An Offering of Community

Parashat Vayakhel 2018
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

An Offering of Community

There’s a certain amount of irony about looking for creative things to talk about in a sermon that’s all about creativity. There have been pages, if not volumes, of commentary given on both the obvious and the arcane aspects of this week’s reading, ranging from the technicalities of dye colours to the dynamics of volunteerism. So basically, already these few seconds into my sermon, I admit a certain kind of defeat: I have nothing original to say. But lest you think this is a poor show, I will say this: what this parashah has to say is important, including its used, reused and recycled truths. Parashat Vayakhel is illustrative of the power of community living, the value of volunteering and the energising nature of inspiration and creativity. In a world that often at best neglects or, at worst, stifles these things, this is a message we should gladly rehash. 

In my brief appointment as your new Rabbi, I have been incredibly impressed with our community and its volunteers. A Rabbi  has the privilege of being given a glimpse ‘behind the scenes’ of what makes communities tick in all their complexities. Working from my office, I’ve seen people come in to tend to the garden, to work in the library, to set up Onegs for Shabbat, to donate to the food pantry. With every Board, Exec and Calendar Meeting, I see how hard our lay leaders work, in every capacity of synagogue life.

As the saying goes, ‘it really takes a village’, and it does: Agudas Achim, like any community, really is a village of sorts, and all our contributions are needed and valued, even if they do not seem apparent. 

What is interesting is that this parashah provides us with a ‘map’ on how to navigate, encourage and empower communal life and volunteerism, seeking to balance the individual and the group, boundaries and inclusivity, spontaneity and planning. The parashah opens with an admonition to keep the Sabbath before launching into the extensive description of the building of the Mishkan. The Rabbis of the Talmud considered this juxtaposition in verses and themes no mere accident: from this, they derive what we call the 39 ‘avot melacha’ – categories of creative work prohibited on Shabbat. The word ‘melacha’ that is used in Halachic literature is the same word that is sprinkled across our parashah like precious gems. The creative work that gives meaning to our lives, that renders goodness and builds community, as opposed, for instance, to the ‘avodah kashah’, the hard labour that our Egyptian overlords tasked us with. What is significant about this start is not necessarily the intricate halakhot of Shabbat – which the Talmudic rabbis themselves described as ‘a mountain hanging by a hair’ – but that the mission of creativity and community building is bookended by healthy boundaries. There are times to create and times to rest. There are times to give yourself to the community and times to withdraw from it so that we can recharge.
Volunteers are not a limitless resource: they are people to cherish and nurture just as they cherish and nurture our community. 

Furthermore, we have mention of offerings, ‘terumah’. Now, the English term does no justice to it at all. Offering conjures up associations of sacrifice; of a suffering in the name of God or some higher ideal. ‘Terumah’ comes from the verb ‘larum’, to lift or elevate. We lift up something in this holy endeavour of creative community and become ourselves uplifted. It is a reciprocal process. As we sanctify, we become sanctified. As we give, we are given. It is telling that the verse runs, ‘kechu me’itchem terumah l’Adonai’: ‘take from yourselves an uplifting before the Eternal’. It could have said ‘kechu terumah’ and it would have been sufficient. But the fact that ‘from yourselves’ is used suggests that this hearkens to a deeper, personally transformative reality. How does giving to community change us? 

Another significant word used time and time again is ‘chochmat lev’, wise-heartedness. The heart in Biblical parlance is not the ‘romantic’ and emotional organ we think of today but rather the seat of a holistic, intuitive intelligence. Everyone contributes to the Tabernacle. Not only is ‘chochmat lev’ intimately connected to ‘melacha’, offering us a vision of productivity that is meaningful rather than alienating, but it is also linked to inclusivity. ‘Kol haEdah’, the entire congregation, the text tells us. Everyone. The women and the men.
The skilled professionals such as Betzalel as well as those whose inspiration and talents are less honed perhaps, but not less significant or impressive. 

Last but not least, the name of the parashah itself gives us pause to think. ‘Vayakhel’, ‘and he assembled’, comes from the verb ‘lekahel’, to gather or bring together groups of people and we encounter it in the book of Nechemyah when Ezra reads the rediscovered Book of the Law to an inclusive community of people. We know this through the word ‘kehillah’, community. Lekahel is a ‘pi’el’ verb, an ‘intensive’ verb, betraying a conscious, strong-willed action on part of the assembler. We aren’t just a random collection of people. We are brought together for a higher and deeper purpose. Living in community is a great journey in what it means to be human, including the difficult or perhaps even boring bits. But every time we step across the threshold of this synagogue, we make a conscious decision to build our own sanctuary: a safe place, an inclusive place, a place that nurtures creativity, a place that invites us to protect our boundaries as well as include. A place that draws on ‘chochmat lev’, the deep, intuitive intelligence of the heart. 

Speaking of hearts, now that I have the pulpit and hopefully your attention, I would like to plug the CPR training afternoon organized in the loving memory of Dick Kerber, one of Iowa City’s leading cardiologists. We heard Linda address the congregation last night to encourage you to sign up to our training on the 25th of March. Training in these life-saving skills is a wonderful way for us to support the community and each other.

A religious community is a unique place in a forbidding world. Let us build and cherish Agudas Achim as was done for the past century. Get on board, get involved. Lead services. Come learn (and if you want empowerment, support or guidance in any of these, I’m available to all). Now with Pesach upon us, there are even more opportunities to volunteer, create and share, including our 2nd night Communal Seder and our Pesach services.

Create and be inspired and be transformed.


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