Rabbi Matt: Shabbat D’var Vayakhel/Pekudei

Rabbi Matt Dvar Torah

Shabbat Shalom! There’s a story that’s told of a group of birds, a flock that would spend their time together, go flying in groups, nest near one another. One day, someone came along while this whole group was together and they cast the net on top of all of the birds. The strongest bird tried to lift the net but it was too heavy. Other birds started trying, but they couldn’t do it. Then someone said, “What if we all try together?” So every single bird took a section of that net and together they flapped their wings and they managed to lift it up and toss it to the side. And all together they became free.

Continued below…

To view on line:
Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LLlMO1Xs9Xc
Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qt1cSvjo5E

So I’m coming to you today from a room in my home, because we can’t be together physically. In many ways these are really difficult times. And in many ways, I’ve seen us coming together to help one another over the last two weeks. It really has been an incredible showing of people stepping up in ways that they are able, that they’re passionate about. We have created all of these means now to support one another though these are really difficult times.

From my perspective, what I have seen, what I have heard about is, though we are apart physically we are very together when it comes to support. We’re very together when it comes to calling one another and delivering food and planning and taking this physical synagogue building to an online synagogue, or an over-the-phone synagogue, a synagogue of mutual support.

I heard a colleague of mine, a rabbi in Chicago (Rabbi Craig Marantz) say, “The building is closed but the synagogue is open.” That’s really how I feel. We have been building online opportunities, we’ve been supporting one another by calls and as we go on, for as long as we need to be social distancing and staying at home. We’re going to continue not just offering what we’re offering, but offering more and creating more opportunities for us to be together. So, right now this is this is the first drash I’ve ever given for Shabbat on a Friday, that I’m going to be putting into a video and sending out.

But it’s part of this reorientation that we have to do when things change. Jews are not new to change. Our history is replete with moments where the situation is changing and we’ve had to rebuild in some way. In many ways, this situation we’re in now is reminiscent of the story of Yavneh.

Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai managed to escape from the siege of Jerusalem under the Romans. After the temple was destroyed, his learning center in Yavneh, in Eretz Yisrael, was established as a new religious center. It is from that school of Yavneh that the prayer service became the central form of worship.

For so many years before that it was about the temple service, the sacrificial service in the temple. But when that was no longer an option, Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai and his disciples changed things because they needed to. There was a necessity. Just like now, we cannot meet in person so we’re meeting in other ways. There is a sense that God can be found, connection can be found, relationship can be found, and meaning can be found in so many different ways.

One of the ways that this is explored, laid out in Jewish thought is this idea of these three parts of reality. They can be seen as three eras. So there’s a transition: it starts as place, that’s number one, and then it gets to time. So when the temple was destroyed, that was the place. Everything was focused on that place. But it shifted. Now (after that time) we didn’t need a particular place necessarily. The prayer could be said anywhere, anywhere on the earth, it could be said in homes, it could be said in a synagogue, it could be said alone, and it could be said together. But the idea was that it wasn’t as much about place.

Time, the calendar, at that moment in Jewish history, in Yavneh, time became central. So that’s when Shabbat gained its ascendance as this sanctuary in time, because we didn’t have a sanctuary in place anymore. Just like then, as now, we have a capacity to tune in to holy rest and refreshment, to prayer at a time in, different ways, now that we don’t have our particular physical space.

Just a few words on what it means to not have a physical space, and what it means to do Shabbat now (in person). Just to say that prayer can be said without a minyan. We can pray without a minyan. There are certain prayers we generally leave out. Kaddish we leave out, Barchu, but most of our prayers whether in the siddur or on our own, they can be said alone. We can pray for the sick on our own.

All of our prayers can be heard, maybe even more loudly than they normally are, when we’re in a time of need.

So that is just to say we don’t have a Shabbat minyan this week but we can pray. Whether you want to pray from the siddur, or pray from your heart. God is always listening, the doors are always open. I just want to say that without a physical gathering there is a lot that is possible. And, on the sanctity of keeping our physical distance now, without our building on Shabbat: there are a lot of messages from the tradition about, when it comes down to health, what is really the priority?

In the Shulḥan Arukh (Oraḥ Ḥayim 329), just as one example, talking about the holiness of not going out now to find a minyan in a synagogue, the holiness of just keeping our social distance: it says in the Shulḥan Arukh, which is the code of Jewish law, the most authoritative code of Jewish law to this day written in the 1500s. It says. “All cases of saving a life supersede Shabbat. The one who hurries in these matters is praised. Even if there is a fire in a different yard, there is concern that it will move to this yard and cause danger, we put it out to ensure that it does not spread.”

