שבת טעם החיים ויקהל תשע”א
Shabbos: Ta’am HaChaim Vayakhel 5771
United we stand, in the Mishkan and on Shabbos
ויקהל משה את כל עדת בני ישראל ויאמר אליהם אלה הדברים אשר צוה ה’ לעשות אותם, Moshe assembled the entire Assembly of the Children of Israel and said to them: These are things that HaShem commanded, to do them. (Shemos 35:1)
In this week’s parasha the Torah records how Moshe gathered the Jewish People and instructed them regarding Shabbos and only then he instructed them regarding the construction of the Mishkan and the fashioning of the Priestly Vestments. The commentators wonder why the Torah felt it necessary to insert the laws of Shabbos as a preamble to the construction of the Mishkan. Rashi writes that the Torah juxtaposes the laws of Shabbos to the construction of the Mishkan to teach us that constructing the Mishkan does not supersede the prohibition of working on Shabbos. The difficulty with this explanation is that in the previous parasha the Torah juxtaposes the laws of Shabbos to the laws related to the construction of the Mishkan. There too Rashi writes that the juxtaposition is to teach us that although the Jewish People received an important command to construct the Mishkan, they should not violate the Shabbos, despite the importance of constructing the Mishkan. We must wonder, then, why the Torah felt the need to teach us this law twice.
In order to gain an understanding of why the Torah mentions Shabbos in our parasha, we need to examine the first verse of the parshaha. It is said (Shemos 35:1) ויקהל משה את כל עדת בני ישראל ויאמר אליהם אלה הדברים אשר צוה ה’ לעשות אותם, Moshe assembled the entire Assembly of the Children of Israel and said to them: These are things that HaShem commanded, to do them. This is the only time regarding the construction of the Mishkan that the Torah uses the term ויקהל, assembled. The Medrash (Yalkut Shimoni §408, citing Medrash Avkir) states that from the beginning of the Torah until the end, the only parasha that begins with the word ויקהל is this parasha. The reason for that is because HaShem said, “make large gatherings and expound before the public regarding the laws of Shabbos, so that future generations should learn from you to gather on Shabbos and to study. The purpose of these gatherings will be to teach the Jewish People words of Torah, what is prohibited and what is permitted, in order that my Name should be praised amongst my children.” From here the Sages derived that Moshe instituted that the Jewish People would expound on the laws of the festivals, each in its appointed time. Moshe then proclaimed to the Jewish People, “If you follow this protocol, HaShem will consider it as if you have crowned Him king in His world.” Additionally, we find that Dovid declared (Tehillim 40:10) בשרתי צדק בקהל רב, I proclaimed [Your] righteousness in a vast assembly. What sort of good tidings did the Jewish People require in Dovid’s era, if that entire time period was a semblance of Moshiach’s times? The answer is that Dovid would expound on words of Torah that no person had ever heard prior.
This Medrash offers us a penetrating insight into why Moshe discussed the laws of Shabbos with the Jewish People prior to launching into a discourse regarding the construction of the Mishkan. The purpose of the Mishkan, in addition to being a resting place for the Divine Presence, is that we gather together as one nation. Our strength is in being unified and demonstrating our concern for each other. Haman declared to Achashveirosh (Esther 3:8 ) ישנו עם אחד מפזר ומפרד בין העמים בכל מדינות מלכותיך, “there is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your realm.” Haman was intimating to Achashveirosh that the Jewish People are scattered and not united in serving HaShem. The obvious antidote to Haman’s libel is that we unite. However, let us understand what it means to be united. While it is true that the Jewish People unite both in times of joy and in periods of suffering, Heaven forbid, we demonstrate true unity when we gather together to study Torah. Furthermore, when we accept words of rebuke and wisdom from our Torah leaders, it is clear that we are demonstrating our willingness to forgo our pride and be subservient to HaShem and His Torah.
The Medrash (Tanna Divei Eliyahu §1) states that one should make the entire Shabbos Torah. When we study Torah on Shabbos, we are fulfilling HaShem’s desire that we gather together to study His word. Although we do not have a Mishkan with us today, the study halls and synagogues serve as our gathering centers where we unite for one cause, to serve HaShem and follow His Torah. Our parasha appears to teach us the same lesson as the previous parsha regarding the construction of the Mishkan not overriding the laws of Shabbos. Nonetheless, contained within the word ויקהל is the message that we must be united in our service of HaShem and in studying His Torah.
