Teachings From the Tabernacle: A D’var Torah on Vayakhel-Pekudei for ‘Reckoning Together’

The last five parshiyot of Exodus are about building the mishkan, that portable tabernacle that traveled with the Israelites in the desert. These Torah portions provide detailed blueprints, and there is dramatic narrative as well. Last week, in Ki Tissa, we read about the Golden Calf. This week’s parshah is about recovery from that episode: It’s about teshuvah (repentance), renewal and completion of the mishkan, to which each person contributed in their distinctiveness, and which was crafted to meticulous and beautiful standards.

I want to share three attributes of the mishkan that may be meaningful to you on this Shabbat as we experience this pilgrimage [to civil-rights sites in Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham and Atlanta] and as we consider how to take this experience home.

The first draws on the very word itself, mishkan. Hebrew is a building-block language, and you can build nouns and verbs from the root letters. The root of mishkan is shin-kaf-nun. It’s the same root as shakhen, neighbor. It’s the same root as shekhunah, neighborhood. The root of the word for mishkan is about centering relationships; it’s about cultivating intimacy; it’s about recognizing the holiness in connection. This is always potent, and especially so for us, as a pop-up community seeking to bring God’s presence into our midst and into the world, which is why we adopted kehillah kedoshah, “holy community,” as part of our covenant of behavior. The covenant of behavior and the values that we shared are there to help guide us this weekend to be our best selves. And, of course, these letters form another word: Shekhinah, the feminine manifestation of the Divine that accompanied the Israelites in their wanderings. This teaches powerfully that in relationship we can experience, we can manifest the Divine. As Martin Buber taught, “When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.”

The second attribute focuses on a design feature of the mishkan: the keruvim or, in English, cherubim, that mysterious decoration on all four corners at the top of the ark that is some kind of winged creature — think of the depiction in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Whatever they are, I want to call your attention to the space created between them. Rabbi Alex Weissman (RRC 2007) teaches, “It is in this space between the keruvim that the Shekhinah is most imminent, in this space of sacred relationship and witness, around which the community gathers and performs sacred ritual.” The Kli Yakar [16th century Czech rabbi] teaches about this sacred space, “The Divine light radiated outward from the ark affecting everything around it. Thus the Sages say that [the ark] actually bore those who appeared to bear it” (Kli Yakar on Ex. 25:22). This is how our community ideally functions. We have the experience of both seeing and being seen, we experience God’s presence emanating from this space of witness and connection, and from that source of holiness, we are buoyed rather than burdened.

This is what we aspire to for how we act with each other, in this room, on this pilgrimage. This is what we aspire for the world — the capacity to see and experience and celebrate God’s presence in each and every person. And that’s what this reckoning is in the service of. While ultimately dealing with the implications of the decimation of indigenous populations and 400 years of chattel slavery is a structural matter, we must reckon in order to bring to life that world where the tzelem Elohim (image of the Divine) of every person is recognized and can shine out.

Finally, the Talmud (Bava Batra 14b:6-7) teaches that the kohanim, the priests, placed two sets of tablets inside the mishkan — both the whole ones that Moshe brought down from Sinai after the Golden Calf and the first set that he broke. This is always a powerful story, and it feels especially resonant on this pilgrimage. We are witnessing profound injustice and its lasting impact. We must recognize the brokenness and reckon with it. We do so always holding the hope of wholeness. We must live with the paradox that we all, individually and as a society, toggle back and forth between whole and broken. Sabrina Sojourner shared this powerful quote by Maxine Hong Kinston, from her amazing book The Woman Warrior, “I learn to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that I can hold paradox.” Sabrina remarked to me this afternoon: “We really know now how huge the universe is.”

Elsewhere in the Talmud, in Pesakhim 54a, we learn that God created teshuvah before God created the world. This means that there is always a pathway back. We will encounter brokenness, we will sometimes be responsible for the breaking or we will fail to act — and through teshuvah, in community, we can orient ourselves towards and work for healing and wholeness.

In the book of Exodus, we see the trajectory mei’avdut leherut — from oppression to liberation. We see multiple examples of sinning and of teshuvah. We are taught the rules for and practices to build covenantal community. We read about paradox and tension, about brokenness and wholeness. With the building of the mishkan, we learn about God’s presence and the centering of relationships. These are resources for all of us as we take in and process the experiences of this pilgrimage, as we ultimately disperse from this pop-up community and go home, as we integrate insights into our Passover celebration, as we continue our activism into the future. May you draw deeply on Jewish wisdom, and may you contribute your own insights. This is how we as the Jewish people build up the Jewish civilization. This is how we support each other in our work of reckoning, in our work towards repair and justice.

Upon the conclusion of reading a book of Torah, it is the custom to chant, Hazak, hazak, venithazek. Be strong and may we be strengthened. Let us chant together…

Based on the devar Torah Rabbi Waxman delivered at “Reckoning Together: A Reconstructionist Pilgrimage Towards Racial Justice.”

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