Rabbi Grossman’s Blog: Torah For Our Times
Parshat Vayakel 2020
By Rabbi Susan Grossman
Beth Shalom Congregation, Columbia, MD
COVID-19 has challenged us to make major changes to our routines, plans, and expectations as we try to do all we can to keep ourselves, our families and others safe.
I am confident we will adapt, as one of my favorite Star Trek characters, Seven of Nine, might say. Jewish history teaches us we can adapt. We have successfully navigated culture shifts, dangers and disasters in ways that helped us not just survive but thrive and – through our rituals, traditions and moral fiber – imbue life with purpose, compassion, and strength.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that our Torah reading this week, Parshat Vayakhel, begins with the word, Vayakhel, which means “gathered together” or “congregated,” on the very week that we are learning how extensive our need is not to congregate in person.
The same Hebrew three letter root, kuff-heh-lamed, that appears at the heart of the Hebrew word for congregate also is the root of the Hebrew word for congregation, kehillah. As in English, both words imply not just a passive or accidental collection of people but an intentional coming together as community. A kehillah, a congregation, is a sacred community that physically gathers together to support and help each other in good times and bad, as well as honor God and our traditions, educate our children, enjoy each other’s company, and serve as a force for good where we live. Our Sages understood the power of physically gathering together as a community. That is why they required a minyan, a minimum of 10 Jewish adults congregated together in the same room, to evoke God’s Presence among us with the holiest of our prayers, like Barchu, the Kedushah in the Amidah, and any Kaddish prayer, including Mourners Kaddish.
What does it mean to be a congregation, a sacred community, when we literally cannot physically gather?
In Judaism, pekuach nefesh (doing whatever is necessary to protect life, and, by extension, health) comes before almost every other mitzvah (Jewish religious commandment), which is why most synagogues quickly suspended services. Health comes first. Jewish tradition also teaches that everything God made, or created the potential to be made, can be used for a good purpose. That is true of social media. Social media can be harnessed to do harm. However, it also allows us to miraculously create the virtual communities we need in these difficult times.
Beth Shalom and other synagogues around the world are utilizing these virtual ways of congregating to educate our children, care for our mourners, and gather to pray and study. (Check our Virtual Beth Shalom page at www.beth-shalom.net and “like” our Facebook page, Beth Shalom, 8070 Harriet Tubman Lane, Columbia. You can also friend me on Facebook at R Susan Grossman to see my daily Moments of Inspiration posts for a bit of uplift.)
There are other ways we can adapt to sustain and strengthen each other even as we stay home in an effort to flatten the curve on the spread of COVID-19.
Many of us are checking in more regularly with family, neighbors and friends. One senior in our congregation recently messaged me through Facebook about how lonely she is now that she is stuck at home. How about reaching out to her and others like her by phone or Skype? Interested? Send your name and email to email@example.com and someone from our Hesed (Kindness) Committee will reach out to you to make a match.
This week’s Torah reading also speaks about the men and women whose hearts moved them to offer their gifts to the Tabernacle. Each of us has gifts within us that we can share with our community. Think about how you would like to contribute in the coming week.
The Sabbath is a time for letting go of the to-do list. Read, pray, meditate, contemplate. For those with family in their homes, play a game, take turns reading a book, discuss the Torah reading for this week. Check www.beth-shalom.net before Shabbat. You can download the weekly Torah portion from the internet at www.Sefaria.org. Take time to just be. I will be posting recommended books to inspire you over the Sabbath.
Hopefully all the precautions we are taking will indeed help slow the spread of COVID-19 and save lives. Perhaps our precautions will also teach us a powerful lesson about something we too often take for granted: the preciousness of community and our congregation here at Beth Shalom.
It has been said that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Perhaps in missing services, programs and even Religious School, as well as face to face contact with our congregants, friends and neighbors, we will recognize what a gap, what a sense of loss this inability to gather leaves within us. When the all clear comes, whenever that will be, may we come back even stronger and more connected than ever as a congregation, realizing how precious is the ability to gather together.
© Copyright. Susan Grossman. 2020.