Vayakhel 5779

Vayakhel 5779

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.

Terumah 5779

This drash was delivered at Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, Maryland.
Parashat Terumah 5779
4 Adar Rishon, 5779

Shabbat shalom! It is a real honor and privilege to be with you all today on this Shabbat in which we lift up, honor and celebrate Jews with disabilities and all that we bring to our sacred communities as we observe Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion month alongside countless other communities across the continent.

For the next few weeks, we will be reading a series of parshiot which outline the construction of the Mishkan—or portable sanctuary—which the Children Of Israel carried with them throughout their wanderings in the desert. Every last detail is tended to. The materials are chosen just so and the specifications, from the dimensions of the Mishkan to the sacred implements within are described with painstaking exactitude. The Torah devotes some 400 pesukim to the construction of the Mishkan and there lies its significance. Were the subject not of such central import, we would not find such tremendously detailed descriptions of every last element of the sanctuary. The fact that the Torah devotes this much space to the Mishkan’s construction instructs us to take to heart just how meaningful this project was.

Our parsha opens with HaShem telling Moses to say to the Children of Israel that all whose heart moves them should bring gifts for the building of the Mishkan, including gifts of gold, silver, copper and beautifully colored yarns and other fabrics. It is significant that HaShem directs this commandment to the entire community, according to their ability or, in the Torah’s words, as their heart so moves them. The Torah is here teaching us that every contribution, no matter of what type or size is of infinite and inherent value. Jewish disability awareness, acceptance and inclusion month was begun nearly a decade ago as a means of lifting up and celebrating the contributions of Jews with disabilities to our Jewish community, as well as offering us a sacred opportunity to do a cheshbon hanefesh as a collective to see where we are excelling and in which areas we might want to strive even higher. As our tradition reminds us in Genesis 1:27, we are all created b’tzelem Elokim—in the image of G-d and as such, we each embody a spark of the divine within. The way in which we carry ourselves through the world and contribute to our communities is unique to us—no human being is created more in the image of G-d than any other. As Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel taught, we each have our own maslul, or path in life, and no two people have the same path. As such, the gifts that we each bring to the building of the Mishkan, with heartfelt intention, reflect our unique capabilities and the innermost desires of our hearts and souls.

We are told in Exodus 25:8 to make for HaShem a sanctuary so that HaShem might dwell amongst us. All of the elaborate work that is going into the specificity of the Mishkan and all of its implements and furnishings is entirely in service of creating a sanctuary in which HaShem’s presence may be felt amongst us. I have been drawn of late to the notion that the Mishkan’s construction isn’t so that HaShem can dwell amongst us as a collective people and nation only, but rather we each contribute to the building of the Mishkan so that HaShem’s presence can dwell within each of us individually. Typically, Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion month is a time for us to assess our physical sanctuaries in line with the first interpretation of this verse. We assess the ways in which we are building physically inclusive sanctuaries in terms of the accommodations in place—ramps, alternate-format siddurim including Braille and large print, or modifications enabling those with hearing impairments to enjoy full access to our prayer and programming. Or we might examine the inclusivity of our synagogue’s other activities including social gatherings, kiddush on Shabbat and festivals, etc. We might pick a priority or two to work on during the coming year, returning to it in the following year and measuring the progress we’ve made or the areas for growth which still remain.

If, instead, we choose to take the second approach, we are compelled to examine how we carry ourselves in the world and whether that is a reflection of the notion that the sanctuaries we build aren’t so that G-d can dwell externally, but rather, our sanctuaries are built specifically and precisely so that G-d’s indwelling presence can be felt internally as a community and within each of us as an individual. In other words, how is my community a dwelling place for the divine? How am I a dwelling place for the divine?
It is easy to use JDAIM as an opportunity to do an external accounting—is our building accessible?—and much harder for us to take a look at our community and the fabric that holds it together and ask, am I building a sanctuary that reflects me and my needs alone, or am I taking to heart that every spark of the divine that we embody can dwell in this holy place? When we build truly and deeply inclusive communities, we are able to make the Divine Presence or Shechinah that much more manifest.

Throughout my Jewish journey, I have been blessed to find myself in countless spaces that did strive, every day to live out our people’s mission to be a light unto the nations. Access isn’t a nice afterthought but rather part of the very fabric with which our communities are built and sustained. And that takes many years of hard and messy work, along with a commitment to remembering that we are all in process, all growing. While in rabbinical school, I encountered many individuals who took a risk—who believed in the potential of a rabbi who presented needs they had never before encountered—and said yes. Perhaps that yes involved out-of-the-box thinking and innovating, perhaps that yes involved rethinking aspects of a course or curriculum, but the enthusiasm of the yes remained a constant, even when getting to that yes took work.

Unfortunately, I have also found myself in far too many spaces in which that hoped-for yes turned out to be a no, in which fear of the unknown overshadowed the ark of possibility, in which the fear of doing the wrong thing meant that nothing was done at all. Getting out of our comfort zones, getting proximate to that which leaves us sitting with just how little we truly know rattles far too many of us. Whether it is out of prejudice or malice, ignorance or fear, the end result remains the same. The sanctuaries, internal and external that we fashion for HaShem do not allow HaShem’s presence to truly dwell because all of the divine sparks that G-d’s children carry within aren’t able to find their spiritual home.

This, truly, is the work of inclusion. We do inclusion when we prioritize relationship, genuine, mutual, reciprocal relationship. Inclusion comes when we remember that each individual is, as our Mishnah in Sanhedrin reminds us, a world unto him, her or their self—a world of complexity, a world of possibility and promise. Inclusion comes when we value the gifts that we each bring to our sanctuaries no matter how big or small, prominent or behind the scenes. Inclusion happens when we concern ourselves more with how people feel inside our sanctuaries than in telling the world how inclusive we are. May we always strive to continue to bring the gifts of our hearts towards building truly inclusive and accessible spiritual homes for us all.