Vayakhel/Pekudei – Convening in Different Ways

I begin by saying I hope you are well – and if you are not, let us know so we can help.  These are truly […]

I begin by saying I hope you are well – and if you are not, let us know so we can help.  These are truly disorienting and disconcerting times.  So many lives impacted on so many levels!  We are calling each member of our community and have heard so many stories.  We heard stories of pain and distress: economic, inability to be with loved ones at important moments of loss or illness, health concerns, plans and expectations upended and the list goes on.  We wonder, “What will be?” To all who are suffering – we open our hearts to one another – Hineni– we hear and feel your pain. We are present – even if not a physical presence.

And at the same time, as we called you many shared stories of hope and gratitude for the kindness and care they have received and witnessed. There have been so many stories of Hineni – Here I am – people who have made a difference through their incredible kindness.  This moment is a synthesis of so many contrasting experiences. We begin by giving voice to them – so we know that if we don’t allow our thoughts and emotions to be expressed, they come out in other ways.

As we hold onto our truths, we also turn to our tradition for guidance, insight, wisdom and comfort.  This week’s parsha, Vayakhel Pekudei begins with Moses gathering the together for the holy task of building the Tabernacle – a place for God to dwell.   The word Vayakhel means to gather, to assemble – for a fundamental aspect of Jewish life is coming together.  We need each other. Part of our humanity is a thirst for community.  It is in the friendship, support and love of community that we find comfort and joy.  It is in a shared joint purpose of filling the world with mitzvah that animates us.  What dissonance to read about gathering and convening when we can’t gather as we normally do.  I am speaking to an empty room.  I miss your smiles, hearing your voices as we stand face to face. To have a portion about coming together when that is not possible is ironic and sad.   Yet – maybe it is still community and coming together -even if we are not physically present.

Our tradition give us tools for moments like this that I would like to explore this Shabbat.

First, we envision what does not exist and hold onto that image.  Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal references the phrase our prayer service v’ha’vei’anu l’shalom ma’arba kanfot ha’aretz – bring us in peace from the four corners of the earth.  This is the time when we gather the four corners of the tallit together and imagine Jews coming from all four corners of the earth. Think of all the years when this was said and done, when the possibility of gathering together was only a distant dream.  Yet even while far apart, we are still together. We have experience holding together as a people, even when we are physically distant.  That wisdom sustains us right now.

Second, while acknowledging the pain of the moment, we hold onto a history that teaches that things will be okay.  We got out of Egypt.  We survived terrible moments in history.  We overcame terrible failure. We are resilient and strong and can tap into a history of getting through tough times.  Today we end the book of Exodus.  A piece of Exodus is us at our worst – things falling apart in ways that seem irreparable. We rebel.  We complain. We panic and build a Golden Calf.  Yet as the book ends, we come together and build a Tabernacle for God to dwell. Everyone pitches in!  The book ends with God’s Presence filling that Tabernacle.  A piece of our story is the belief that things will be okay.  That may be hard to hold onto when things don’t feel like that way.  It is at that time that our history allows us to be sustained by the knowledge that it will be okay.

Third, we possess and extraordinary ability to adapt, reimagine, evolve.  When the Temple was destroyed, by all logic, Judaism should have ceased to exist.  The primary way we celebrated religious moments, were granted forgiveness and approach God was through sacrifice at the Temple. It was exactly at that moment that we innovated and reimagined how to do things. The Rabbis taught that atonement and closeness to God comes not through the offerings which we thought were the only way to practice religion, but through other acts –  prayer, study, deeds of kindness.

Just as the rabbis used their creativity and genius to reinvent Judaism,  we are witnesseing that happen right now: Amazing ways of staying connected have emerged in the past week.  We are using technology to connect us into real communities. For all that my heart aches that I am not physically with you – I am comforted to know we are all together in a different kind of way.  Many of you have shared that these services have resonated powerfully for you – and more people are present virtually than on a normal Shabbat. We adapt. We adjust. We create new ways to worship, study and connect.

Fourth, we mine tradition for principles to guide us. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that the word for assemble k-h-l, is not about the product that comes from gathering – in this case the Tabernacle – but the process of what we become when we make it.

The process of building a Tabernacle involves each person finding a role that uniquely suits them.   When you look at the story, everyone brought something different.  Some gave gold, other silver, others bronze. Some brought wool or animal skins. Others gave precious stones. Others gave vision, labor, talent.  What united them was a sense of common purpose, of helping to bring something into being that was greater than anyone could achieve alone.  Every person found their own role.  Part of the virtual Tabernacle we build will be thinking about what each of you individually and uniquely brings to this moment. Think about each of the things the  Rabbis taught replaced Temple sacrifice – prayer, learning, kindness – and think about how you can express these values with your own unique voice.

Explore prayer – let its poetry and values seep into your soul.  Experiment with rituals you may not have done in the past. Use this as an opportunity to study things which fill your heart with meaning and connection. Let kindness define each day.

What simple acts of kindness can you do virtually?  Every call, note, donation to those in need helps us build a virtual Tabernacle.  What will you do? Each act of kindness brings light into the world. Seeing and feeling that light has been a piece of this past week.  Think about all the small and large moments where light has shined: all the people devoted to caring for others – heroic doctors, nurses, paramedics, social workers and other medical professionals who have devoted hours and hours to save lives.  There are not enough words to thank you.  So many others bring light: teachers, clerks in stores and pharmacies, people delivering food– and the list goes on.  Light is indeed present in our world!

Take moments to appreciate all that light.  One congregant wrote me a note about neighbors who brought over a box of food and masks and a kind note saying it was an honor to help out. So many have said you will pick up groceries or prescriptions for others.  Many responded to our phone calls by asking how you can help others.

Take some time to say thank you to those who help.  Kids – say thanks to parents who are doing the best they can in difficult circumstances.  Parents – say thanks to kids whose lives have been disrupted and are doing the best they can. I want to thank the extraordinary staff and leadership at CBJ for stepping forward to say Hineni.

As we think about how we can adapt, show kindness and gratitude and be present virtually, let’s create space to think about how we might view the world differently moving forward because of what we are currently experiencing. 

Listen to this poem by Kitty O’Meara sent to me by Phyllis Brock:

And the people stayed home.

And read books, and listened and rested, and exercised, and

Made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being,

And were still.

And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows.

And the people began to think differently.

And the people healed.

And in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.

And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again., they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.

There are new beginnings possible in every crisis.  We can build a virtual Tabernacle for God – a place of kindness, light, learning, presence and love. We have been blessed with the spiritual gifts of our tradition to turn to and to guide us.  Let’s help one another get through these difficult times. We will be okay and hopefully emerge dreaming new dreams and creating new ways to live.  Shabbat Shalom.