Community Gatherings Often the Source of Greatness — or Great Harm

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By Rabbi Peter Rigler

Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei

This week we read a double Torah portion of Vaykhel and Pekudei. These relatively brief portions end the Book of Exodus with extremely detailed instructions for the building of the mishkan (the tent of meeting). We read in the Torah, “Vayakhel Moshe” — “Moses then gathered the whole Israelite community … ”

What does it look like when the community gathers together?

I would like to believe that when the community joins together we find common cause and power. I have seen what it means when a community comes together to show solidarity, as we have in recent weeks in response to hatred and division in our world.

I have also witnessed what happens when we gather together to argue and destroy. In our tradition, the gathering of people is seen as a holy opportunity. We know that a minyan (a gathering of 10 adults), is an opportunity for prayer and fellowship.

Commentators have long observed that Vayakhel (to gather) begins with the same verb as the one used to describe the gathering of the children of Israel to build the Golden Calf just a few chapters earlier. The language was almost the same: “Vayikkahel ha’am” — “The people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us.’” (Exodus 32:1)

In the case of the golden calf, the people gathered together in order to use the power of community to turn away from God. In this week’s text, Moses invites the people to gather their communal energy for the creation of sacred time and sacred space, to invite God’s presence more fully into their lives.

There is an important relationship between the story of the Egel (the golden calf) and the communal gathering to create the mishkan. “At the giving of the Torah, the people were united, as it is said, ‘Israel camped there in front of the mountain.’” (Exodus 19:2) Rashi explains the verse by saying, “As one person, with one heart.” At the golden calf, the people were separated, as one person killed another. (Ex. 32:27-8)

In this view, the people’s gathering at the incident of the calf resulted in separation, the shattering of unity. The gathering in Vayakhel was for the purpose of restoring communal unity, to return to the sense of shared purpose that was central to the Sinai experience.

It is true in our own experiences of community as well, that bringing people together may lead to very different results. Sometimes communal gatherings give rise to experiences of the sacred; others encourage judgment, bitterness and disharmony. Sometimes groups move together more deeply into prayer, inspire one another to acts of justice, or the process of healing. Yet other gatherings bring a sense of alienation and separation.

When we come together, we can do great harm, or we can re-create Sinai. Our role as a community is to remember these models. When we greet guests at our door, when we embrace those in need, when we support those who are struggling, when we rejoice at life’s high moments, we together succeed in creating moments of divine transcendence. This is a time, we need to find ways to bring together our people and all people with a sense of blessing and purpose.

Rabbi Peter Rigler serves as the rabbi of Temple Sholom in Broomall. He previously served at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel as an associate rabbi. He is active in numerous organizations and causes including Camp Harlam, AJWS, T’ruah and the Marple-Newtown Clergy Association. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

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