Parshat Vayakhel: You Can't Change the Past, but You Can Heal Trauma

Video of the Rabbi and Artist in conversation about the Parsha:

For more about Artist Mär Martinez:

For more about Yiscah Smith:

Piece Description, Mär Martinez, “Vayakhel/and he assembled”:

The Tzedek Box is inspired by Yiscah’s teachings – I saw clear parallels from the community coming together to create the Mishkan and aimed to create a functional ritual object in response to the Torah portion.

I wanted to use contemporary techniques (laser-cutting) and paired it with archaic materials (gold leaf) to reference the ways ritual is significant and can be implemented in modernity. The work is made of concentric circles, referencing unity and togetherness. The gold leaf and transparent acrylic glows and allows light to freely pass through the vessel, which references the Mishkan and ideas of creating a space for Shechinah to rest. The Divine Presence will only reveal itself when we are united, which to me connects to the concept of a tzedek box. We invite the Mishkan through acts of kindness and holiness, and through acts of righteousness, justice and care for our community, we are able to achieve unity. By coming together and uniting through our differences, the unity we can create as whole is greater than the sum of its disparate parts.

Discussion Questions:
1. This piece depicts a vessel with shortened and widened concentric circles. What do you think this ritual object would be used for? What do you think is supposed to be contained in the negative space?

2. The title of this work, “Vakhel/and he assembled” focuses on the titular theme of this week’s parsha, gathering the people. In what way does this image speak to that central theme? What are the dangers of assembling an entire people as one? How do the different elements of this piece address those tensions?

3. Perspective is most interesting in this piece. Where is the entrance to this Mishkan? Where does it begin and end? Why do you think we are peering at the object from this angle in particular? In this art piece, it is as though we are looking through a being's peresctive to view the Mishkan. Whose perspective is it?

4. Through Yiscah Smith’s teaching of tasking each individual to create their own sanctum Mär Martinez has envisioned this design to best represent her own version of the Mishkan. What would the shape of your Mishkan be? What materials is it made out of?

“Healing the Brokenness and Restoring Unity,” Yiscah Smith

The theme of Parshat VaYakhel is unity and restoring self-confidence. Parshat VaYakhel occurs the day after Yom Kippur, when Moshe Rabbeinu descends from Har Sinai with the second set of luchot – tablets – inscribed with the Aseret Ha’Dibrote – the Ten Commandments (Seder Olam 6 – second century chronology detailing the dates of biblical events from the Creation to Alexander the Great’s conquest of Persia). As a result of the tragic incident of the golden calf eighty days earlier, a mere forty days after receiving the Torah at Har Sinai, we were quite demoralized and we lost our self-confidence in our ability to return to and be close to the Divine once again.

Before receiving the holy Torah at Har Sinai, we had achieved true unity – we were “as one person with one heart – כאיש אחד בלב אחד“. Then HaShem gave us His Torah and we experienced the most awesome Divine Revelation. Tragically, we managed to retain this revelation of the Divine Presence for only forty days. Then we lost it. In making the golden calf we caused the Shechinah to retreat from amongst us. Would She ever return to dwell in our midst? Would we ever be in complete unity again?

Moshe Rabeinu prayed on our behalf and managed to arouse HaShem’s compassion on us, and we were forgiven. But we were broken inside. We lost our self-confidence in our ability to live in unity with HaShem and with each other. And though HaShem forgave us, we wondered how long would it be before we forgave ourselves. Would we do it again, what kind of life and what kind of relationships would we live now? Would we – could we – repair, return and restore?

And here is where our parsha begins:

“And Moshe gathered the entire community of B’nei Yisrael and said to them: These are the words that HaShem has commanded for you to do. Six days [during the week] you shall do work, but the seventh day will be holy for you, as a Shabbat Shabbaton to HaShem…”(Shemot 35:1-2).

Then, “Moshe said, [again], to the entire congregation of B’nei Yisrael: “This is the word that HaShem has commanded: Take from you [your possessions] a ‘t’rumah – contribution’ to HaShem…” (Ibid, 35:4-5). [To be used to build the Mishkan – the sanctuary].

We may wonder: why did Moshe gather us together, since we do not find that HaShem told him to do this? And why did he choose to speak to us about Shabbat and about building the Mishkan – the sanctuary, again without having been instructed to do so by HaShem?

The Ishbitzer Rebbe (R’ Mordechai Yosef Leiner,1801-1854, Poland) teaches in his seminal work, Mei HaShiloach, that Moshe gathered us together to restore our self-confidence, to comfort us and to explain to us, how it came about that we made a golden calf and what we needed to know and be conscious of to prevent a similar recurrence. In gathering us together, Moshe conveyed that we made the golden calf because we did not maintain our unity.

To convey the importance and necessity of our re-uniting, Moshe did not this time transmit his teachings in the usual manner, via the Seventy Elders (BaMidbar 11:16-17). Instead, he gathered all of us together and spoke to us in community, to realistically convey that first and foremost we must be united; to be again “as one person with one heart – כאיש אחד בלב אחד “. Moshe then speaks to us about the holiness of Shabbat and then about the holy Mishkan – the sanctuary. We need to understand why is Moshe talking to us about these two matters in particular?

How do we restore our unity? How can we regain our self-confidence to once again not give up? What is the source of our unity? In fact, the holy Shabbat is the source of our unity. By keeping and remembering the Holy Shabbat, we are inspired by its unity, for Shabbat is the unity that permeates through each one of us and allows us to be in harmony with each other.

