Vayakhel-Pekudei, Shabbat Parah - 5775, 14 Mar 2015
Post date: Mar 13, 2015 8:57:15 PM
We'll be reading the end of Parshat Vayakhel and the beginning of Pekudei, along with it being the special Shabbat Parah. Vayakhel means "and he (Moses) assembled together". It is a form of the word for a congregation, "kahal". After the idolatry of the golden calf, Moses brought the people together. We usually add the word, kedosha, or holy (Kehilla Kedosha), so as to say that when we come together as Jews, we are not just a a bunch of individuals, but we are transformed and holy as a result of it.
Our triennial reading starts with the creation of the menorah, the centerpiece of the Mishkan (tabernacle) and a stalwart symbol of the Jewish people for several thousand years. We have coins dating at least as far back as 2500 years from the ancient Kingdom of Judah that contain an image of the Menorah on them.
Pekudei concludes the Book of Exodus with the final assembly of the Tabernacle, Tent of Meeting, the altar, the Menorah, and the appurtenances of the sanctuary. This served us for the next 39 years as our place of worship in the desert. It also served to remind our ancestors, just as our Kehilla Kedosha today reminds us, that we can be good human beings, that however imperfect we are, we have the capacity to do better.
"Parah" is one of the special readings in the lead up to Passover. The portion describes the ritual of purification using the ashes of a Parah Adumah, a red heifer, a blemishless young red cow, raised and sacrificed for only this purpose. This purification was a prerequisite for our consumption of the Korban Pesah, the Passover sacrifice, which is the lamb we are commanded to eat on Passover, now represented by the ritual shank bone on the Seder plate.
The Menorah, we are told, was extremely ornate with seven branches, divided into three branches on each side and one taller branch in the center. Each branch terminated with a flower-shaped cup, itself adorned with petals and a calyx, or hip. But the most amazing thing about the Menorah was that it was fashioned from a single piece of gold. Outside of the Menorah, there were plates and incense pans that were made of silver covered and copper covered acacia wood.
The Menorah, again, has been a symbol for Jews since its inception. We define ourselves as being "Or Lagoyim", a light unto the nations, often shedding light onto things that many people might rather not see. We should do our best, not just to point out truth to others, but also to see truth when it is presented to us.
This past week, the Attorney General's final report on the Ferguson, MO, police department came out. This investigation, of course, was prompted by the intense rioting and nationwide protests that erupted when a white policeman shot and killed a black civilian. The report shed light on two very uncomfortable truths. The first was that the policeman's contention all along, that he acted in self defense after the assailant punched him and tried to grab his gun, this was found to be true and substantiated by the physical evidence and testimony. Thus, the accusations of racism lodged against the police officer, which were the proximal reason for the weeks of protest, were unjustified.
The second uncomfortable light shed by the AG's report was that there were deep and institutionalized racial problems in Ferguson, and that, astonishingly, the justice system was not necessarily enforced as a way to keep public order, but as a way to raise revenue for the town. Both of these adversely affected the plight of African Americans - in their likelihood of randomly being arrested, being searched without cause, and being exorbitantly fined. Thus, in the 21st century, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, and even with an African American president, we still have much to do to bring about the promise of equal justice and equal opportunity to all Americans.
All of this brings me back to the Mishkan, the Menorah and this week’s readings. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once remarked that, in the Torah, it took God only one chapter to build a home for humanity, but it took six chapters for the Israelites to build the Mishkan (sanctuary) - a place for God.
But pointedly, God does not say, “I will dwell in the mishkan.” Instead, God says, “Build for Me a mishkan, and I will dwell among [the people].” Our sanctuaries, our holy spaces, are not holy because God exists in them. God is everywhere already. Rather, God is only apparent to us when we create the environment which reflects the best of what we can be. Central to that is the Menorah.
While it does represent the illumination, which we must emulate, the Menorah also represents balance and how we achieve it in our day-to-day living. In mystical terms, the seven branches represent the days of the week. In Judaism, the pinnacle center of the week is Shabbat. The three days immediately preceding Shabbat anticipate the day of rest, and the three days following, rest in Shabbat’s afterglow. And Shabbat, more than anything else, is a great democratizer of the people.
Without working or spending money on Shabbat, and with rituals of prayer that require a minyan, a community of people in order to recite them, we are expected, at least on Shabbat, to create a community of people, equal in God’s appraisal.
More than the wood and stones and windows and walls, our Mishkan is the society we build. While we have come a long way to providing equal justice and equal opportunities, we can always do better. Let us not be afraid of seeing the truth that light sheds, that we may build the society which the Menorah and the Mishkan represent.
May this Shabbat bring us, even in a small way, closer to each other, and truer to the best we can be.