Parashat Vayakhel: how do you make a community?

How do you make a community?

In classical Hebrew there are three different words for community: eidah, tzibbur and kehillah, and they each describe a different way of being a group together.

Eidah is the political body, the whole group of people with like minds and values, who have a shared sense of identity and purpose. It comes from the root to witness and in bible it is used to describe the whole Israelite people who travelling together having had, and continuing to have, a shared experience and a shared destiny.

Tzibbur, a later post biblical word for community, comes from a root that is to do with heaping up or piling up, and is generally used to describe the praying community. It is the descriptor of the organising principle of the Jewish religious community, the minyan, the group within which prayer is shared and heard. The word tzibbur implies that there are diverse individuals who are joined together for a particular purpose and time – normally understood to be communal worship activities. The laws of the tzibbur form the conceptual framework of community living; they are predicated on and sustain the spiritual life of the community.

The third word used to describe community – ‘Kehillah’ is something that contains both the meanings of Eidah and Tzibbur and more. It goes beyond being a community of shared prayer and shared mission, and looks towards caring for the health, educational, social and welfare needs of individual Jews. It is what we now think of if asked to define what a community should be, providing not just for our practical and functional needs, not just for our spiritual needs, but for our social activities, our diverse interests, our wellbeing.

The sidra vayakhel begins with Moses assembling the people, causing them to become a ‘kehillah’. From having led them out of Egypt and through the Sea of Reeds, from having caused them to be fed and given water, from having been the stern Lawgiver to the people, approaching God on their behalf, and bringing rules and judgments, Moses now does something quite different for them. He brings together the whole ‘edah’ as a ‘kehilla’ (Vayakel Moshe et col adat bnei Yisrael vayomer alei’hem: eleh hadevarim asher tziva Adonai la’sot otam” – Moses brought together as a kehillah all the eida of the bnei Yisrael and said to them, these are the things which the Eternal has commanded to do them)

He then instructs them about two things – firstly about Shabbat, a day of rest to follow six days of work, a day when no fire shall be seen in their homes. And secondly about the mishkan, telling them that col nediv libo – everyone whose heart was willing, (ie everyone who wanted to do so) should bring offerings to God, and then he lists an extraordinary number of objects and materials – gold, silver, acacia wood, rams skins, onyx stones…..

The people go and then come back laden with offerings. There is a strange phrase here – ve’ya’vo’u ha’anashim al ha’nashim – literally the men came upon the women. – and midrash tells us that this phrase tells us that the women came to make their donations first, and the men followed them, a lovely inversion of the story that the women had not wished to give their gold and jewellery for the building of the golden calf, demonstrating that they understood the importance of the mishkan and the abhorrence of the golden calf as a worship focus.

Whether this gloss on the verse is a good one is a moot point. I personally do not like it but I find hard to make any other sense of it. But what it does do is draw attention to the individuality of the givers – both men and women, each bringing what they have, what they can do, what they can make. They each use their skills and their materials to the best use of the mishkan. The focal point for the community is being made of the diverse skill sets and abilities of the entire community, freely giving above and beyond what was needed. The creation of the mishkan is a collective act, a symbol of the diverse community, a representation of its shared beliefs. Building it is an event that creates more than a powerful and beautiful edifice – it is an act that organises a people into a community.

How does one build a community? One recognises that a community is different things at different times, and it is different things to different people, and yet there is a golden thread that holds it together through time and space. Moses uses two different techniques to cause the community to come together – he creates sacred time and sacred space – or rather he brings the community to come together to create sacred time and sacred space. From being an eidah – a body of people with shared experience and destiny who may have nothing else in common, Moses used time and space to make a kehillah – an eidah that encompasses individuality and diversity and shapes it into shared and sustaining community.

Dedicating time and space to something one values is always the only way to develop it, to learn about it, to grow it. Making sacred space and making sacred time are the lynchpins of making sacred community. But doing in such a way that everyone who wants to can be involved, can give their skills, their time, their interests, their knowledge, their labour – this is the lesson we learn from the ultimate community building project of the book of Exodus, the building of the mishkan, the place where God did not dwell per se, but which reminded the people that God was among them.

Nitzavim – standing together, united in our diversity

Parshah Nitzavim is always read on the Sabbath immediately before Rosh Hashanah. In part that is fortuitous – a wrinkle of the calendrical cycle.  

In part though there is a deeper connection, because it reminds us that all the people will indeed be standing together in the presence of God during the Yamim Noraim; and in part, I think the reason is because the importance of this speech of Moses – it is one that is critical for the people – Do not forget where you come from, what you are called to do, what you will have to give an account of. And do not forget that you are one people.

The unity of the Jewish people, standing together, all voices being heard from the richest to the poorest, the oldest to the youngest – choose any spectrum you like – ALL the Jewish people are, says Moses, “Nitzavim, Culchem” – standing present, all of us. We are all part of the whole; each of us has a role to play and a gift to give. Tradition teaches that everyone who will ever become a Jew also stood at Sinai – we too were there, accepting the covenant and agreeing to its obligations.

So the unity of the Jewish people is paramount, in prayer during the Yamim Noraim all of us should be there. However sinful we may feel ourselves (or others) to be, our liturgy calls us all together to pray in one community.  And the unity of the Jewish people is paramount in memory and mission – in how we fulfil what we are called to do. Tragically it seems to me that this unity is unravelling in so many ways. Many Jews feel less and less bound to the community, less willing to give the time or the thought that is needed to help them and the community thrive. And many Jews feel out of sorts with the community – be it defined as the establishment, the synagogue, the State of Israel, the traditions, the rituals, the beliefs or behaviours of other Jews.

I think we all have reservations about what it means to be one people. We all wonder why, in hard pressed times, we are expected to give so much of ourselves. We look at other sectors of the community and shake our heads. I for one find the hareidisation of Judaism horrifying, others of course will find the feminising of Judaism equally odd.  In Israel there is a growing gulf between the dati’im (observant of all the legalities) and the hilonim (secular Jews whose identity is Israeli)  The issue is, how to we still live with each other – how do we find the common ground of the covenant made at Sinai and stand, all of us together?  How to we make a bridge or a series of connections that allow us to stay one people without all having to bend to one common denominator, but instead allow our diversity to be one of the values we cherish? Nitzvavim reminds us we are all there – from the leaders of the community to the most menial, men, women and children. Diversity is built into our unity. Now we need to work at building unity from our diversity.