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Vayakhel-Pekudei 5780

03/20/2020 01:38:23 PM


Shmuel Honig


What is a nation?

According to Wikipedia, a nation is defined as a “stable community of people formed on the basis of a common language, territory, history, ethnicity, or psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.” The article goes on to note that the term “‘has been described as a fully mobilized or institutionalized ethnic group.’” The notion of mobilization evokes the idea that a group of people are not truly a nation until they are compelled to act in furtherance of some common value or purpose. Sharing the goal is not enough. The sacrifices and choices that they make to achieve the desired outcome is what truly unifies them. They must mobilize.

בני ישראל are referred to time and again as a nation. It is a description that follows us so frequently that we may take it for granted. What defines us as a nation? And can we point to a particular moment or event when this nation was born?

It can be argued that the birth of בני ישראל as a nation occurred in three stages.

The first stage was יציאת מצרים, the exodus from Egypt. In this part of the story, God is the actor, while בני ישראל are passive. Hashem displays his love for בני ישראל by redeeming them and fulfilling the promise made to their forefathers. The people are united only to the extent that they have a common history, and to the extent that God is doing everything for them as a group.

The second stage is at הר סיני, when בני ישראל receive the Torah and enter into a covenant with Hashem. Here, בני ישראל play a somewhat more active role. They prepare for three days to receive the Torah, and pronounce an unconditional “נעשה,” that they will adhere to God’s commandments. A reciprocal relationship is born: "You shall be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (שמותi 19:6).  A kingdom of priests--i.e. servants of God--on the one hand, and a holy nation--i.e. a noble and distinct people in the eyes of God--on the other. But the covenant is forward looking. To finally become a holy nation, they must first become a kingdom of priests. They must first perform the “נעשה.”

The third and final stage of the development of בני ישראל as a nation occurs in this week’s double parasha, ויקהל-פקודי, at the הקמת המשכן, the construction of the משכן. This time, בני ישראל are the actors, and Hashem is merely the supervisor. בני ישראל display their collective, unified devotion to Hashem by mobilizing to give of themselves, both time and valuables.  "And בני ישראל did all that God commanded Moses" (39:32). בני ישראל now become a unified people willing to act for a common purpose, the service of God. They are now a nation. A holy nation.

Most of the donations for the משכן were optional. However, when it came to the פיקודים, the census commanded back in כי תשא, the מחצית השקל was mandatory. Every person counted was required to participate by donating an equal portion.  There are two purposes of the מחצית השקל emphasized in the text: “תרומה לה׳” ("donation to God") (30:13), to be used in the construction of the משכן, and  “לכפר על נפשותיכם” ("to atone for your souls") (30:15), a prerequisite for forming a meaningful relationship with Hashem. The counting itself, unlike other censuses that took place in the desert, is not the central purpose here.  The central theme is that each person counted is equally important. For the purpose of תרומה, anyone can contribute, and each person’s contribution is equally valuable. For the purpose of כפרה, each person has an equal opportunity to atone and forge a relationship with Hashem.

The Torah tells us that the מחצית השקל  was used primarily for the אדנים, the sockets that formed the base for each plank in the walls of the משכן. The message of a unified people, comprised of equally important individuals, literally served as the very foundation of the משכן, and thus the whole notion of the service of Hashem.

As we remain separated due to the Coronavirus pandemic, let us reflect upon the values that unite our own small community. Although we are distant, and have temporarily lost our ability to gather on Shabbat and on other occasions, this parasha reminds us that we still have a common purpose, and that each of us has an important role to play in achieving our communal goals. If we work together in furtherance of these ideals - helping one another, sharing Torah, planning for meaningful interaction - when doing so is challenging, we will only grow stronger as a unified community for when we can reunite, and we will be prepared to withstand whatever challenges may lie ahead.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thu, July 25 2024 19 Tammuz 5784