So all cases of saving a life supersede Shabbat, absolutely! And even if the fire isn’t here completely in our yard, even if it’s another yard nearby, we hurry to do all that we can to ensure that it does not spread.

When we know how we’re going to be observing now, the Jewish way of observing in times like these is more alone, how do we make sense of this week’s Torah portion which has to do with building the Mishkan? Vayakhel/Pekudei, it’s a double portion this week and has to do with building the mishkan, the Tabernacle, the portable Temple that was built in the wilderness by the Israelites.

So what does that mean to have this Temple? Even two thousand years ago, when the temple was destroyed, how did they make sense of the mishkan?

Another way to ask this, is the mishkan supposed to be this place where God dwells. Is it supposed to be this place where we can encounter the Divine. That will be an experience that’s different for each person, but one of the ways in which we can feel this sense of aliveness, this sense of connection, this sense of joy. If we don’t have a physical mishkan, if we don’t have a physical synagogue, what does it mean to have essential Jewish practice right now, when we cannot meet in person? How can we build a place where God can dwell when we cannot be together?

So I talked about these sort of eras of transition in Jewish history, that comes from a kabbalistic text (the Sefer Yetzirah) – or maybe even a pre kabbalistic text, early, early on. It talks about Olam, Shana, Nefesh. That literally means world, year, and person. But the usual drash on that is place, time, and person.

So we had that place, that Temple back then. Now, we’re not able to go to that place. So we have time. It’s about finding these moments in time when we’re connecting: the calendar, Shabbat, certain times of day. But the third one is person. It’s actually “self.” Now, most of us, we might be with our family selves or out roommates, but essentially we have this sort of phase in our lives now of the self.

So the Ra’avad, an early commentator on this text says, “Everything that can be found in the person, can be found in the year, found in the place or found in the time and found in the place.”—meaning that: the whole potential of the temple can be found also in the yearly cycle, the whole potential of the yearly cycle can be found in the person. There is a way that we can have a temple, have a resting place for God, within ourselves. That applies at all times, but (especially) in moments where that is the main route. That is where we’re at (right now).

We get into this idea of, how do we build the Temple of the self? I want to point out that social distancing right now, the recommended length is about six feet or two meters, which is very similar to a very common halakhic measurement of dalet amot, which means four cubits. A cubit is the length from the elbow to the hand, approximately a foot a half. Four cubits is six feet. That’s seen as our personal space bubble, halakhically. It has all sorts of ramifications, but it is six feet.

There are a lot of teachings about these dalet amot. One of them comes from the Talmud in tractate Berachot 8a. It’s really striking in this moment, it says, “From the time that the temple was destroyed, the only place that God has to dwell is the four cubits of halakhah.” That’s saying that from this moment when the temple is no longer around, where can God dwell? God could dwell in our personal space bubble, in these in dalet amot, in these four cubits. So what does that mean? What are these four cubits?

Another way of looking it is from the Ramchal who was a kabbalistic genius who lived in the 1700s. He said that each of these directions around us, each of these angles around us, is like the four letters of the name of God. Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh. We are, in a sense, surrounded by Divinity. In particular, it’s interesting that Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh is one of the names of God that’s associated with balance. It’s associated with harmony. It’s associated with compassion.

In a way, all of our efforts to maintain social distance are about balance, finding that balance for ourselves, for one another. It’s about that harmony; it’s about compassion, because our actions really do have ramifications. Just like those birds, we have this capacity to lift this net up all together, but we need, we need to be cautious now. We need to take time.

Another understanding of this halakhic space of four cubits comes from the Mei Hashiloa. He says the one who can conquer their own inclination, which basically means having self-control, if we can be distanced from what is forbidden, then we’re going to create a dwelling place for the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) in our hearts. There’s an obvious kind of message social distance here, of finding self-mastery around this with effort and striving. But in another sense, we have this capacity, if even on our own, if we’re living in a way that is as harmonious as it can be with our own needs now that we can build more of a dwelling place in ourselves in the observance of Shabbat, which is mentioned in this Parshah.

It is sometimes, not just sometimes, I will say, I think it is quite difficult now for a lot of us to take time to nourish ourselves. There’s so much news going on. In a way, it’s because we’re all transitioning. There’s a lot to do. There’s a lot of logistics.

Shabbat as much as it is a day, a day of practice, a day of observance, it is also a state of mind. It’s something that we can enter into as needed, that Shabbat mind, that Shabbat state. When we get overwhelmed with all the work we’re doing, with the media (Shabbat is so valuable). The Shabbat practice of unplugging from media sources halakhically, also has a just a lot of relevance now in finding ways to feel like it’s all good, like things are okay. The central message of Shabbat is that (in that mind-space) everything is good, it’s all as it should be. There is a time for work there’s a time for resting, accepting, being grateful for what we have.

