This week's Torah portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei, brings us to the end of Exodus. The first part, Vayakhel, begins:
וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶֽת־כּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל - And Moshe yak’hel / convened the whole edah / congregation of the children of Israel... (Ex. 35:1)
The word yak'hel shares a root with the word kahal, community: it’s almost saying that Moshe “communified” them. Meanwhile, edah (translated here as congregation) can also mean witness. To me this implies that bearing witness to each other and to each others' needs is part of what makes a community, or maybe what turns a congregation into a community. The second part of our double Torah portion, Pekudei, begins:
אֵ֣לֶּה פְקוּדֵ֤י הַמִּשְׁכָּן֙ מִשְׁכַּ֣ן הָעֵדֻ֔ת - These were the p’kudei / accountings of the Mishkan of witnessing... (Ex. 38:21)
Pakad can mean to take note of or to record, and what follows is a record of what went into the mishkan and the ark: the gold, purple, and crimson yarns, acacia wood and fine linen. It’s a list of the freewill offerings from everyone whose heart was moved. But this isn’t just about the physical structure; it’s also about building community. Being in community asks us to really see each others’ needs, and in response, to give freely of our stuff and our skill.
Mishkan is a word we're going to be hearing a lot of, for a while. It's often translated as "tabernacle;" it’s the portable sanctuary our ancestors built to carry in the desert. Mishkan shares a root with shekhunah (neighbohood) and Shekhinah (the Presence of God dwelling within and among us.) “Let them make Me a sacred place so that I may dwell within them.” (Exodus 25:8) The word for dwell shares a root with mishkan and Shekhinah too.
Here it's called a Mishkan of Edut, a holy place of witnessing. There’s that theme of bearing witness again. Torah is telling us that if we want to constitute community, each of us has to bring whatever we've got. And I think Torah's reiterating that a core function of a community is to bear witness: to see each other, and take action to help each other. Once we see someone’s need, we have to take it seriously and try to meet it in whatever ways we can.
I'm grateful to the architects of our synagogue building who ensured that people in wheelchairs -- and people with strollers -- aren't barred from entry or from coming onto the bimah. Most of us who live long enough will need mobility aids eventually, so being all on one level helps everyone… but to me what matters is that we try to meet each others’ needs whether or not we will ever share them. That’s what it means to be in community.
We make sure there’s gluten-free food, and a non-alcoholic beverage option, at kiddush and at seder. We use our sound system in the building, and enable closed captioning in Zoom services. We ensure that there are changing tables in all the bathrooms. These are all ways that we try to take care of each other. Even if some of us don’t experience those needs, we do our best for those who do. That’s what it means to be in community.
In Jewish legal thinking, there’s a concept called kal v’homer. (In Latin this is called a fortiori, going from the weaker case to the stronger one.) For instance, in Torah Moshe says to God, “my own people won’t listen to me; how much less likely it is that Pharaoh would listen?!” If it’s our responsibility to meet each others’ relatively minor needs, how much more so is it our responsibility to meet each others’ needs in matters of survival and human dignity?
Across the US, trans and gender-non-conforming people are under threat. Political violence and eliminationism are on the rise. (By eliminationism, I mean the belief that a group of people should be eradicated.) There are nearly 370 bills on the table targeting trans people. Thank God, not in Massachusetts – but if proponents of those bills rise to national power they could harm trans folks here, just as they could erase our right to reproductive healthcare.
Those who seek to take away rights tend not to stop after taking rights or self-determination away from a single group. In the early 1900s, American eugenicists began sterilizing disabled women. By the end of that century, eugenics movements in this country had sterilized 70,000 immigrants, Black and Indigenous people, poor white people, people with disabilities, and survivors of rape and sexual assault. Our eugenics policies even inspired Hitler's.
Meanwhile, transphobia has become a recruiting tool for today's neo-Nazis. Where there is willingness to dehumanize any group of people, there is increased readiness to dehumanize others too. Look at Victor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary: proudly "illiberal" and Christian nationalist. He's also anti-LGBTQ+, anti-immigrant, opposed to the "mixing" of races. Or, closer to home: white supremacist Nick Fuentes recently proclaimed that Judaism has "got to go."
As Dr. King taught, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. This is a practical truth, because injustice tends to metastasize. It’s also a spiritual truth. We’re all connected. Either we all have the right to life, self-determination, and human dignity, or none of us do. If there’s a movement to take rights away from any of us, it impacts all of us. If there’s a movement to “wipe out” any of us, it impacts all of us. This too is what it means to be in community.
Every time I’m reminded that some people want to “eliminate” other groups of people, my heart breaks again. And yet my spirit is lifted by genuine allyship: when non-Jews resist antisemitism, when people without a uterus stand up for bodily autonomy, when cisgender people protect the dignity and rights of trans people. (I wrote earlier this week that it’s our job to build a mishkan of safety.) Standing up for each other is part of what it means to be in community.
At the end of our doubled Torah portion we get the verse we’ve been singing tonight:
For the cloud of God was on the mishkan by day, and fire was there by night
In the eyes of all the house of Israel, in all of their journeyings. (Exodus 40:38)
The mishkan becomes a kind of beacon. Atop it and within it there’s a cloud of divine glory during the day, and a blazing fire by night. That’s where the book of Exodus ends.
Even without that pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, our community can be a beacon, too. When we meet each others’ needs, when we engage in learning and prayer and justice together, we invite Shekhinah in. We create a community where the divine presence dwells within us and among us. Then the light of our mitzvot serves as our pillar of fire, our ner tamid / eternal lamp, shining our way out of the wilderness and toward the Promised Land.
This is the d'varling that I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires. (Cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)
Shared with gratitude to my Bayit hevruta partners who talked with me about community and witnessing, to brainstorming partners on Jwitter, and to the historian friends in my pocket.