A Plurality of Voices

Vayak-hel By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Mar 25, 2006 / 5766

Community is the heart of the Jewish people. To nurture a sense of holiness within our synagogues, it is critical to work toward strengthening a vision of communal responsibility. This notion is emphasized in the opening of this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Va–yakhel: “Moses assembled the community of the children of Israel, saying to them, ‘These are the obligations that God commanded to do them'” (Exodus 35:1). Not only does the general opening of the reading focus on community, but more significantly, the very word with which the parashah begins, vayaqhel, contains the Hebrew root qof–hey–lamed (meaning “community”) — for this is not simply the act of assembling, but it is gathering together a community. What will be the nature of the community we build?

Quite appropriately, Benno Jacobs, a nineteenth/early twentieth–century Prussian Bible scholar writes, “This vayaqhel (Exodus 35:1) is to be distinguished from vayiqahel (Exodus 32:1)! There we had a conspiratorial assembly against Aaron in order to force his will; here we have the obedient and united community of the bnei yisrael which Moses assembled to do God’s will” (Jacob, Exodus, 1013). Furthermore, Amos Haham points out that in our first, belligerent instance of vayiqahel, the people were assembled against Aaron for the purpose of creating an idolatrous vessel that would symbolically contain the presence of God. Now, in this week’s parashah, the Israelites are engaged in an act of teshuvah, repentance. They congregate to create a sacred space that will truly contain the presence of the God of Israel. The building of the mishkan, tabernacle, will lead to God’s indwelling amongst the people.

The Hebrew root for community in its two verb forms then comes to contain two very different visions of community. The vision of vayiqahel, the assembling against Aaron, is a mode of confrontation and destruction that ultimately leads to the expulsion of God’s presence from the community; the mode of vayaqhel, speaks to a constructive vision of community — one that involves a profound sense of unity and encourages a respect for the other and a sincere plurality of voices. Only through this latter vision of community can we weave a sense of spirituality and God’s presence into synagogue life.

In a conversation with the JTS Israel Mission participants in July 2005, Dr. Tovah Hartman said it best: “Creating community is not simply about answering needs. One must create needs.” Let us all work toward creating needs within our respective Jewish communities — all within a framework that respects and values a plurality of opinion.

The publication and distribution of “A Taste of Torah” commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.