Shabbos with the Sfas Emes and the Rebbes of Ger
Upon completing the above essay I discovered that the Sfas Emes in our parasha writes as follows: The Torah mentions that Moshe gathered the Jewish People prior to discussing the construction of the Mishkan, because the work of the Mishkan is through the power of gathering. When the Jewish People gather together, then HaShem rests His Divine Presence amongst them. This is reflected in the words of the Alshich who interprets the verse that states (Shemos 25:8) ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם, they shall make a Sanctuary for Me – so that I may dwell among them, to mean that HaShem rests His Presence upon every single Jew. This idea of gathering together reflects the concept of Shabbos. When Moshe informed the Jewish People regarding the laws of Shabbos, he was gathering them together. Alternatively, when Moshe declared the words אלה הדברים, these are the words, they refer to the above-mentioned gathering. This means that Moshe was instructing the Jewish People to unite themselves. The idea is that when the Jewish People unite, they elevate themselves, which is the catalyst for the Divine Presence, known as כנסת ישראל, the Gathering of Israel, to repose amongst them.
Jews throughout the ages have withstood tremendous tests of faith. The following true story tells of one such test – and the unlikely candidate to have faced it.
In nineteenth-century Europe, in the city of Shpole, Russia there were some young peasant Jews who banded together to form a group of professional thieves! The leader of this group was a slight, athletic young man who was known as “Yosse’le Ganav” (Yosse’le the Thief).
It once happened that the group set its eyes upon the valuable gems and ornaments which were found in the local church. The thieves figured out that the only way they could possibly succeed at stealing this fortune was for one of them to climb up one of the church walls, and enter through a small window near the top of the building’s steeple – a job, of course, for Yosse’le Ganav.
They waited for the end of the month when the moon disappears from view. The thieves then made their way to the church grounds in the blackness of night. As Yosse’le began his ascent, the others huddled near the wall to await Yosse’le’s signal that the loot was on its way down.
Yosse’le reached the window at the top of the steeple. He pried it opened with ease and climbed inside. Meanwhile, the night watchman had come to investigate a report of suspicious noises heard around the building. As soon as the thieves saw him coming, they scattered in all directions. Yosse’le, unaware of what was transpiring outside, was busy gathering the loot. When he had gathered everything together, he spread out a large tablecloth and piled the valuables onto it. Then he tied the ends of the tablecloth together so that it served as a sack, slung it over his shoulder, and climbed back up to the window to make his escape.
Yosse’le called out a signal and waited for his comrades to respond with a signal of their own before he let the sack fall to the ground below. When there was no response, he signaled again… and again. Realizing that something was wrong, he began to plan his next move but did not get very far. Soon, Yosse’le found himself face to face with the watchman and a furious priest, who ordered that the Jew be cast into a dungeon.
A few days later, Yosse’le was brought before a panel of judges for sentencing. The chief judge pronounced the verdict: For daring to break into the church, the Jew would be burned alive in the city square, in the presence of the city’s entire gentile population.
However, the judge continued, there was a way by which Yosse’le could save himself. If he were to publicly convert to their religion, then not only would his life be spared, but he would also be granted lavish gifts so that he would have no need to steal ever again.
Yosse’le needed no time to think it over. Drawing himself up to his full height, he declared for all to hear, “I may be a thief, may have done plenty of wrong in my life, but never will anyone convince me to forsake my religion! Torture me if you wish – it will not make any difference. Do you think that I am out of my mind, to be willing to exchange the living G-d for some lifeless statues? I am a Jew and I will always remain a Jew.”
Yosse’le was violently thrown back into his prison cell.
The next day at around noon, he was brought in chains to the city square where stands which had been hastily erected were filled to capacity. The gentiles watched gleefully as Yosse’le was brought to stand next to a vat of boiling tar.
The priest turned to Yosse’le and told him that he could still “repent” and live. “Stop wasting your time,” Yosse’le replied. “I told you already that I will never forsake my religion!”
The priest gave the signal and two guards lifted Yosse’le up into the air. Yosse’le’s hands were slowly dipped into the boiling tar. He could not help but cry out in agony. “You still have a chance,” the priest announced. “Promise to convert and you will live, and a doctor will be called to heal your hands.”
