Shabbat Inspiration – VaYekhel
by Reb Jamie Hyams, Rabbinic Student, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, March 1, 2019
I am taking a really interesting class this semester entitled “Modern Jewish Ideas, Beliefs, and Practices.” The class explores Jewish identity and all its components. As a starting point, you’d think a point of commonality, “low hanging fruit” so to speak, would be “What is a Jew?” But in truth, finding a definition for what a Jew is, is extremely complicated.
If I ask you, what are the components of Jewish identity, what would you come up with… come on, throw them out… what are the things that make a Jew a Jew?… religious beliefs…(meaning)? Location? Practice… custom… Food… ethnicity… family… blood… language…history…holidays….
Do we all believe the same thing? Do we all act the same way? Were our parents all born in the same place? With the same set of practices and belief? NO. While all Jewish communities hold to a master story as found in the Torah, once the 2nd Temple fell and the Jews dispersed, we have mixed and mingled to varying degrees with majority cultures all over the world. We have been exposed to and integrated their foods, their music, their styles of dress, civic values…and in many cases, we have influenced them as well. No two Jewish communities look like or practice exactly like any other… Each community has looked to tradition, culture and the Torah to frame how they live their lives, but each has had to deal with the particularities of their given situation, mountains, valleys, desert landscapes…. welcoming hosts in parts of the globe and inhospitable lands in others…. And yet, despite the differences, we hold ourselves together under the umbrella of “The Jewish People.”
This week’s Torah portion is Vayakhel. In it we read about the details of the materials for the building of the Mishkan/sanctuary. Toward the beginning of the portion we read “Moses said further to the whole community of Israelites: This is what the Lord has commanded: Take from among you gifts to the Lord; everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them – gifts for the Lord: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goat’s hair: tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood.”… Why does the Torah go into such detail? Why doesn’t it just say “Take metal, yarns, skins…” Why gold, silver, and copper? Why blue, purple, and crimson?
In my class, reading about the diversity of the Jewish people at the turn of the 20th century, of the young Jewish boys in Uzbekistan adorned in bright red coats and clean shaven speaking a mixture of Arabic and Hebrew; of the young boys in Yemen wearing their long robes and their sideburns/peyot flying speaking a different tongue; and of the young Jewish boys in New York some speaking English, others German, others French, Ladino or Yiddish, some wearing work clothes; I begin to understand our Torah portion.
The Jewish people are like the materials used to adorn the Mishkan – In our individuality, we each have our strengths, and contribute something unique. We are like the yarns and the metals and the skins that the Torah speaks about. We are the blue, the purple, the crimson. We like, the materials, each bring something different to the whole – something that no other material could…
When all the materials need to come together to build a whole, when everyone contributes of his/her talents because “his heart so moves him,” then we have a completed Mishkan/sanctuary, full of diversity, full of color, full of difference, but full of the strength to live a Jewish life wherever we are on the globe, full of commitment to being a part of the Jewish people, and stronger for our diversity.