Parsha Vayakhel 5777 Rabbi David Steinhardt
March 25, 2017
I know what you’re all thinking…I wonder if Rabbi is even able to give a sermon! He must be quite rusty!
It has been quite a season for us as I have invited some of the most significant thinkers in the contemporary Jewish world to share this pulpit…and I know that all of us have benefited from their teaching and thinking.
At the same time, I heard something else last week! I heard someone saying, boy, you had an easy season, Rabbi! Truth be told, as most of you know, the Rabbi’s work here is quite significant, extensive and pervasive. Speaking on Shabbat morning is certainly one of the essential parts of it. Giving my pulpit to guest speakers is not necessarily simple. There is a lot of administrative work, babysitting, hosting, etc.
But I love speaking. And I love to speak here, because it enables us to deepen our relationship and hopefully deepen our understanding of what this tradition is teaching.
I want to begin with a story, a true story.
I’d like to take you back nearly 24 years, to my first year on this pulpit. Shortly after I arrived, I participated in a ceremony that is known as an installation. I was installed by my Rebbe, at the time, whose name was Rabbi Morty Leifman. Morty died not too long ago. Rabbi Leifman had was a huge heart, a big soul and was filled with love. His love was for Jewish learning and Jewish life, for the Jewish community, for the Jewish Theological Seminary and for telling stories.
Anyway, the installation was a big deal and I knew that I had to give an important speech. As much as the first sermon that I delivered here on April 4, 1994, this sermon would be one heard by many members of the congregation and I know that there’s a lot of judgment which takes place.
So for a few weeks I anguished about the topic. What would I speak about, what was important to bring to the forefront as to what my challenge is here as the rabbi? As is often the case, the answer came not from the text, but from the experience. And as often as not, so much of my learning and understanding came from observing my children listening to their messages and watching them grow up.
So it was Tuesday afternoon before the Shabbat of the installation. I took my then five-year-old Noah from the classroom at the Hillel school which was then in this building. That day landscaping was done here. The landscaping took place in what is now the courtyard in biblical garden. This was before there was the library and before there was the Weiner Cultural Center. That area was filled with rubble, weeds, rocks, large stones etc.
Landscapers came early in the morning and by 4 o’clock that afternoon what was an unattended area, a mess, became a beautiful garden. Sod was put down, large palm trees were planted, flowering bushes were seen. Those of you who lived up north 30 years ago know that most gardens reflected a process. The land would be cleared, seeds would be planted, small saplings would be placed in the ground. After a few years a mature garden could be seen. But in Florida and entire garden could be planted on site in one day.
So five-year-old Noah walks down the hallway with me, looks out the window, smacks his forehead and says “my God Abba what kind of seeds do they have here?” It seemed like a miracle to him. Out of nowhere a beautiful garden appeared! That was not his experience previously. I explain to him what had happened and I thought about what it meant.
We went from there to pick up my daughter, Gabrielle, who was a student at the Donna Klein Jewish Academy. We had only been in town a few months and her adjustment was a little bit more challenging. As we were driving down Powerline between the golf course and the lake, my then 12-year-old daughter turns to me and says, “Abba, I know what it is that I don’t like about this place.” I asked what? And she said: “Look around…even the nature doesn’t seem natural.” It’s not that it’s not beautiful, it just doesn’t seem right.
I then integrated both of those comments as I thought about my sermon for the installation. I realized that they had brought to me two very significant dimensions of a synagogue, in particular, our synagogue in this community.
One was, we needed a place to feel rooted. We need a place where we could connect to generations past, there were no adults in the synagogue who were born in Boca Raton. Everyone came from someplace else, but the synagogue played a purpose. It rooted us, tied us together as a community of Jews.
And the second thing was that the synagogue needed to be a place that spoke to life’s most important values. The Torah which roots us to tradition and to our past also speaks a language of values. We were living in an area where materialism seem to pervade so many aspects of life, we were living in an area where that which wasn’t beautiful was not seen. And we are living in an area where beauty was about the external, not something internal or eternal.
And so I understood what I needed to speak about as I spoke to these essential dimensions of the synagogue.
The synagogue is a place to create a community that amongst many things, roots us, connects us to each other and to the past and at the forefront is a story and its values which come from the Torah.
In the parsha we are reading about the Mishkan, and the accoutrements used for that Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The parsha which we begin the reading with today is Vayakhel. Vayakhel means “and he gathered together,” and he brought together, it’s the same word which is the essence of the word Kehillah…which means congregation or community. I think a lot about what makes a Kehillah. After all, as much as giving a sermon on Shabbat is important in helping create a vision and direction for this community, this congregation, the meaning of community, is an essential responsibility.
