13 March 2010/27 Adar 5770 — Shabbat Vayakhel/Pekudei — “Doing the Unalienable Work”

13/03/2010 at 22:54 Leave a comment

“Doing the Unalienable Work”

Neil F. Blumofe

For a moment, let us look closely at two of the verses within our portion this week.  After the extraordinary and impassioned address by Moses to the entire people of Israel, the Torah simply teaches us – vayetzu kol adat b’nei Yisrael mi’lifnei Moshe – that the entire gathering of the people of Israel left Moses’ presence. It is only in the next verse that then states, “each person whose heart was so inspired then came forward, and everyone whose spirit was so moved brought the portion of God for the work of the Tent of Meeting for all of its labor and sacred vestments.

On the surface, this seems to declare the obvious – that the people were so motivated after Moses spoke to them that they ran home, got their cherished and valued possessions and brought them forward, without missing a beat.  In our terms, this was even greater than an impulsive instant money transfer or whim of writing a check after a motivational speech – the people were uplifted by the voice of God speaking through their leader that they singlehandedly and relentlessly kept to the task of supplying God’s House – moving from address to action and sustaining an enflamed heart for building something greater than themselves.  This was not a reckless decision – they held the importance of giving and belonging constantly in front of them and did not depart from the goal of enlarging themselves, based on everyone’s common interest and contribution.

Yet, our tradition does not rest here – as beautiful and as romantic an idea as this is, there were some realists too among our sages who claim that after Moses finished speaking, everyone left, perhaps with good intentions and only a few folks came back, going to the trouble of figuring out what to donate to build a community.  The rest of the people, figuratively took the envelope home and it soon disappeared among the piles of things and within the heap of good intentions.

Thus, in this reading, the sanctuary was built, not by everyone – rather it was built by a smaller group of sustainers – as familiar as this idea may be to us, it deflates a larger thought within our tradition – that the people were able to confront their shortcomings (remember, they had just built a Golden Calf) by applying themselves to positive, sacred tasks – resisting the impulse to carelessly throw themselves and their resources at whatever is shining before them in the moment as the next big idea and rather, redirecting their time and their giving into a carefully planned articulation of what will sustain the community – in this case, building God’s house in the middle of the camp – to walk alongside the people and from within it, to engineer instruction, direction and hope.

To read according to realism then, the building of the mishkan becomes business as usual.  An inspired idea perhaps that galvanizes the community for a while with a steering committee and the offering of a few lead gifts that eventually slips into the dilemma of how to keep the operation going, and inevitably a Building Fund is unveiled to modulate responsibility as momentum slackens.  This is not inspired reading.

What does keep a healthy community going, then?  Much of our tradition comments that it is the central concepts – gathering for daily prayer, owning a Torah – and having a minyan in order to read from it; and establishing a mikvah, in order to encourage the rhythm of family and procreation.  Nowhere does our tradition pause and dream about a well-appointed worship space, although it is not discouraged.

What I think all of these ideas, including a beautiful sanctuary, have in common is that they are built, furnished and maintained by folks who understand the power of why they are doing what they are doing.  The people who put themselves forth are not looking to receive the primary services of the thing that they are building – they do not build the mishkan as an insurance policy or as a comforter that God will then be around, if you build God a home.  A community is not brought forward by people who slide in and slide out, getting what they need and fading beyond when the need is gone or when the challenge is dropped.  Community is built by those who have the community in the center of their actions and motivations at all times – God’s House was constructed not in the building of the place, rather in the planning of it – within the process and the struggle to provide for it.

If we could snap our fingers and have our wishes come true, ultimately they would be unsatisfactory.  Our Torah portion reveals a deeper truth to us – that we have to work for what we want and we cannot depend on others to build our dreams for us.  After the people heard Moses speak to them, they did look at their watches and shift uncomfortably – until one by one, they dispersed – unfulfilled in a vague abstraction of wanting to help.

What the community received is its deepest blessing – champions from within it who understood its delicate balance and who were willing to extend themselves and demonstrate a new way of making things happen.  These were not sustainers who gave and then were gone.  These were patient folks who understood that at all points in crafting something worth belonging to, there is a teachable moment, which begins with how one volunteers, contributes and speaks about something.  How does is one invested in the process of building?

I advocate that as a community we look critically at the membership dues that are charged.  We should truly take the time with all who want to be affiliated and ask, one by one, why.  We should not be eager for all to join, rather we should set expectations that open up people’s better nature and inclination and bring people in at a more profound level.  We should not program activities in a flurry to measure our success, rather we should derive meaning from that which defines us – time and space – prayer and study – social action and social — head, heart and hand.  And, we should not be afraid to walk a bit differently – to encourage our community to give differently, to enter differently to think differently – as we should cast aside all of our assumptions about why we do what we do.

I spoke last week about the Golden Calf – how each moment challenges us – to appreciate an everyday Sinai or to turn away – here we should not feel entitlement, rather we should recognize that all of us, in some way have walked away from Moses’ speech and it is up to each of us to open up, take a committed step forward and lead, in a small and powerful way, revolutionizing what we are then capable of  — possessed by the patience to want what is best and the determination to remain involved, past what is recognized as human nature and further a process of strengthening relationships in our very lives by building unalienable bonds between us in the common and holy  work that we do.

Are you up for the task?  Are you committed?  Let us go.

Shabbat Shalom.

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6 March 2010/20 Adar 5770 — Shabbat Ki Tissa — “God’s Recipe” The Significance of (Jewish) Memory

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