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Torah Commentary
Vayak'heil (March 17, 2012)

Rabbi Amy B. Ehrlich

I LOVE THIS PART of Exodus. Some people find it tedious — just another endless accounting of all the furnishings necessary for the Tabernacle. True, it’s not the flashy “parting of the waters” or the “giving of the commandments,” but just the same, picture this: Our ancestors gather around Moses, the crowd swaying from side to side, like kids at a rock concert. When they quiet down, Moses gives them the news that they finally are ready to build the Tabernacle. What a time!

While the Tabernacle is a coup in and of itself, it would not be half as spectacular or impressive if the community had not just emerged from, let’s say, a “rough spot.” Call it post-traumatic stress disorder after a long period of captivity, or blame it on the need for a shining example of leadership or simply inexperience with freedom, but the same people who Moses convenes as his architects, decorators and consultants are the very ones who gathered against Aaron only a short while before.

The words Vayak’heil (which begins today’s portion) and v’yikahel (that is, “to gather” or “come together,” which prefaces the earlier Golden Calf incident) share a common root. Thus, the fateful gathering to overpower Aaron’s moral and religious objections will be ever linked with the current gathering that produces a true sanctuary.

Building the Tabernacle is therapeutic. The people take refuge in the work itself. Taking the commandment to heart, their creative efforts are an expression of personal and communal commitment. While thousands of years have not erased the Golden Calf from memory, this week’s parashah points out how Moses, Aaron, the community — and above all, God — move beyond the sinful incident to resume a productive relationship. That’s instructive for us.

The Midrash tells us that the Tabernacle is built, not because God needs it, but to show God’s affection for Israel. (UAHC Plaut Torah Commentary, p. 678) In essence, the Tabernacle is a demonstration that the people have been forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf — and this is their proof. Although their intentions are once idolatrous, under Moses’ proper guidance they are redeemed. The gathering itself achieves a sacred aim. God attempts to soothe them by welcoming all gifts of the heart, as well as the participation of those who are skilled. An inventory of the donations reveals that they come from many sources: yarns in royal colors; purified oil for the lamps and aromatic incense; spices; precious stones; skins, hides, wood; copper, silver, gold. It is a fabulously heady time, where each feels invested in the construction process. What’s really touching is to see how democratic this is — allowing everyone, not just the best among them, to participate.

The word “sanctuary,” comes from the Latin, referring to a place, as well as the right or privilege of affording shelter, protection or refuge. [OED] Today, one of the most frequent associations with a sanctuary is as a safe haven. In our own country’s history, houses of worship have served as a refuge for many in need, from runaway slaves to battered spouses and homeless individuals. But that service really is predicated on an ancient idea. In Exodus 21 (13-14) and later in Kings (1: 50-51; 2:28-34), we learn that the altar grants asylum to those who grasp it. The horns of the altar provide protection, in a sense, by conferring the sacred status of the sanctuary to the one who reaches it. Sheltered within, seekers may take advantage of the safety it provides.

I turn from the parashah — an idealized version of where we would like to live — to the real world, where safety at its most basic level is a concern worldwide. For the last year, we’ve been preoccupied with the Arab Spring and grassroots revolutions against oppression. As observers, we are struck by the ruthlessness of the parties in power as they alternately placate and persecute their citizens. Most shocking is the violence against demonstrators or those who have the courage to speak out against a brutal regime. We only can frame their horrific experiences against the liberties we enjoy.

The sanctuary we call “freedom,” where we live our lives as we choose, say what we please and act without limitations, isn’t free. Like the Tabernacle of the wilderness, it is created and sustained by those who continue to give to it. Freedom rests firmly on our ability to engage it and ensure it. It stands as a counterpoint to oppression, a beacon to those who are not yet free. As Jews, we know this from our people’s well-rehearsed history. As Americans, we may take it for granted, until we look across the ocean and understand that what we have is really a precious gift.

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