Shabbat VaYakhel: Kehillah

The name of this week’s parashah is VaYakhel, from the word kahal, or kehillah – “gathering”. The people are gathering for the purpose of building the Mishkan, the sacred space that will be dedicated to their longing to feel G-d’s presence. They are gathered together not as the am, the people, and not as the eydim, the witnesses who entered into the Covenant; here, our ancestors, working together on building a place, are the kehillah. 

There’s a necessary balance here between two concepts which exist in an inevitable tension: our sense of the independent value of each human being, and the vital importance to our lives of meaningful community. Each person is to bring the gift of her or his own ability and willingness, and all must be woven into a coherent whole. A building is not well-built without careful plans, and a community does not thrive without individuals willing to bring their gifts as they are needed – and not just when the individual feels like it.

The teaching of the word VaYakhel, is in the detail that the people here are not primarily individuals, but individuals who have become a meaningful collective. Kehillah refers primarily to what it means to gather for the purpose of creating sacred space, and, through that act, to create a sense of Place, where that word – Makom in Hebrew – is a Name of G-d. In other words, when we gather with a sense that we gather in order to evoke the sacred, we find ourselves in the Place of G-d’s presence. We do not bring G-d into our midst, rather, we become aware that we are already standing in the Place of G-d. A gathering like this is called a kehillah kedoshah, a “sacred community”, and by default, every Jewish congregation is referred to traditionally with that phrase.

It’s an aspirational name, reminding us of why we come together and for what reason. And it’s also a challenge: can we come to realize that in relationship to G-d we do not go looking for the divine, but rather open ourselves to the reality that we are already surrounded, supported, and suffused with the Presence. As the mystics put it, we are each a drop of water, and G-d is the ocean.

At our best as a congregation, Jews are a kehillah. That does not mean that we are always in agreement with each other, nor that we will all be best friends. A kehillah is a gathering of us when we are mindful of the fact that we are needed to step up, each of us, bringing our own individual talents and sensitivities, to create a sense of Place where all of us feel safe in belonging, even when we do disagree. Underneath it all, after all, we are one people, all of us in need of support, all of us in need of kindness. In G-d’s presence there is no lack; there is always a place at the table, and always enough love for us all. We act as a kehillah when we deliberately act in love, no matter what the provocation. Let G-d’s shefa, “abundance”, surround you, and may you know the deep joy of opening up to let it flow through you and to your kehillah around you.

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