiences in synagogue powerfully impact how we see Judaism forever after. We are sometimes inclined to think that the tunes we first hear are the exact ones sung at Mount Sinai.

It took me longer than I would like to admit to realize that many of my favorite tunes from synagogue services aren’t even 100 years old, let alone ancient. Nurit Hirsh’s “Oseh Shalom,” written in the 1960s, is my favorite example. For so long, I was sure that Moses sang that tune.

Many people cringe when certain tunes in synagogue are not “their” tunes. Perhaps the repetition we find in this week’s portion is encouraging us to give some tunes a second chance.

If we must revisit artwork or a piece of music to truly appreciate it, it is all the more important to revisit our communities as well. This brings me to the second lesson I find in this Torah portion. I don’t think it’s an accident that this repetitive portion is named “Vayakhel.”

Bringing people together is messy business. Sometimes it takes more than one try.
Our portion begins, “Moses then convoked (Vayakhel) the whole Israelite community …” This gathering is also a second chance of sorts. A few chapters earlier, the Israelites convoked themselves (Vayikahel) in a rebellious way to build the golden calf. Now they are trying it again with better intentions. We must try again and again to make it work just right.

Frustrations can run high these days as we try to figure out the best and safest ways to gather. People leave their computers muted or unmuted at the wrong times. Internet connections aren’t always flawless.

Vayakhel reminds us that when we convene, we are engaged in the process of creation. If you don’t find the beauty the first time, go back again. Try and find something beautiful despite the frustration. Vayakhel teaches us that creating sacred space and sacred community is an art form that must be repeated.

Rabbi Jason Bonder is the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


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