“I TOLD YOU ALREADY,” Yosse’le shouted. “I AM A JEW AND I WILL ALWAYS BE A JEW! LET ME DIE AND SANCTIFY THE NAME OF THE LIVING G-D!”
That night, Yosse’le’s remains were handed over to the Jewish community of Shpole. He was buried in the Jewish cemetery near the famed tzaddik known as the Shpole Zeide. A simple tombstone atop his grave bore the inscription, “Here lies the martyr, Yosse’le Ganav.”
When I was five, I asked my parents, “When can I go to church to talk to God?” At first my parents thought it was cute. However, I soon found myself enrolled in a weekly Yiddish class. Being a shy child, I did not do well and eventually was asked to leave the class; hence the end of my Yiddish education. I suppose I thought God wasn’t in my Yiddish class.
When I was 10, my grandpa died. As the eldest child, I always felt we had a special love for one another. Was my grandfather alone now? I wondered. Did he think of us? Did he know how much I loved him? In my bed that evening, looking up at the ceiling, I cried and asked God to please tell my grandpa that I loved him and missed him. I also added something quite peculiar for a Jewish child, probably picked up from our non-Jewish neighbors: I asked Yoshke that just in case he was Messiah, would he please hold my grandpa in his arms and take care of him until I got to Heaven. You see, I wanted to cover all my bases.
Soon after, I asked my parents if I could go to temple and learn about God. I learned to read Hebrew and studied for my bat mitzvah. I eventually met with the rabbi and remember reviewing the English portion of my Haftorah. My Torah portion talked about angels, and during one of my sessions with him, the rabbi asked me if I really believed in miracles and angels. I hesitantly said yes. And he laughed at me! I was devastated and went home crying. I felt so ashamed that I had even answered his question. Of course I believed in miracles, angels, and God. Didn’t he?
On the outside, my bat mitzvah was a success. I had done what I had set out to do: I had learned to read and write in Hebrew. Unfortunately, I didn’t achieve my main goal of getting in touch with God. I guess He wasn’t in my temple either.
After my bat mitzvah classes, I stopped learning anything about Judaism for a long, long time. I do have one special Jewish memory, though. I remember my mother lighting candles late Friday afternoon before sunset. Her head covered, she brought in Shabbat with a beautiful prayer. Standing next to her, basking in the warmth of the candles, and watching my mother recite the prayer in Hebrew — these are some of my most beautiful memories.
In high school, I was very involved in theater productions, choral, and orchestra. Over the next five years, many friends passed away. Two young girlfriends in high school were killed by a drunk driver, another friend was murdered while hitchhiking during the summer of her junior year, another was strangled during my second year of college, another died of leukemia, another hit by a truck, and another was hit by a train while trying to save a woman’s life as she lay unconscious on the tracks. (They both died.)
What was going on here? I wondered. What was life all about? What was dying all about?
I never imagined I would live past 30, so I abandoned my search for truth and decided to live life to the fullest. I majored in photography and had a very successful career as a biomedical photographer. Working in the area of cancer research at three of the most prestigious universities and hospitals in the United States, I was involved in documenting radical surgeries and research. I was constantly faced with the delicate balance between life and death. Avoid them as I might try, all my questions resurfaced.
What was life all about? I wondered. Where could I find answers?
Not long after, I moved to the West Coast, and in three sequential moves, all my neighbors were Messianic Jews. I felt that God was sending me a sign.
My new neighbors weren’t really Christians, I thought. They didn’t celebrate Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter. They only celebrated the biblical holidays. They had Jewish names. They met on Saturday mornings for services, not Sundays. They believed in angels, miracles, and God. They quoted Scriptures from the Bible that they said proved that Yoshke is the Messiah. One Saturday morning, I went to their Messianic congregation in town. They were praying and lifting their arms up to God. These were educated and sincere men, women, and children. Nice people, many of them Jewish. No crosses or pictures of Yoshke, only a Star of David.
Well, I thought, I’m home. I’ve finally found God.
I was where I thought God wanted me to be. I could pray to God and believe in angels and still stay Jewish. I became a Messianic Jew, memorizing passages and eventually even doing some missionizing and recruiting.
