Teaching Torah – and making it relevant to all generations – isn’t always easy. Some parashiyot (portions) are laden with memorable narrative while others – like this week’s double portion, Vayak’heil-P’kudei– feel weighed down with myopic details about the seemingly basic structure of a dwelling. Indeed in this week’s parsha we circle back to directions seen previously in Exodus for how the holy Mishkan – our Tabernacle, our Sanctuary – must appear. We learn that a Mishkan is built by contributions from the community – rare gems, common items, and the generosity of heart and soul.
I often hear from b’nai mitzvah students and their families that they find this genre of Torah portions – ones that focus so much on the details – boring and colorless. How do you make meaning of something so … stale? I admit when I was younger there were times when I shared that sentiment. Knowing I would have to write a sermon on the ins and outs of a seemingly banal topic (animal sacrifice, for example) made me jumpy. Yet, as is the case for so many of us in our professional realms, in stepping back we see that the details are not, in fact, the whole picture. Rather, when we witness the intention behind the Torah portion – indeed, the intention of Exodus as a whole – we grasp a different message. One that penetrates our consciousness and pushes on our relationship with holy space.
As many of you already know, nearly two weeks ago the old Temple façade in Seattle was desecrated with anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying graffiti. The reactions were swift and immediate from within and far beyond our synagogue community. At the heart of the outrage, pain and fear – in addition to extraordinary messages of solidarity – was the realization that holy space matters. The spaces in which we Jews gather is significant and when they are tampered with, challenged, or made t’reif – desecrated by the hateful act of another – it means a great deal.
The question Vayak’heil-P’kudei strives to answer is, why? Why does it matter quite so much? To answer that I turn to my friend and colleague Rabbi Ana Bonnheim who writes the following on the parashah: “In the building of the Tabernacle, at first, each skilled individual did his own part of the construction, and it seemed to each one that his work was extraordinary. Afterwards, once they saw how their several contributions to the ‘service’ of the Tabernacle were integrated – all the boards, sockets, curtains and loops – fit together as if one person had done it all. Then they realized how each one of them had depended upon the other. So too, today, we each play an ongoing role in the building and maintaining of our own communities. That service never ends.”
Working together, piece by piece, we build and maintain dwelling spaces both physical and spiritual. We contribute to the overall health of our organizations. We experience delight in its victories and sadness in its heartbreak. Our spaces become a part of us. And working together, soul by soul, we make not only the physical space holy but what resides within, as well.
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen