This week we read two parshiyot: Vayakhel and Pekudei. We also complete the book of Sh’mot/Exodus with the blessing “Hazak, hazak, venithazek /Strength, strength, may we strengthen each other.” And we acknowledge this as Shabbat HaHodesh: the Shabbat before the start of the month of Nisan this coming week, bringing with it Pesach, Hag Heruteinu — the holiday that commemorates the freeing of the Jewish people from slavery. Our sacred texts herald this as a time of celebration, a time for families and friends to gather, and a time for inviting “all those who are hungry” to share a meal with us at our expanded seder tables.
Yet this year, the prevailing mood is anything but inclusive. Nations and communities everywhere are struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic. Worldwide travel is severely disrupted. Schools have closed; synagogue services have been suspended; large gatherings of all kinds have been canceled or indefinitely postponed. Instead of looking forward to communal celebrations of freedom, most of us are feeling isolated and trapped, prisoners of the virus that threatens us all.
Psalm 121 says: “From where does my help come? My help comes from YHVH, maker of heaven and earth.” Where do we find that Divine help? Parshat Vayakhel offers a useful answer: in the power of community; the strength that comes from working together — from supporting each other — to achieve a common goal. In the parsha, that goal was building the mishkan ohel moed, the portable connection to the Holy Presence during our desert wanderings. The people were optimistic: Hearing Moses’ request for help, all members of the Israelite community gave unreservedly of their own resources and skills, moved by the principle of nadiv lev, the generous heart. In fact, they gave so much that they had to be told to give less!
How can the story of the mishkan still guide us in a challenging time? When we’re afraid, human instinct is to put our own needs first. We rush to stock up on scarce supplies before someone else gets them. We hesitate to reach out to others. We’re in danger of losing spiritual focus. Yet Vayakhel’s answer remains: Keep a generous heart. Can we collect what we need, but resist hoarding and instead be willing to share? Can we give to help others less fortunate? Vayakhel also models prudence: self-restraint in support of the community. Can we maintain the “social distance” our leaders suggest, so as not to put ourselves or others at unnecessary risk? The essential teaching this Shabbat is that in all times we are partners with the Holy Presence. The Divine help that leads to true freedom comes to us through the compassion and consideration we give each other. Hazak, hazak, venithazek!
Shabbat Shalom. PJC
Rabbi Doris J. Dyen is the spiritual leader of the Makom HaLev chavurah. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.