Part of that is physical nourishment, eating good food, resting. Part of it is unplugging. Part of it is just having a mindset that things are all done. Being in that as much as we can, when it’s time to rest, fuels us for what happens after.

Another element of that is Rosh odesh (Nissan) is coming. At sundown on this Wednesday is the beginning of the new month of Nissan, which is the month of Pesaḥ. Part of also being able to feel like we’re doing alright, even without physical contact, we have a way to build a sanctuary for God just around ourselves (with the symbolic meaning of Pesaḥ). Pesaḥ, if we look at that word and we divide it by 2, it becomes Peh-Saḥ, which means “a mouth that speaks.” We think about the Haggadah, which is the telling of the Pesaḥ story, that there is this role that articulation, that speaking has in freedom.

Even if we’re feeling isolated, even if we’re feeling, constricted, sad, just picking up that phone, having people we can reach out to (it can help us). I’ve said before on emails but I’ll say in this video, I am here if you want to talk. There are also many people in the community who are available to talk if we’re feeling isolated or troubled in any way. Now is a great time to have that “telling” of what’s going on for us, just communicating. Because that is such an important way of working through some of the difficult things that are coming at us right now.

This is another way that we can create this vessel for joy, or at least this vessel for calm, or moments of rest, or peace. That is that feeling of that personal mishkan, that personal Tabernacle where, when we’re feeling a sense of relief, however we can find it, that there’s a sense that God is with us in a more obvious way.

In those moments, at times when we’re feeling more connected, we can have more insights or realizations that can help guide us for whatever steps we need to take next.

Rebbe Nachman had this idea with the Tabernacle that we’re building all the time. It says (in our parshah) that people should offer parts of this Tabernacle that are being built from a place that is coming purely from the heart. Rebbe Nachman, a Hasidic teacher, asks what is this idea of giving from a pure-hearted place? He says that, Divine Goodness flows but we’re not always able to receive it. He quotes this parshah “from every person, as his heart moves him, you shall make a donation.” He says that generosity has a capacity to open a heart make us able to receive. When we contribute things from generosity, from the goodness of our heart, to build the mishkan, literally or metaphorically, we actually are able to be in that flow.

I want to lift people up, all of you who have contributed to the well-being of one-another during these times. You’re building this symbolic synagogue, our community now, whether over the phone or online. And the act of giving now, of helping one-another out actually helps us (feel good). In my opinion, in my experience, there’s no more pure good feeling we can have than giving to someone else. It’s a good feeling that burns clean, there’s no guilt in that. So I want to lift up everyone who’s been helping out and say that it is for other people but it’s also for ourselves. Helping one another is a practice that can help build that mishkan within.

One other quote I want to bring is from when after the mishkan is built in this week’s Torah reading. There’s this moment where the cloud covers the mishkan, the whole tent of meeting. Then it says the ‘Presence of God’, the Kavod, fills the Mishkan. Ramban (aka Nachmanides), a major medieval commentator says that this was sequential. The first step is the cloud covering the Mishkan and the second step is it being filled with God’s Presence.

This distance were experiencing has a kind of precedence. There are two things going on, as it says later on in other Jewish sources, it says that God fills all, surrounds all. Both are happening. We have both a protective bubble in a way, but we also have that connection that we can have within. Now, both are needed. We need that kind of gevurah, that distance, that boundary and space. But we also need that connection. That is actually the model that the mishkan is shown to have in this week’s parshah.

So these are like the Halakhic teachings of trying times. There’s a quote from JR Tolkien, who is one of my favorite authors. Frodo the hobbit, who is faced with the gravity of his situation, is speaking to Gandalf the wizard, the wise Elder.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given us. So I want to thank everyone who is working towards that orientation of “yes we are feeling…” (I’ll speak for myself) I am feeling, “I wish it need not have happened in my time. I wish, I wish this didn’t have to be me living through this.”

But, I’m feeling a lot of gratitude for people who are saying, whether you’re feeling it or not, that’s really not the main issue here.The issue is what we do when we’re faced with difficulty. So thank-you all for what you’re giving. And please reach out if you’re in need.

I wish you all an incredibly restful Shabbat, a Shabbat where as much as possible you’re unplugged and appreciating what we have, taking times to be rested and refreshed, to continue doing what we’re doing for each other now in practicing social distancing, and to feel as nourished as we can be by Shabbat and by each other, and that we can look to the time when this passes and we can once again be together in synagogue in person.

Rabbi Matt


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An inclusive, warm, and progressive Conservative synagogue in Victoria, B.C.

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