This drasha was delivered at Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandrea, VA, March 1, 2019/25 Adar I, 5779
Shabbat shalom! It is my honor and privilege to be with you this Shabbat. I wish to thank the Beth El Hebrew Congregation Inclusion committee as well as Rabbi Spinrad and Cantor Kaufman for welcoming me into your community this weekend. Our Torah portion this week, Parashat Vayakhel, meaning and he assembled, or he gathered together, largely concerns itself with recapitulating the building of the Mishkan or tabernacle, to which we were first introduced in Parashat Terumah several weeks ago. Jewish commentators have noted that the Torah devotes some 400 verses to the construction of the Mishkan. For many commentators, nothing in the Torah is superfluous or redundant. Why, then, does the Torah devote so much space to each and every exacting detail of the Mishkan’s construction, down to the smallest, seemingly least significant detail? It is commonly understood that the Torah here is teaching us a profound spiritual and moral lesson. We care about every detail because every detail matters. We read these Torah portions every year not just because every detail of the building of the Mishkan mattered at one particular time and in one particular cultural and religious context, but because it, though seemingly far removed from our modern Jewish lives and experiences, matters today as well. Though we no longer have a portable sanctuary accompanying us during our wanderings in the desert, and though the Temple no longer stands in Yerushalayim, our Torah’s instructions concerning the fashioning of our portable sanctuary, our dwelling place for God contains much wisdom for our daily lives and our collective experience as Jews.
We are concluding Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month, annually observed in February, though its imperatives extend all year. Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month is a time when Jewish communities globally take stock of where they are in terms of any number of metrics related to disability, whether that is on an individual congregational level, or whether that is with regards to inclusion efforts within larger organizations. This weekend’s theme is all about building an inclusive community in the big tent sense of the word—encompassing disability, of course, but also seeking to take the lessons gleaned from years of work in the disability space and broaden their application to many other areas and groups who may feel their voices aren’t being heard and their unique needs aren’t recognized. Parashat Vayakhel provides us with a blueprint for how we as individuals and communities might begin to shift our paradigms and culture around what building inclusive community truly means and entails.
Our parsha spends significant time describing the beautiful gifts that the Children of Israel bring for the Mishkan’s construction. Everyone whose heart so moved them, who was skilled in a particular area, brought that gift, that skill, that talent, to the construction of the Mishkan. Many of these skills are named, which signifies to us how crucial they truly were. Bring the best of who you are and what you can offer to this holy effort, our Torah proclaims.
Typically, when we think about building inclusive communities, though this is frequently unconscious, we imagine a norm that we are going to have to deviate from, as if there is an us and a them, and though the them might consist of folks who are the us, we forget they are the us because we build communities that center ourselves and folks like us. I believe that this is simply a byproduct of how we humans tend to operate and function in this world. Our awareness is naturally limited by our life experiences and so, when we think about the kinds of groups and gatherings we wish to be a part of, we tend to congregate with folks like us. The us, then, becomes the default norm, the them are outside of the camp, the strangers our Torah commands us to love for we were once strangers in Egypt. This attitude towards inclusion tends to manifest itself in such ways as thinking only about physical accommodations—the ramps, the alternate-format siddurim, the hearing-assistive devices—all of which are fundamental and essential ingredients—but tends to omit those things that aren’t as tangible. Are we creating a welcoming atmosphere, in which the presence and gifts of all are welcomed and embraced? How can we even begin to think about creating a welcoming atmosphere? It feels like quite a daunting, overwhelming, seemingly endless task. And given that, as our Mishnah reminds us in Masechet Sanhedrin, each person is unique unto themselves, how do I know if what I think of as a welcoming atmosphere is welcoming to someone else? How do I navigate the tensions that inevitably arise, the feelings of invisibility that emerge when one group’s needs are placed above another—or, perhaps more importantly, are perceived as such?
Perkei Avot, the Sayings of our Fathers, which is a tractate of the Mishnah or rabbinic oral law and is frequently studied teaches us that though we may not complete a task, we are not free to desist from it. Building inclusive communities in which the gifts, skills and talents of all are cherished takes hard work, and the work is often messy. It does not always bear fruit in the short term, but the long-term investment we make nets us amazing returns. How do we do this transformational work when we might feel like the odds of success are stacked against us and the possibility of failure or perceived failure feels right around the corner?
We must shift the paradigm we use. We live in a culture right now in which urgency feels acute, in which the pressure to get it done and get it right yesterday bears down upon us. And this is quite understandable. For too long, folks on the margins of Jewish community and of our society at large have been excluded. Gradual, incremental shifts sound, often, like an excuse to bide people more time, or like a desire to keep the status quo unchanged. Incremental shifts feel like too little, too late.
I resonate deeply with those who feel they have waited long enough, who feel that their and our communities haven’t wanted their gifts, their talents, their souls, and now that they are starting to do that work, it feels hard to excitedly jump in with both feet. My life experience, in rabbinical school and in general, has taught me that perhaps the most important ingredient in building truly inclusive communities, even more important and lasting than all of the best practices is the genuine, authentic, mutual relationship-building. When we show up in our Jewish communities and in our lives as authentically as we are able, demonstrating a true desire to get to know those who are unlike us as the unique and holy individuals they are, without pretense, our actions start a ripple effect. Just as all of the Children of Israel were commanded to bring their gifts, as their heart so moved them for the building of the Mishkan, we, too, are all needed to affect a lasting change in our communities. Naturally, we cannot expect one individual to do the holy work of showing up authentically and building those mutual, authentic relationships single-handedly. That task is all of ours. Taking a genuine interest in another human being, beyond what they can do for us feels so small but can truly make a huge difference. Even a simple hello at Kiddush or at Friday night oneg means a lot. Feeling like you matter, like you are heard, seen and appreciated, not feeling like you don’t belong or are out of place matters profoundly. It isn’t about liking everyone or getting along with everyone. It’s about each of us, bringing the best of who we are and what we have to offer to make our sanctuaries places in which HaShem’s presence can truly dwell. It’s about radically and deeply living out one of our Torah’s most famously oft-repeated teachings, that every human being is created in the image of God and carries a divine spark within. Do we want to conceal that holy spark through how we show up in the world? Or, do we want to use our God-given free will to reveal increasing light and holiness into our world by making manifest and embodying our Torah’s directive towards us? Living out deeply our Torah’s teachings is a practice. It is far from easy and feels increasingly complicated in our world today. Which means that it is even more essential than it has ever been. Rooted in our tradition’s call to us, let us strive ever always to build sanctuaries in which the gifts of all are welcomed, desired and wanted.