I Kings 7:40-50
Our Torah portion, Vayakhel, centers on our relationship to place and to each other. It describes the final stages of building and decorating the desert mishkan, the sanctuary in which the Israelites would gather so that God’s presence might dwell among them. The hope was that they would experience themselves as a community that cared for each other and maintain a covenantal relationship with God. It was a sanctuary resplendent with blues and purples, adorned with jewels, silver and gold. It was a space meant to delight the eye and elevate the soul.
Could these things have happened without a sanctuary or the support of the community?
Theoretically, it’s possible. On the one hand, our tradition does celebrate those who found great spiritual richness in solitude. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav wrote: “Grant me the ability to be alone. Then would I fully open my heart in prayer, supplication and holy speech; Then, O God, would I pour out the words of my heart before Your Presence.” On the other hand, the words of our prayers said together have a different kind of power entirely. They connect us to the generations before and to each other. They anchor the longings of our hearts and help us discern where we are on our personal and collective journeys. It matters that we acknowledge the passage of time and of life’s transitional moments together in a sacred environment. In the words of Tablet Magazine columnist Marjorie Ingall, “there’s something special about the physical space of a synagogue. It triggers long-dormant sense memories. Location has meaning … succor can be found in the right setting.”
God may not have needed that desert sanctuary, but the ancient Israelites did. And we do too.
That Vayakhel is read on Shabbat Shekalim is significant as well. This Shabbat is named for the census requiring each of the Israelites to contribute a half shekel to support communal sacrifices in the mishkan. The Torah is clear: a poor person was not to give less, and a rich person was not to give more. This reflects the democratic nature of how the mishkan was built. Our commentators viewed this system of equal contribution as a way to knit the community back together following the debacle of the Golden Calf, described just one portion ago. Then too, all of the Israelites contributed their treasures to what they thought would be a communal enterprise, one that would symbolize God’s presence for them. As it turned out, it was one more exercise in idolatry, one that splintered the trust between God and the Israelites. Unity was what was needed now: to complete the mishkan and to continue the journey of becoming a people. Contributing a half shekel apiece was also a way of underscoring the importance of partnership. Each piece needed its counterpart. No half shekel was complete in and of itself.
So when we consider how people add to the vitality of a community today, it makes little difference that our gifts are not identical. In an age where we celebrate fame and notoriety, and pay attention to those who seek publicity, it is all too easy to forget that each person’s unique abilities, interests and talents are essential in creating a viable community. Quiet givers and anonymous contributors are needed in equal measure.
But there is still something important to learn from this ideal of equal gifts and donations that the Torah describes. Perhaps it’s less important what we each give, and more important that we each give. That is how we live the truth that we all have a stake in our community. We are all builders of the whole.
Shabbat Shekalim is not trying to tell us we are all the same. Rather, it is trying to tell us we are all in this together. That is how the mishkan came to be all those years ago, and how settings and experiences imbued with holiness continue to be created today.
When we read Vayakel — and that very word means “to convoke,” or “to bring together”— we are reminded to recognize and appreciate the presence and contributions we each offer. In so doing, the more likely we are — just as in those ancient days of taking a census one coin at a time — to truly feel that each one of us counts.
Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org