Today we are living in a time in America where more and more Jews do not understand their responsibility to the congregation…to supporting and sustaining it, to the community. Autonomy, a central value of American culture asserts individualism. Our integration and freedom has also created a sense of security…and of course assimilation creates other challenges for identity and belonging…we believe everyone can do everything individually and on their own has become a very important ethic. But Judaism has taught us something else. Judaism has taught us how important it is that we come together, that we be together, that we celebrate together, that we help each other. We pray together…And assert essential values together. Gerson Cohen (z”l) once wrote that the synagogue was in fact, the portable state of the Jewish people after the destruction of the Temple and our exile. The synagogue kept Torah alive, kept Hebrew alive, kept Shabbat alive…
And so we create a community in order to help us walk through a larger world with a particular identity. We create a place that asserts the values we believe in, an institution with respect for human dignity, a center that observes sacred time; isn’t that why we are here?
We create a community where people learn together, study together listen and share ideas together and express values so important. Simply put, this may be about keeping the Torah alive, but all of us know that keeping the Torah life takes a complex array of factors. It’s not just having a shelf to put the scroll on, it’s about keeping its teachings and its meaning and its inspiration as part of our daily lives. So here we create a structure where power is found in the word and the spirit in the meaning, not just in things or money, certainly not in arms and armies…
The Kehillah is about creating a community where people show care for each other; we take care of each other when there’s sickness or a death or when there is sadness and when there is pain. And we celebrate together at the moment, such as this morning where Max and Rachel stand before a large community and we all say welcome as adults. Where else can we find this array of expression and purposeful living in this world?
When congregations were incorporated in this country, after the name it stated, kuf-kuf, and that stood for kehillat kodesh.
We are faced with some challenges. Non-orthodox congregations are declining in membership. So it’s so important that congregations be places where people feel a sense of welcome and needed and cared for…and all share in that responsibility. Synagogues should be beautiful places, reflecting not only an ancient tradition, but a concern for modern life and contemporary challenges. The kehillah has to be welcoming to children and everyone. The synagogue has to reflect emotions which are real and the learning must be honest; critical learning.
We need a place to plant ourselves, we need a place to feel rooted, we need a place that is natural, we need a place that reflects meaning and gives order to a world that seems so disorderly.
And this brings us beyond the beginning of the parshah, Vayakheil, to something in the parsha that strikes me every year. At the end of the Torah reading we learned that the source of the sanctity of the tabernacle was the ark and the source of the uniqueness of the ark was that the covenant, the tablets of the law were placed there.
The Talmud challenges our religious imagination because it insists that the ark contain something more than the intact tablets that Moses brought down from Sinai.
A third century Babylonian sage Rabbi Yosef taught that both sets of tablets were in there. What did he mean by that?
The first set of tablets which were brought down from Sinai, were smashed in anger! When Moses saw the spectacle of the Israelites worshiping the golden calf he threw them to the ground…What happened to those sacred fragments the broken tablets? Although they were shattered and illegible, they still bared the imprint of the Divine. God, the text says, wrote them with his finger. Rabbi Yosef felt that the holiness of those tablets had not dissipated. Moses treated them with the same reverence as the second set.
Rabbi Yosef was not just trying to recall a history, but rather was trying to make an important point. He compared the broken tablets to an elderly scholar, a respectable teacher of Torah who is no longer able to learn or teach because of his age. In fact, we learned that Rabbi Yosef himself a great scholar and a great teacher was not able to teach as he got older.
How often do we see elderly people who have lost the vigor of youth and the capacities which they once had and are no longer able to do that which they once did?
On Yom Kippur this year I spoke about the words “Al tashleicheinu l’eit Ziknah”…This poignant plea found in the Shma Koleinu prayer. Like so many of us here and so many people around us, although frail and lacking physical capacities that we once had, we remain viable spirits and wonderful souls. Like the tablets, Rabbi Yosef was teaching, we remain alive and deserve all of the respect and reverence that they once had.
The rabbis teach us that holy texts, Sifrei Kodesh, Torahs, and siddurim and mezzuzot and their containers are to be buried in the same way that people are buried. It’s as if the Rabbis are telling us that where there was once holiness there will always be holiness.
There is a world of challenge out there. And amongst the challenge has to do with the treatment of the elderly…and so the synagogue, must be vital for the young, but must always be a place where everyone is cared for and respected and treated with dignity. We believe every human being is holy. This is what we learn and this is what we live in a genuine Kehillah.
So at the center of the Kehillah is the Torah placed in the ark. In the first ark there were the Ten Commandments, the tablets of the law and there were also shattered pieces.
This is at the center of our Kehillah. A Torah, words of beauty, a building that unites, and the of people who share in responsibility. And we can say yes, also shattered pieces; the infirmed or the aged or mourners, or people who stumble or are lost or are in need of help in some way.
At the end of the day, what we must understand is that all of all o have some broken pieces. Our spirits are lifted here, we come together as one here, we affirm the presence of the divine and that which is holy, and there is no need to assert perfection…in our vulnerability we create a community where there is care.
It’s wonderful to be a part of a Kehillah congregation which can make a difference in the lives of all people. If you don’t have some kind of membership, you should…and I am not one who often says “you should” …but it is so important for all of us!
I’m glad to be speaking this morning. I’m glad to be able to share the secret space and sacred time as we gather as a congregation.
We have much to be proud of. We will continue to care for both the original tablets and also our broken pieces.