By Marylou Grimberg
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that the opening word of this week’s parashah – Vayakhel – has the root letters k-h-l, from which ‘we get the words kahal and kehillah, meaning “community”’ (‘The Social Animal [Vayakhel 5776], 25th February 2016). This opening word sets the scene for much of what follows, which is a story about the kehillah – the community – of the Israelites. The account itself may seem a little tedious. There are all those details concerning the construction of the mishkan (Tabernacle), and the ark, and the design of the priestly robes, all of which have already appeared in Parashat Terumah. Why, for example, must we read yet again that the curtains are to be, or already are, of blue, purple and crimson yarns? On closer reading, however, it becomes apparent that the change in the verb between the instruction in Terumah (‘They shall make an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long. . . .’) and the fulfilment in Vayakhel (‘Bezalel made an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long . . .’) is significant.
In the time between Moses receiving these instructions from God and Bezalel and the skilled workers fulfilling them, the people have worshipped the golden calf, Moses has smashed the tablets of the commandments, the Levites have slaughtered 3,000 of their fellows and God has not only sent a plague but has also refused to remain with the Israelites. He has even threatened to destroy all those surviving. Moses, however, intercedes with God. All this occurs in the run-up to Vayakhel, but in this parashah itself, as Sacks also notes, there is ‘a tikkun – a mending of the past’. Every repeated detail of construction of the Tabernacle and of its contents bears witness to this. Everyone contributes to the project, according to their means and ability, men and women alike. They bring their gold and their
jewels, their yarns and their spices. They bring their skills and their hearts. The people return to God and God returns to them. Can this be t’shuva? This word may be understood to mean penitence but literally means ‘return’. In ‘The Art of T’shuva’, Rav Kook notably asks of himself, ‘Am I worthy enough to speak about t’shuva?’ He then goes on to do so, but he has made clear that it is not to be discussed lightly. He continues: ‘The principal t’shuva, . . . is for a person to return to himself, to the root of his soul.’
In this parashah there is a return by the kehillah of the Israelites to what may well be the root of its soul – the relationship with God. Whether or not we may identify this as t’shuva, it is without doubt a defining moment, as significant and far-reaching as the parting of the Sea of Reeds. It is an affirmation, endorsed by every blow of the hammer, by every stitch in the cloth of those blue, purple and crimson curtains. That this tikkun was possible after the travesty of the golden calf is an enduring message of hope.
Marylou Grimberg is a member of St Albans Masorti Synagogue.