Friday, February 25, 2011

Vayakhel (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog at 2006_02_24_archive.html, as well as March 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010.

The Sanctuary as a Group Enterprise

This week’s parashah parallels Parshat Terumah, indeed, in many passages it is an almost verbatim repetition, with minor changes in the tense of the verbs and the persons addressed. But whereas the earlier parashah describes the overall scheme of the Sanctuary, as dictated to Moses by God, here Moses instructs the people to collect the various materials needed for the Mishkan, and then charges the artisans—Bezalel, Ohaliav, and “every man wise of heart”—to shape these materials into the various artifacts needed for the Sanctuary. (See below for a discussion of the difference in order between these two parshiyot pairs)

Following these commands, the Torah describes how the people responded enthusiastically, bringing the various materials needed for the Mishkan generously, unstintingly, and joyfully. So much so, that Bezalel and the others charged with executing the plan quickly realized that they had all they needed and more, and “a voice was passed through the camp that no man or woman should bring any more material for the labor of the Sanctuary” (Exod 36:6).

What we see here is perhaps the first communal religious construction project in history: the building of a place to serve as a permanent home for the indwelling of the Divine Glory among the people. If, in last week’s reading, we saw the potential for negative behavior on the part of a community (although some might say that the incident of the Calf happened precisely because they were not a community, but an undisciplined, wild mob, a rabble, a crowd), here we see the positive flip side of that same potentiality. And we find here the notion that the Shekhinah can dwell in the world in a fixed way, not in the hearts of individuals, however pure and sublime their thoughts and consciousness may be, but only in a congregation. Interestingly, this attitude is diametrically opposed to a widespread attitude in Western culture, powerfully resurgent in the present Zeitgeist, that was best expressed by Alfred North Whitehead in saying that “Religion is what the individual does with his solitariness.”

I would like to elaborate upon certain themes to which I hinted very briefly in my essay earlier this year on Lekh lekha: namely, that the three pillars on which, according to Avot 1.2, the world stands—Torah, avodah, and gemillut hasadim—are all ideally or best fulfilled in community. I shall treat each one of them in turn.

First: avodah, Divine service—originally referring to the sacrificial order in the ancient Temple, today used of prayer—avodah shebe-lev, “service of the heart.” I have written in the past on the nature of public prayer, particularly emphasizing that daily public prayer is a kind of reenactment or parallel to the Tamid, the fixed daily offering made in the Temple. This may be the reason why the synagogue is called Mikdash Me’at, a “small” or “minor Temple.”

But there’s more to it than that. While in the Amidah, each person whispers his prayer silently, prayer itself is ideally engaged in with a community, with a minyan of ten Jews. (Even one who, for one reason or another, worships in private, should join himself to the community—by synchronizing the time of his prayer with that of the community, and by mentally identifying himself with the praying community and its needs.) It is clear that, in many respects, the minyan is greater than the sum of its parts. It represents a microcosm of Knesset Israel, of the Jewish people as a whole, past present and future, and serves as a reminder to the individual of the centrality of community: that prayer is not only an existential experience of the individual, focused on his/her inner consciousness; through communal prayer, the individual is organically related to the community within which he/she was born, and in whose history, joys and sorrows and hopes for the future he shares.

Rereading Rav Soloveitchik’s landmark essay, “The Lonely Man of Faith,” the meaning of community becomes clearer. He begins with a typology of human existence, with two ideal types present within each person: “Adam the First,” or “Majestic Man,” who is involved in the instrumental, practical aspect of life, conquering the physical world and controlling the economic and political realm of human society; and “Adam the Second” or “existential man,” who suffers existential loneliness and anguish and is concerned with the quest for meaning. The Rav sees the solution to this anguish, at least in good measure, in community—and through the human community of faith and tradition, in a covenantal relation with the Eternal. He stresses that this relationship (unlike what one hears these days from many New Age Jewish spiritual teachers) is not one of the individual alone, but passes through what he calls “the Masorah community”—and perhaps the quintessential experience of that community is prayer. Prayer is not only petitioning God for one’s own needs or those of one’s immediate family—health, livelihood, continuity—but is prayer on behalf of ones’ an ever-widening circle of ones fellows. But the essence of prayer, per Rambam, is “standing before God,” a kind of conscious acting out, if you will, of standing in relation with the Almighty (a kind of counterpart to prophecy, in which God communicated with man). In the context of an entire community, or at least the microcosm thereof in the minyan, this act of standing before God, is immeasurably heightened, as the community is not limited by the existential limits of an individual human life defined by its own birth and death, but carries within it the past, present and future of Knesset Yisrael in its entirety.

