Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei / פרשת ויקהל־פקודי
Torah Portion: Exodus 35:1 – 40:38
In an essay on this week’s Torah portion, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, an esteemed scholar and former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, asks:
What do you do when your people has just made a golden calf, run riot and lost its sense of ethical and spiritual direction? How do you restore moral order – not just then in the days of Moses, but even now? The answer lies in the first word of today’s parsha: Vayakhel. (See http://www.rabbisacks.org/the-spirit-of-community-vayakhel-5775/.)
Referencing the debacle of the golden calf (Exodus 32), Rabbi Sacks points to a moment in the Torah when our people is divided, disillusioned, and focused only on their immediate needs. With this week’s Torah portion, however, unity, faith and purpose are restored when Moses assembles (vayakhel) the whole Israelite community, reminds them of the sanctity of Shabbat, and calls them to come together to construct the Tabernacle, God’s dwelling place in their midst. Sacks sees in this reconciliation of Israel with God an eternal lesson about the role of the faith community in countering the excesses of individualism, not only for the generation at Sinai but for us today as well.
Sacks merges the teachings of Charles Darwin and Alexis de Tocqueville to make an argument that in an ideal world faith communities would be critical to the functioning of a democratic society. For his part, Darwin demonstrates that though “the survival of the fittest” takes place on an individual level, human beings, nonetheless, survive as groups, utilizing language and communication, among other things, to create “larger and more flexible groups than other species” (Ibid.). This realization of Darwin’s helps explain a paradox:
If evolution is the struggle to survive, if the strong win and the weak go to the wall, then everywhere ruthlessness should prevail. But it doesn’t. All societies value altruism. (Ibid.)
For Tocqueville, religion functions to militate against this “ruthlessness” and enhance the “altruism” of which Darwin writes. These functions are essential to allowing democratic societies to flourish. Sacks writes:
The great danger in a democracy, said Tocqueville, is individualism. People come to care about themselves, not about others. As for the others, the danger is that people will leave their welfare to the government, a process that ends in the loss of liberty as the State takes on more and more of the responsibility for society as a whole. Ibid.)
Sacks argues that with separation of church and state religions are better able to create caring communities that decrease individuals’ reliance on the state for their welfare. Such reliance, Sacks believes, invites government intrusion into the personal lives of its citizens, which in turn leads to a deterioration of liberty.
Vayakhel is thus no ordinary episode in the history of Israel. It marks the essential insight to emerge from the crisis of the golden calf. We find G-d in community. We develop virtue, strength of character, and a commitment to the common good in community. Community is local. It is society with a human face. It is not government. It is not the people we pay to look after the welfare of others. It is the work we do ourselves, together. Community is the antidote to individualism on the one hand and over-reliance on the state on the other. (Ibid.)
I wish Sacks’ idealism would become reality. However, since religious communities have yet to demonstrate their power to inculcate altruism universally and to reduce the human will toward power, I can’t accept his conclusion. Until religion evolves as Sacks would like, the state must act to ensure the welfare of its citizens.
That being said, I do believe Sacks expresses the loftiest goals of Judaism, if not all religions: to bring us closer to God and to create a more compassionate world. In my experience, the communal celebration of Shabbat and the communal effort to build community and repair the world have shown themselves to be two of the most transformative aspects of Jewish religion both for individuals and for the assembly of Israel.