2016-03-02 / Religion Column

A member of the community is there in good times and bad

Temple Beth Sholom

Parshiot Vayakhel/Pekudai Ex. 35:1-40:38

The last two Torah portions in the book of Exodus are about community. The second to last parashah, Vayakhel, begins with Moshe gathering together the entire community of Israel. The root of that Hebrew word Vayakhel is kahal, which means community. In his commentary, Nahmonides (13th century Spain) raises two important ideas about what it means to be a member of a community. These two notions of community still resonate for us today.

Nahmonides first says that being a member of a community is not about what you get out, but what you put in. He notes that Moshe called the whole community of Israel together, all the men, women and children, because they all contributed to the work of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary the Israelites built in the desert. By donating their time and resources, each according to his capacity, they invested for the common good. This gave them a sense of ownership over the mishkan, and over the religious community that it represented.

The second idea about community Nahmonides brings is the importance of being there for each other during good times and bad. His comment reminds us of the context in which this Torah portion is taking place. It is right after the disaster of the golden calf, and the great loss and turmoil it caused. The people are hurt, 3,000 members of the community have died, and Moshe rallies the people back together. He wishes to reassert that feeling of community that has been challenged. By supporting one another, they rediscover their meaning and purpose after a terrible loss.

This second notion of community reminds me of a short statement from the Talmud that I think is one of the most powerful insights on what it means to be a part of a community. In Ta’anit 30a we learn, “All who mourn for Jerusalem deserve to see her in her joy, and one who does not mourn over Jerusalem, will not see her in her joy.”

Being a member of a community means being there in times of mourning and in times of joy. Anyone who has celebrated a simha with a friend after being with that person during a time of loss knows this is true. As painful as loss is, it can bring us together, and can help us appreciate the sweetness of s’mahot.

Investing oneself in community, and supporting each other during difficult times as well as joyous occasions, is, says Nahmonides, what creates kehila, community. Despite the many changes that have occurred in the world from the time of Moshe, to the time of Nahmonides, until today, these lessons about community still resonate. It is what held the Israelites together in spite of the many challenges they faced on their desert journey, and what continues to give our community strength today. .

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