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Parshat Vayakhel

The individual within the community

Within the 39 malachos of Shabbat there are a series of prohibited actions that revolve around the steps it takes to make bread. The prohibition of lash, kneading or making a mixture, differentiates between two types of mixtures: a mixture whose primary component is bar gibul, easily mixed, and a mixture whose primary component is lav bar gibul, not easily mixed. Things like flour are bar gibul, they easily mix with liquids to become a homogenous mixture, whereas sand and ash are considered lav bar gibul because they remain distinct entities even when mixed together. (T.B, Shabbat 17b) The distinction between different materials is made based on their ability to combine with other materials, similar to the distinction between a tirkovet (compound) and a ta’arovet (mixture) within the laws of kashrut. (Tosfot Rid, Shabbat 155, “ein notnin”)


But what about people and their ability to “mix,” to come together and form a new entity? If people join together do they become one cohesive group or are they still considered a collection of individuals? This question is particularly relevant to our parsha which begins with a call to make a “mixture of people”- a community. Our parsha presents us with people coming together, a communal gathering- “Vayakhel”- “He gathered.”


Such gatherings are described in other places in the Torah. The midrash compares these different instances and finds that even though there are different types of “gatherings,”  or communities, they share a common denominator. 

Saneiti kahal Mirei’im:“I hate the gathering of evildoers.” (Tehillim 26, 5)

What is a gathering of evildoers? “The people gathered on Aharon,” (Shmot 32, 1) in the act of the [sin of the golden] calf.

“And Korach gathered.” (Bamidbar 16, 19)


And which gathering do I like? “Moshe gathered the whole congregation of the Children of Israel.” (Shmot 35,1). “Then Shlomo gathered.” (Melachim I 8,1) (Midrash Tehillim (Buber) Mizmor 26, 4)


The gatherings described by this midrash present us with groups that are an entity unto themselves. They can be described as “good” or “evil” based on the group dynamics, and the influence the group has is an expression of the latent power the collective and the community possesses. The midrash understands group dynamics, the reciprocal effect and influence members of the group have on each other, which creates a mixture of ideas and goals. The influence of the group can be so strong that it can make the individual can lose him or herself and their individual characteristics.


The Sfat Emet would not agree with the description above, he would say it is an illusion, based on a fallacy. According to the Sfat Emet the People of Israel are already one entity, one community. Six days a week we are preoccupied with our day to day individual worries and struggles, and so we tend to forget our common interests that stem from our collective identity as one people. The busy week may mask the truth that we are tied together, but this truth is revealed on Shabbat. On Shabbat the practical, action oriented sides of each individual recede to the background so we can once again realize all that we share:


Moshe gathered… This alludes to Shabbat when the Children of Israel become one congregation. As it says in the midrashim: Make yourself gatherings to learn the laws of Shabbat and festivals. Because the Children of Israel are really one unified entity. It is only the extraneous (psolet) that separates between us. And on Shabbat, when what is extraneous recedes, we arrive at oneness. And Moshe Rabbeinu is the minister of the Torah and unites the Children of Israel, as it says, “Moshe commanded us the Torah, the heritage of the congregation (kehillat) of Yaakov.” The ability to be one congregation is also one of the things the Children of Israel inherited. And on Shabbat the power of Moshe Rabbeinu and the power of the Torah are revealed. And that is why we are united in them. And it is written, “It is a sign between Me and the Children of Israel.” (Sfat Emet Vayakhel 658)                                                                                    

The Sfat Emet focuses on a metaphysical aspect of Shabbat that unites the Children of Israel; the Rokeach focuses on a more practical aspect of Shabbat: 

“For this reason Moshe began the parsha of Shabbat [with the word] ‘vayakhel,’ because sermons are given to congregations on Shabbat.” (Rokeach, Hilchot Yom Hakippurim, 216) 

Shabbat is the time when people gather together, a time for community, and so the laws of Shabbat are introduced when the people are gathered in congregation. One of the inherent aspects of Shabbat is that it provides us with an opportunity to talk about our joint ethos, the principles, values, and halachic commitments that we share. This makes Shabbat the perfect time for a drasha. 

But one could also make the exact opposite point- when we gather together it is not an opportunity to create unity, but rather it allows for us to hear the array of unique voices. One whole voice is created from a cacophony of voices much the same way that the many colors of the rainbow combine to become white. The benefit of a congregation can be found in what it can offer the individual- a convenient and appropriate platform for personal self-realization and self-actualization. 

These opposing points of view reflect two modes of social and communal leadership found in Jewish sources and in Jewish history. Massechet Sanhedrin portrays a centralized structure of leadership from the top down- beginning with the king and the kohanim all the way down to the people. Such a hierarchal structure demands that individual subjugate their will and puts the needs of the community first. 

On the other hand Massechet Bava Batra describes community institutions as an outgrowth of the individual’s needs, the result of individuals who come together to find solutions for their shared needs. This approach leads to communal leaders and institutions that take the interests of the individual into account and try to balance them with the common interests of the community. According to the latter approach, the advantage of the community is that it can empower the individual; it provides one with the opportunity to realize their aspirations by taking advantage of the strength that the whole community has to offer. 

These are not binary options; one need not choose one position or another. It is more like a continuum, where we move somewhere between one extreme and the other. In our lives there are times that we completely and wholly identify with the majority or the community- with their needs, aspirations, or policies. We often feel the advantage of this type of community during the highs and the lows, in times of national or communal happiness, or, Heaven forbid, times of trouble. But then there are those other times when we are focused on our personal needs and we need the community to help us fulfill them. 

Every aspect of our life can be mapped out on this continuum, and there are internal tensions that we feel as a result. Women, for example, are dedicated to the needs of the community, their home, and their children’s education. On the other hand they are individuals- professionals, specialists, and people with their own personal goals and desires. Women are pulled between these two sides, which vie for their time, resources, and headspace. Based on what we have seen here, this continuum does not merely present us with a conflict. It also provides us with an expression of what it means to belong to a community in the fullest sense of the word. 


Mon, August 3 2020 13 Av 5780