A Nation Comes Together
The Torah is the epic of the founding of the Israelite nation. The Book of Genesis charts the development of the Abraham-Isaac-Jacob family into a small clan; the Book of Exodus shows the development of that clan into a nation. At the end of Genesis, Jacob calls to his sons together to hear his final words:
Come together and hearken, O sons of Jacob
Hearken, O sons of Israel (Genesis 49:2)
He then delivers a message to each son, foreseeing that each one will be the ancestor of a tribe. Although he has called them together, he does not speak the language of togetherness. Each son and tribe has a different characteristic and a different destiny, and the patriarch does not mince words. He condemns Shimon and Levi for their violence (in the Dinah episode) and says: When you two come together in an assembly (kahal), don’t include me. (Genesis 49:6).
At the close of the Book of Exodus, in this week’s parasha, the message is entirely different. Moses (a descendant, interestingly, of Levi) addresses his people not as individual tribes but as constituents of a single nation:
Moses then assembled (va-yakhel) the whole Israelite community (adat b’nai yisrael). (Exodus 35:1)
Moses calls them together into an assembly or congregation (kahal) whose purpose is not to kill, as Shimon and Levi did, but to build. Its purpose is not to build another Tower of Babel reach up into the heavens, but to bring something of heaven down to earth. Moses transmits God’s instructions for the construction of the Sanctuary that will be the primary location for worship and thus the focus of the nation. The people had previously come together for a worship project, but it was the wrong one- the golden calf. That episode cannot be swept aside or forgotten; it has to be reversed. This can be done only by bringing the people together again, this time for a proper activity. At the end of the Book of Exodus, the work of building the Sanctuary is completed, and Moses offers the inaugural sacrifice (Exodus 40:29.)
The continuing history of the Israelite nation, as described in the Bible, includes many episodes of a nation that sometimes comes together and eventually comes apart into two separate kingdoms. Unity in itself is not a virtue; it is legitimate only when brought forth to serve a good purpose. A large gathering of people is rarely neutral; to avoid becoming a mob, it needs to be a sacred congregation.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.