March 19, 2020


3.20.2020 Weekly Torah Portion

There are a number of themes in this week’s double Torah portion, Vayakel-Pekudei, that I believe can help us during this COVID-19 outbreak.  Of course, these are also useful tips for when this crisis passes.  

Theme #1 Community and Obligation: 

Moses then gathered the whole Israelite community and said to them: “These are the things that the LORD has commanded you to do” (Exodus 35:1).  

We need community.  We are people who yearn for and need connection to others.  In fact, according to the narrative in Genesis, after God is done creating the world, God looks back at all that was created and labels them “good.”  The exception is that after creating Adam, God says, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). 

So how do we connect with others during a time when we are advised to “practice social distancing”?  How can we satisfy our needs to be held and loved when we are advised to elbow bump and not hug?  This restriction is by far the hardest for me and, I’m assuming, for many others.  After all, one of Beit T’Shuvah’s core values and integral components for recovery is one’s ability to feel a sense of belonging to a spiritual community.  To know that you are fully embraced for exactly who you are without the need to morph your identity for the sake of fitting in. 

Thankfully, we live in an era where virtual communities are being established, and means of communication can flow freely through our devices.  Just as Moses commanded the Israelites, we too are members of a community and therefore are obligated to each other.  We do not live in isolated islands; rather, our actions have ripple effects.  

Required Action: Identify five people to check in on whether via phone, email or even sending some old-fashioned snail mail.  Reaching out and performing acts of loving-kindness during stressful times provides essential healing. 

Theme #2 Shabbat and Rest:  

On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death (Exodus 35:2). 

In an interview with 60 Minutes, Pope Francis reflected on how Jews practice shabbat and said, “Non somos machinas.” (“We are not machines.”)  Shabbat is an opportunity to refrain from actions one day of the week.  We need to find meaningful work that we engage in six days of the week, but just as important is our capacity to say NO to that work for one full day.  So grave is our need to cease and desist that the Torah says you shall be put to death if you do not oblige.  Because if we are only consumed with our labor but do not have the ability to rest, we might as well be dead.  We might as well have stayed in slavery.  True freedom comes with our ability to say No.  As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes:  

The more we indulge in satisfactions, the deeper our feeling of oppressiveness… we must be able to say No to ourselves in the name of a higher Yes (Insecurity of Freedom, p. 7). 

Reflection Question: What am I saying No to in the name of a higher Yes? 

Theme #3 Willingness to Give 

Moses said further to the whole community of Israelites: “This is what the LORD has commanded: Take from among you gifts to the LORD; everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them – gifts for the LORD…” (Exodus 35:4-5). 

We receive far more than we can ever be conscious of; what we are willing to give back in return defines who we are.  While building this sanctuary in the wilderness, the Israelites were so generous with their belongings that Moses and the craftsmen had to tell them to stop because of the surplus of gifts.  For some of us, giving comes easy; for others (like me), it requires a consistent practice of reminding ourselves of all the gifts we receive and therefore are willing to pay forward. 

Reflection Question: What am I grateful for?  What blessings and gifts can I pay forward? And how does hoarding toilet paper or cleaning products figure into this? 

Theme #4 Artistry and Mastery 

And Moses said to the Israelites: “See, the LORD has singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah.  He has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft and has inspired him to make designs for work in gold, silver, and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood – to work in every kind of designer’s craft – and to give directions.” (Exodus 35:30-34). 

Bezalel’s name in Hebrew means “In God’s shadow,” and he was considered to be the greatest artist of all time.  In fact, he was endowed with such skill and mastery in all types of crafts that rabbinic legends say he was able to “combine the letters that created heaven and earth” (Talmud Bavli, Berachot 55a). 

We humans are, by nature, creative beings.  Bezalel may have been the greatest craftsman, but each of us is endowed with our own specific talents and gifts.  How we go about honing those crafts – with hard work and dedication – transforms them from natural abilities into strengths and mastery.  

Reflection Question: What is my unique gift?  What is my craft, my gifts of creativity that I am able to bestow upon the world?  

Theme #5 Journeying 

When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on their various journeys; but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift.  For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the LORD rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys (Exodus 40:35-38). 

These are the final verses of the book of Exodus.  Just think: a book that began with the Israelites oppressed in slavery ends with a nation on a journey to the promised land, equipped with a mobile sanctuary that guides them.  On the journey through the wilderness, it was God who decided when the people would march and when they would rest.  And it was God’s presence as a cloud of glory covering the Tabernacle that made it known to them. 

Unfortunately, we don’t have that type of visible communication today.  However, we must recognize that God continues to guide us all on a journey to our respective promised lands.  And while it is important to have a goal, a vision of where we are going, it is also essential that we let go of control and trust God’s leading, wherever that may take us.  

Reflection Question: What journey into the unknown am I taking another step on today?  How can I let go of my desire to control external circumstances and focus on my willingness to journey? 

May this Shabbat bring us closer together despite our physical distance.  

May we continue to take appropriate steps for our recovery.  

May we shine our unique light and have attitudes of gratitude that fill the entire world. 

Shabbat shalom! 

Rabbi Joseph