When we are united, when we really care about one another, and when we feel that our well-being matters to others, the Shechinah dwells amongst us, and no one has any desire to make any kind of “golden calf.” But if we are divided, we can become idolatrous and hence empower those divisive forces over us — we deify and worship division – הפרדה , the direct opposite of unity – אחדות . The “idols” we make and the idolatrous worship that follows, divide us even further.

But when we unite, when we live within the Shabbat consciousness, the Shechinah reveals Herself and dwells among us. When the Jewish people unite and form the vessel of “Knesset Yisrael – the community of Israel” – then the holy Shechinah dwells in it as well. Consequently, we are obligated not only to believe that HaShem is one, but additionally, we are obligated, called upon and invited to live within HaShem’s Oneness. – “There is no existence, reality or creation other than God – אין עוד מלבדו “ (Dvarim 4:35). The living within HaShem’s Oneness becomes the essential ingredient of the healing.

And this gift of Shabbat, our source of unity, further evolves in the same spirit of unity, to the invitation to build the Mishkan – a home for the Shechinah. The Creator beckons us to create and build a dwelling place, a home of sorts, here in the most physical and coarse manifestation of God’s creations, and then gives us the task to prepare once again the vessel to receive the Shechinah – the Divine Presence. Moshe is teaching that if we want to build a holy sanctuary for the Shechinah to reveal Herself to us we can only do so if we are indeed united; only then will the Shechinah dwell within us and among us.
The Ishbitzer continues: one of the miracles that occurred in the building of the Mishkan was that although hundreds of people were involved in its construction, when it was completed, it looked as if it had been made by one person. The Mishkan possessed an inherent unity. This was possible because miraculously all the craftspeople were inspired with a spirit of unity; they worked in spiritual unison and that is what made it so special and holy.

Earlier, in Shemot 19:6, we are commanded “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…” Then in Vayikra 19:1-2, we are again commanded, “HaShem spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to the entire congregation of B’nei Yisrael and say to them, ‘You shall be holy, for holy am I, the Lord your God.’” The commentators explain that here too we all gathered together because everyone had to be there to personally hear this mitzvah that calls upon us to live a life of holiness. Many people err and believe that being holy and living holy is possible only for a few select individuals in each generation. However, the truth is that every one of us can live a life of “kedusah – holiness.” That is why everyone had to hear this mitzvah personally.

The Netziv (R’ Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, 1816 Russia – 1893 Warsaw, Poland) teaches in his famous work “Ha’amek Dvar,” offers an additional explanation. The reason that everyone of us had to be present to hear this mitzvah together, is that we were thereby being informed that holiness can be found only in togetherness and unity. Regardless how scrupulously one may observe the mitzvot and regardless with how much “kavanah – holy intention” and focus one performs the mitzvot, you can be connected to holiness only if there is a real place for every Jew in your heart and soul.

As we learn that a Sefer Torah which is missing even only one letter, or if one letter is damaged, the entire Sefer Torah is “pasul – invalid” and may not be read from in public. Chassidut explains that each letter represents a “neshamah – soul” and if one letter is missing, it is as if that neshamah is missing, God forbid. The same is true about the Mishkan: if even only one peg was missing in the Mishkan, then the Shechinah would not dwell in it.

The Mishkan was constructed with the “t’rumot – contributions” of every “nediv lev – generosity of the heart.” Everyone contributed generously, and when everyone’s “generosity of the heart” was brought together, the Dwelling Place of the Shechinah was created.

“Olam chessed yiboneh – the world was built with the attribute of kindness” (Tehillim 89:3). Creation is an act of chessed. The building of the Mishkan parallels the creation of Bereishit – the creation of the world. Just as the Creator created the world with chessed, we too can create the home for the Shechinah, the Mishkan, only through our acts of chessed and nediv lev. The Creator, the One created plurality, the diversity in creation, the many — and we, the diverse and many, are invited to bring it all together to create the home for the One. The deepest generosity that we have been given is the Shabbat Kodesh. The deepest way we can celebrate the Shabbat is by being “nediv lev – of generous heart, sharing and being together
The Slonimer Rebbe (R’ Sholom Noach Berezovsky, 1911 Belarus – 2000 Jerusalem) explains in his monumental work, Netivot Shalom: from the fact that the Torah is teaching us about Shabbat and the Mishkan again in Parshat VaYakhel, immediately following the story of the golden calf in the previous parsha, Parshat Ki Tissa, we learn that there is “Shabbat before the sin” and there is “Shabbat after the sin.” Even after making a golden calf, we still have Shabbat and we can connect deeply with Shabbat.

It is natural for us to feel embarrassed when we pray to HaShem after we have violated and compromised the integrity of our relationship with the Divine. After we made the golden calf, we were broken hearted and ashamed to stand before HaShem again, and to pray and sing praises to HaShem. How could we ever really open our mouths in song and prayer again? But we must not allow our shame to interfere with our prayers and songs or our celebration of Shabbat fully again. But how do we overcome these feelings?

So, we have “Shabbat after the sin.” We have Shabbat again, but now we need to prepare ourselves for it. All the work that we have put into our Shabbat preparations is but HaShem’s way of helping us overcome our shame. A remarkable way to manifest healing. By allowing us the opportunity to “do” something in preparation for Shabbat, our Creator is restoring our self-confidence and we become healed and unified once again…enough so that we can each then go about and create the holy Mishkan within each one us – as one person with one heart – כאיש אחד בלב אחד.

(Based on a sharing by R’ Sholom Brodt z’’l, founder and Rosh Yeshiva Simchat Shlomo, Nachlaot, Jerusalem, 2013.)