D’Var Torah

VaYakhel, 5784 (3/9/2024)

Rabbi Micah Friedman

     How should a nation fairly collect and distribute funds for the sake of the common good?

     Who should be trusted to make decisions on behalf of the collective?

     By what standards should we evaluate whether someone is fit to fulfill a role of great responsibility on behalf of the collective?

     These questions – in one form or another – have been on the minds of millions of Americans this past week, and, as we look ahead towards a long election season in this country, these questions will continue to occupy a prominent place in our collective consciousness. However, already 8 months before November, many Americans, as well as many people all over the world who understand the influence our country has on all the inhabitants of the earth, are feeling frustrated and unsatisfied with the ways decisions are made in our political system; regardless of where we are drawn within the political, we are feeling deeply concerned about our shared future. 

     At the same time, the state of Israel finds itself in an ongoing state of war – and the world watches in increasing horror as more than a million people – Palestinians – are already starving or nearly starving in Gaza. This week, the latest round of negotiations for an exchange of Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners and an end – or at least pause – to the war broke down. 

     What the future holds for us in the US, for those in the Land of Israel and Palestine and for people around the world is very uncertain and to many seems bleak. Yet, it is precisely from this midst of this uncertain reality that the ancient calendar of our people guides us – each and every one of us – to actively lean in to the work of ensuring the well-being of our community.  Both the regular weekly parsha and our special seasonal Maftir and Haftarah share this emphasis on the essential role of the active engagement of the individual in efforts on behalf of the collective. 

     The first word of the weekly Torah portion is Vayakhel –  “he (Moshe) assembled” or  “he congregated” or even “he made the congregation of Israel into a community.” This word uses the same root – K-H-L – which has been used by groups of Jews to refer to our congregations and communities throughout history – as in Kahal or Kehillah. 

     Last year, this parsha was the next one in the annual cycle after my first visit to Temple Israel. On Sunday morning of that weekend, over brunch, I taught an interpretation of this parsha which notices that VaYakhel comes immediately after Ki Tisa – where we read the story of the sin of the Golden Calf. It is in the wake of immense strife and conflict, division and pain, that the Torah tells that Moses actively engaged in the work of gathering the people of Israel into a community – a Kahal- congregation or Kehillah – community. 

     As we prepare for an ongoing period of political division – when it is not only appropriate but even valuable for people to actively engage in conversation with people with whom we disagree about our shared future – this parsha’s context teaches us the critical importance of continuing to congregate – to understand that being a community or congregation  requires action; the act of VaYakhel – to community as a verb.

     But how do we do this? How do we “community” as a verb?

     Here is where the special readings of Shabbat Shekalim adds vital perspective. Sheklaim is the first of several special Shabbatot with unique haftarot that we read as we look ahead to the first of our ancient festivals – Pesach – the time of our liberation. 

     In order to perform the functions of the nation, including both the daily sacrifices of the Temple and the repair of roads and wells, every free adult Israelite is commanded to contribute half-a-shekel to a special communal fund. Whether we lived in Jerusalem or the Galilee, in Syria or in Babylon, each Jews was expected to make this small contribution of great symbolic significance. 

     Through everyone participating the collective actions taken by our leaders could actually meaningfully represent the collective nation of Israel – the entire Jewish people. To this day, many have the practice of donating three half-dollar coins to their local Jewish community around this time of year, just before Purim – and declaring “this is my half shekel.”

     In the Mishnah the early rabbis recount how those coins would be collected, how they would be withdrawn only at 3 points in the year and with solemn ceremony, and the way these could and couldn’t be used. The individual who was appointed to withdraw the funds dressed in simple clothing – without shoes or jewelry – so that his wardrobe could not be misinterpreted as a sign of the financial well-being of the Temple government. 

     This is one detail of the Mishna’s presentation of the Shekalim – a topic which the Mishna dedicates an entire tractate to discussing. While the Mishnah often presents disagreements and does so throughout shekalim as well – when I returned to its teaching about shekalim in this current moment in history this past week, I was struck by the ideal – or perhaps idealistic – vision it provides of governance. There are clear procedures – clear departments of responsibility and even particular people named as exemplar officials who fulfilled holy functions on behalf of the whole people with honesty, integrity, and efficiency. 

     One of these leaders – surprisingly – is familiar to us as a hero of the story we will recount in a few weeks on Purim: Mordechai. 

     Except that here, Mordechai is known by a different name – a Hebrew rather than Persion name: Petachiah

     The Mishna, as it introduces this name, asks: Why was he called Petachiah?

     Because he would Poteach – open up {difficult issues, conflicts, and situations ] through words and Dorshan – he would seek out an interpretation – through his knowledge of 70 languages. This is to say that Mordechai’s leadership was rooted in his ability to understand people’s words and perspectives – no matter where in the world they were from – and to somehow find an opening for a wise and considerate response to a difficult situation. 

     This is how the earliest rabbis characterized the heroic leadership of Mordechai: his superpower was not simply that he was a polyglot, but that this multilingual knowledge fostered within him wisdom to be able to see an opening where others only saw an unsolvable knot. 

     Strikingly, this echoes another theme of VaYakhel: that each of the people of Israel must bring our wisdom to the efforts of the community. 

     Throughout parshat VaYakhel there is a repeated emphasis that in order for the institution which unites the people of Israel as a community to be erected, we depend on the wisdom of many people. We see several times the phrase – Kol Khakham Lev – everyone with a wise or discerning heart – should come forward to participate in the work of the Mishkah. Several times we also see spelled out explicitly that this “everyone” includes both men and women – as we read “Kol Ishah Khochmat Lev” – every woman with a wise heart. This repetition sends us a clear message: we depend on the wisdom and involvement of many people in order to constitute a true community. 

     Despite our differences and the difficult days ahead, may we all cultivate the capacity to understand each other and to bring our wisdom together for the common cause of the community.