It is interesting to contrast this view with that of secular existentialists, such as Sartre and Camus, who see the only possible redemption from the alienation and meaninglessness of life in action freely chosen by the individual. The classic example they give is heroic political action, such as that of the anti-Nazi Resistance during World War II, in which they were privileged to participate. While one cannot but admire them for this, on the philosophical level it leaves many unanswered questions. First: that the circumstances of the Resistance were so extraordinary that it is difficult to adapt them as a model for ordinary, humdrum everyday life. Second: that the Resistance movement was itself a community, indeed, one marked by intense mutual support and esprit de corps, by shared ideals and values, heightened by the constant dangers and need for total loyalty—and that this was surely one of the sources of the profound satisfaction people felt in acting within its context.

One more thing: the concept of Ta’anit Tzibbur (the public fast day) is essentially a halakhic template describing how a community ought to respond to calamity. This includes fasting; teshuvah, entailing both soul-searching by each individual and a kind of public stock-taking by the leaders of the community; the public reading of appropriate passages of the Torah and the prophets; words of admonition by the communal leaders; and the blowing of trumpets. But most of all, it means לזעוק ולהריע: to cry out to God in distress, a special mode of prayer unique to the community. Again, as per the Rav: the public fast day, which may be proclaimed by the Beit Din whenever it deems it appropriate to do so, creates a degree of closeness to God available to the individual only during the Ten Days of Repentance, when “the king is in the field.” In this respect, too, the public and the individual are subject to very different rules.

Turning to the area of Torah: while an individual may study Torah in his home or in the quiet of a library, the traditional notion of Torah study is closely connected with the idea of the Beit Midrash—the public Study House, which historically was an indispensable part of every Jewish community. Anybody who has ever been in a traditional yeshiva or Beit Midrash knows that the level of noise there is diametrically opposed to that of a study hall or library in Western culture. Study is generally done in hevruta—pairs or groups of people studying together, together attempting to work out the meaning and implications of the text, debating or arguing over its interpretation. This feature is so central that the Sages speak of scholars “waging the war of Torah.” Again: on the theological level, too, the study of Torah, the transmission of Torah to the next generations, is conceived as a communal, and not only an individual, enterprise.

Third: gemillut hasadim, acts of human kindness and caring for others. Once again, every individual can and should engage in acts of kindness, of generosity, of caring for others without any thought of reward or reciprocation, whenever possible—and opportunities to do so surround us in life, at any and every moment. But one of the hallmarks of the traditional Jewish community, both past and present, is the existence of havurot, of groups of people dedicated to one or another aspect of hesed, and to assure that these needs are met. These range from free loan societies—of both money and specific items needed by people on occasion; societies to help indigent brides to marry; visiting and giving succor to the ill; burying the dead; offering food and lodging to visitors in a community; etc. I have been privileged to belong to communities in which the practice of hesed was a central value, and can only say that, against the background of an increasingly competitive, narcissistic, and money-oriented society, the selfless activities routinely practiced there were impressive indeed.

Postscript: A digression about the order of things in these chapters: there are certain differences in the order of things between Terumah-Tetzaveh, on the one hand, and Vayakhel-Pekudei, on the other. One striking difference: whereas in Tetzaveh the altar of the incense is listed almost as an afterthought, as we discussed at length two weeks ago, in Vayakhel the artisans are instructed as to its fashioning together with the other artifacts of the Sanctuary. Moreover: whereas in Terumah the instructions begin with the Aron, the ark of the covenant, the focus of the highest sanctity and the so-to-speak dwelling place for the Divine Glory, which was in some sense the purpose of the entire project, in Vayakhel the making of the ark and the other items placed in the inner sanctuary—the Menorah, the table for the shewbread, and the golden incense altar—are only described after the framework of wood and draperies in which they were to be housed. Thus, these holy implements were not left without a proper home for even a brief period.

It seems to me that these changes may all be understood in light of the dictum—originally Aristotelian, but one which assumed special meaning in Jewish culture— סוף מעשה במחשבה תחלה (“Last in execution, first in thought”): Tthat is, that any plan begins with a certain conception of its ultimate purpose, but in practice its realization requires numerous preliminary steps, so that the most important step may be the very last to be performed in action. The chapters of Terumah–Tetzaveh represent the overall vision, beginning with the most important and holiest item, the ark of the covenant, “so that I may dwell among them: the chapters of Vayakhel–Pekudei, describe the execution of that scheme in concrete terms.


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