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a year later

03/15/2021 01:32:21 PM


Rabbi Boris Dolin

Parshat Vayechel-Pekudei

March 13, 2021/29 Adar, 5781

A year is gone.  A year of a pandemic that came down like a rock a few days after Purim last year, and led to some of the deepest challenges that we have ever felt.  Separation, loneliness and fear have become a part of who we are and how we live each day.  And now, no matter where we find ourselves in this moment, the experience of the past year will be part of the story that we tell for generations to come.

It is hard to believe how much time has passed since the pandemic started, yet also amazing to think about how much has taken place in these twelve unforgettable months.  While we have had no choice but to get used to the new world of separation and worry, I hope we also have found moments of inspiration and light.  We have seen the best of people, and encountered compassion amid challenge.  We have seen how scientists and doctors have been able to create vaccines at a pace that couldn't have even been imagined even a few years ago.  We have spent a year walking delicately between suffering, hope and expectations.

I was looking back at the words I wrote last year at this time, for this week’s parsha and hope that we still hold onto those realizations that we had early on in the pandemic, the understanding the even while we are separated, we are all still deeply connected with each other.  I wrote:

I have been saying all week, that the silver lining in all of this, if we can even say that there is one, is that we are forced to realize now more than ever that caring for other people, caring for ourselves, and those close to us, only can happen when we care about everyone.  Other people's health on the other side of the world is dependent on what we do, on what our actions are during this time.  We cannot be ignorant, and believe that our actions don’t matter, because now we have been forced to realize that they do.  Amid the daily reminders of all that we have lost, we also have gained so much.

Among so much else that this year has taught us, now I hope we all truly do understand how much we need each other and why community, in all its forms, can sustain us.

This week's parsha, a double portion, Vayechel-Pekudei, is in many ways a convenient summary of the many ways community is so needed in our lives.

The story of the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle continues this week, with the commandment to observe Shabbat, and then continues with the request for gifts that will be used to finish the building process.  The people give.  In fact, they give so much that Moses has to tell the people to stop giving.  Artisans who are “chochmei lev”, wise of heart, continue the work of building the mishkan, from the roof to the curtains, to the mysterious cherubim and the menorah.  The priestly clothes are built, the incense readied, and finally Moses initiates Aaron and his sons into the priesthood.   

Not the most enthralling of narrative, but in many ways it feels like the final episode of an important drama.  Here in the midst of a challenging journey after years of wandering and expectation, the Israelites are finally nearing completion of this powerful communal project.  The ingredients have been donated with open hearts, the parts have been put together, the fabric sewed the curtains tied, and the priests are dressed and ready to go.  The Mishkan, the Tabernacle is completed.  

Yet for the people themselves, their journey is just beginning.  As we have mentioned before, this entire project had less to do with creating a home for God, and was more about the process of building than the final product.  It is what the people learned in the process of building the Mishkan that will remain with them, that will remain stable.  The acts of giving.  The sharing of a task.  The need to follow instructions, and above all the desire to create something beautiful together.  They may have been building a tabernacle, but what they ended up building right beside it was a community.

The word va’yakhel (the name of the first parsha this week) is usually translated as the verb “convoked,” or “gathered”  but in modern Hebrew the root is the same as the noun kehillah, community.  This verb is only used for a gathering of human beings-and most often used in the context of a  purposeful, often spiritual gathering of souls, a kehillah kedosha.  In a way then, our parsha opens up by saying that Moses “communitied the people”-he didn't just gather them, but did all that was necessary to move them to a higher level of commitment to the task at hand and to each other.   He spoke to the people and said, “And now my people, let us create something special together!”

The Israelites in this moment were not necessarily in a good place.  They are still recovering from the incident with the golden calf, and they are a broken people, unsure of the future, distrusting of the leader and not fully connected with each other.  In this moment of commuting, of communing, Moses wants to gather the people together, move beyond their differences, and create trust, faith and a sense of unity when they need it most.

As we enter this next stage of our communal project after an unbelievably tough year, it is time for us to put on the final touches to our Mishkan.  This year we have been through our own moments of hesitation and of fear.  We have looked up to the heavens and asked for explanations for our suffering, and we have waited too long for some sort of revelation to come down from the mountain.  We have felt all too alone, and sometimes even the memory of being together with loved ones, with family, friends and community is fading away.

Yet through it all, I can tell you this, we have all been building.  And we have been building something strong and something stable.  Through those moments of sitting alone in our homes connected by our screens.  Through those flashes of inspiration as we reflect on the state of our world.  Through the giving and the receiving of compassion and hope, and through the tears of sadness when we realize what we simply can't fix.  Each and every moment of the past year can only be just what we need to be those final details of the holy place that we are creating together.  It is not a project that we can do alone, and it is not a project that is only built with the easy colors and smooth fabrics of joy and clarity.  It is through the brokenness, the challenge and also through the strength, that we have built this home together.  

And as we prepare to leave this place and head back into the way things used to be, we can’t simply leave it all behind.  We have to hold on to the fullness of the past year, the joys and the sadness and the lessons learned, and through it all we can emerge to a place more whole and more bright.

I am not one to quote myself twice in a dvar Torah, but I can’t help but reading again the words that I read a year ago as we began this journey together.  We have to acknowledge the loss, but we can also now also hold onto the hope:

We may not be moving much these next few weeks, but we are on quite a journey.  We may be embarking on the most life changing, meaningful, and uncomfortable journey of our lives.  This journey will do it all--it will break us down and test our limits, it will cause us to question our entire sense of reality and our connection with each other, and even our own understanding of ourselves.  It will force us to spend too much time alone, or too much time with our kids and even our partners, and miss deeply those experiences of connection which we now know helped us survive. It will cause us to look again at what we are doing to the world, to the environment, to ecosystems we destroy and the animals we exploit, and will make us understand our role in keeping it all together.But in the midst of all of this, there is a very real change in perspective that may be what saves us.

It is now when we can reach out more, we can understand that we are not put on this earth to be alone, but that our connections, our community--whatever that means to us-- is what keeps us alive.  Every handshake, every hug, every smile will no longer be taken for granted.  Every moment of connection, can now be seen for what it always has been, a deep embrace from the mystery of the universe that reminds us that above all we need each other.  Let us not forget this as we move forward.  Let us not forget this, because this will be over, and we will soon go back to what we once thought was normal.  So let's use this time to make sure that this new normal, can be one that is only filled with hope.

And now one year later it is time to put on the final touches on our Mishkan this holy communal project and make sure that we do all that we can to make this dream come true.


Fri, September 17 2021 11 Tishrei 5782