Building Community - March 13, 2015

Dear Friends:

The double parasha of this week begins with Moshe assembling the whole Israelite community. The opening verse alerts us to the nature of community in Judaism. 

Over the past 10 days in Morocco,  I have gained a new perspective on how community is formed and enhanced.

Our first day in Casablanca, we visited the Hassan II mosque.  An exquisite piece of architecture on the corniche of the ocean, it is large enough to hold 25,000 people at prayer.  With mosaics, carvings and the artistic skills of the best artisans in Morocco, the edifice must have cost millions and millions of dollars.  The King, as "Commander of the Faithful", requested that every citizen contribute whatever they could to erect this mosque.   Every citizen means including the Jews.  And all did share in this free-will undertaking no matter how large or small the donation. Not only did King Hassan wish to erect this magnificent edifice but also he hoped to bring the people together in a joint national effort. 

In this week's Torah portion, Moses led the people from slavery to the beginning of the road to freedom. The people witnessed the signs and wonders of the Exodus and the revelation at Mount Sinai. Then when Moses went to the top of the mountain to received the tablets, the people built a Golden Calf.   Now life must begin again and the shattered people must be rebuilt around the second set of tablets and so they are called together.

In Hebrew there are three different words for community - edah, tsibbur, and kehillah - each with a different association.

People who constitute an edah have a strong sense of collective identity. They have witnessed the same things and are bent on the same purpose. The Jewish people became an edah - a community of shared faith at Sinai.

But an edah can also be a gathering for bad as well as good.  The Israelites, on hearing the report of the spies, lose heart and confidence. They want to return to the fleshpots of Egypt. In the book of Numbers, every time they complain or question Moshe or Aaron's authority, the Torah uses the word edah.  Today, the word is generally used for an ethnic or religious subgroup for a community of the like-minded; a group whose members have much in common.

By contrast, the tsibbur, a word from the Mishnah rather than biblical Hebrew, is a community of the minimalist sort, a mere aggregate, formed by numbers rather than a long-term relationship.  They may have nothing in common except that, at a certain point, they find themselves together and thus constitute a group for prayer or a minyan. They may not ever meet again but for the moment they are in the same place at the same time.

A kehillah, on the other hand, is orchestrated together for a collective undertaking that involves making a distinctive contribution.

The beauty of a kehillah is that when it is driven by constructive purpose, it gathers together the distinct and separate contributions of the many so that each may say "I have helped to make this."  That is why assembling people on this occasion, Moshe emphasizes that each has something different to give: "Take from what you have, an offering to God. Everyone who is willing to  bring to God an offering of gold, silver and bronze...All you who are skilled among you are to come and make everything the Lord has commanded."

Moshe was able to unify the people into a group with singleness of purpose while preserving the diversity of the gifts they brought to God.

The greatness of the Tabernacle was that it was a collective achievement - one in which not everyone did the same thing. Each gave...and each contribution was valued. Therefore, each participant felt valued. Vayekhel shows us that Moshe was able to forge out of the group a new and genuine community.

When our contributions are pooled together, when all our shekels are counted, it allows us to fulfill our communal obligations. Whether we give a little, like the half-shekel, or much more, we are a collective.

The final chapter of Exodus, Pekudei, is the conclusion of the tabernacle construction project. It is any not-for-profit's dream: an appeal that was stopped because it exceeded its target, and where the underwriters, the princes of each tribe, were embarrassed that no contribution was required of them.

Pekudei  means accounting, effectively the auditor's report and Moshe gives a full accounting of how the appeal proceeds were deployed. The message is very clear: no matter what the authority of your leadership, if you seek money from people, you must be accountable to them. And if you do something for the benefit of the community, it is reasonable to ask for a donation so that they become builders themselves. If these standards are good enough for Moshe, they should be good enough for the rest of us!

Let's pause as we complete each book of the Torah and recognize that great gift of the generations that proceeded us and, at the same time, find in our children, both our own and those of the entire Jewish people, the certainty that they will continue the mission of our people and the fulfillment of our Torah. In the sacred work of our community, even with the stops and starts along the journey, we must celebrate that it is only by working together that we will succeed.

Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.



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