Within a few years, though, I began to question the truth of the Messiahship of Yoshke. It didn’t happen overnight. I kept noticing hypocrisy in what I was seeing. They rejected the Jewish tradition, claiming that only the literal Bible was Divine. Yet they said blessings in Hebrew that didn’t appear explicitly in the Bible at all, only in the Jewish tradition. The men would wear prayer shawls but not Tefillin. Why one and not the other? They wore the tzitzit strings, but on their belt buckles, not on garments as the verse in the Bible clearly says to. They would quote passages out of context, twisting the meaning completely. When I would ask for explanations, they would move on to a different verse, claiming I had to have faith. I was told of several Messianic rabbis who were raised Orthodox, went to yeshivot, and had come to see the light. If they were convinced of the authenticity of Yoshke, I was told, why couldn’t I be?
I tracked down these rabbis one by one, calling around the United States, Canada, Australia, and South Africa. Not one of them had had any serious Jewish education, or had been raised Orthodox. Certainly none of them had been to a yeshiva. The deeper I dug, the greater the lies. I was upset, confused, unhappy, and lost. Where was I to go? What was really true?
About that time — thank God — my mother (who lived 3,000 miles away) somehow found Rabbi Tovia Singer, director of Outreach Judaism (www.outreachjudaism.org). He was an anti-missionary Orthodox rabbi who knew the New Testament inside and out. She wanted me to talk to him when I next visited New York.
Needless to say, I eagerly awaited my next trip. We met that evening and sat in my mother’s living room for over five hours, going back and forth from Jewish to Christian Scriptures. He kept calling me “rebbetzin.” What did he mean? I wondered. He said he was born with gefilte fish in his blood. He came from a family of rabbis from generations past. He was funny, friendly, and more knowledgeable than anyone I’d ever met. To this day we have a wonderful rabbi-student relationship. I remember saying that we both can’t be right. He agreed. This is serious stuff, he said. I knew I had to find out who was right. Over time Rabbi Singer encouraged me to go to Israel and learn what I knew little about: Judaism.
Seven months after my initial meeting with Rabbi Singer, I left the Messianic congregation after eight years as a member. I didn’t know who Yoshke was, but was unable to stay there with my doubts about the movement’s authenticity. It became clear to me that none of them actually knew anything about Judaism. How could they judge where Yoshke fit in?
Everything I knew about Judaism was through a Christian prism, and I needed to learn how Jewish beliefs are different from Christian and Messianic Jewish beliefs. Over the next year and a half I went to nearby shuls for evening classes, but knew I needed even more immersion in Judaism.
With time, I saw the Yoshke claim for what it was: a combination of lack of knowledge on the part of the believers and in some cases deception on the part of the leaders and institutions. There is much to explain, but, simply put, the reason why Jews in his time rejected Yoshke as the Messiah is the same reason educated Jews do so today. He doesn’t fit the basic scriptural qualifications of being the Messiah (the leader of the Jewish people) who will lead them to their land and their religion, ushering in an era of love, peace, and connection to God. Clearly, neither the Messiah nor the Messianic age envisioned by the Bible and the Prophets have come.
But thankfully I learned much more about being Jewish than the reasons not to be Christian. I learned of how much God loves us, cares for us, and has not abandoned us. How He gave us a beautiful Torah to teach us how to get close to Him and how to achieve true happiness. How our people have spread the ideas of morality and goodness in the world and how we still have much to do. I learned what a great honor it is to be a Jew and what great role models we have in incredible Jewish women.
Now I live in Israel and visit the Western Wall whenever I can. I cried the first time I was there and still do sometimes when I go. It is there that I feel how close I have come to my grandparents, my heritage, and God.
I am sincerely grateful for all the steps I needed to take on my journey home. And now I have the opportunity to share what I have learned with many who are searching. And you, too, can help. Please show this essay to friends who are at risk — which includes almost anyone with a limited Jewish background. And most importantly, give your children (and yourselves) a serious Jewish education. In the long term, it is the only way that Jews will stay Jewish. (www.innernet.org.il)
Shabbos: Ta’am HaChaim Vayakhel 5771
Is sponsored in honor of Rabbi Sander Babayov, Shlita, Rav of Congregation Ahavas Yisroel in Oak Park, Michigan, and the students of Rabbi Babayov’s Kollel. להגדיל תורה ולהאדירה
Have a wonderful and delightful Shabbos
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