from the heart of jerusalem

At Vayakhel, working to build our community


In the fall of 2012, Israel was again preparing for war in response to the thousands of missiles being fired indiscriminately from the Gaza Strip into the population centers of southern Israel. As Eva Zrihen was posing for wedding photos in Tel Aviv, not 50 miles south her younger brothers, Sergeant Eliahu Zrihen and Captain Emmanuel Zrihen, were donning flak vests and ammo pouches for the challenge of entering Gaza in what was expected to be one of the most intensive and costly ground operations in modern warfare.

The Zrihen family was torn between tears of joy at Eva’s wedding and pangs of worry at her two brothers’ engagement in Operation Pillar of Defense.

Eliahu and Emmanuel sent Eva a message telling her how sad they were to be missing her wedding, but that they expected there to be only tears of joy. They were all at a mitzvah party, they wrote, just celebrating two different mitzvot.

As the family headed to the wedding hall, sirens wailed and rockets began falling. Everyone had to take cover in the bomb shelters. The wedding celebrations would have to wait.

Meanwhile, at around 9 pm, just outside Gaza, it was decided that Eliahu and Emmanuel’s unit would not be going in before dawn. Their base commander found Eliahu Zrihen with a message: “You have 15 minutes to find your brother. Take my car keys and go dance at your sister’s wedding.”

Their cell phones had been taken away in preparation for entering Gaza, and there was no time to find them, so no one knew they were coming. Normally, the dancing would have long been over by the time they got there, but a few missiles had delayed everything.

At 11 pm, Eli and Emmanuel walked into the wedding hall. They had not had time to change out of their combat gear or even wipe the camouflage paint off their faces. But when the two exhausted, dusty soldiers with grins as wide as the sea walked into the hall, everything … stopped. The band stopped playing, the people stopped dancing and parted, and for a moment no one moved, until the bride turned around and let out a shout of joy, and then the entire hall erupted.

And one family, symbolizing an entire people, separated by 50 miles and seemingly in two entirely different worlds that night, became one.

This week’s portion begins as Moshe gathers the entire people together. It’s from this moment that the portion takes its name, Vayakhel, which means “to gather.”

The commentators ask why this special gathering was necessary. Why didn’t Moshe inform the Jewish people as he normally would? Rashi points out that this actually occurred on the day following Yom Kippur, which seems to be his response to this question. But why does the day after Yom Kippur engender a gathering?

Some historical context is helpful here. The Jewish people received the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai on the seventh day of Sivan. Forty days later, on the 17th day of Tammuz, Moshe came down from the mountain to find the people frolicking with the Golden Calf, and he hurled the tablets of the law (luchot) to the ground. Three days later, on the 20th day of Tammuz, after the principal perpetrators were been dealt with, Moshe ascended the mountain a second time to gain forgiveness for the Jewish people. Forty days later he descended on the first of the month of Elul to announce that the people had been forgiven. Then he ascended a third time for another 40 days to receive the second luchot. Finally, Moshe descended from Mount Sinai for the third and final time, on Yom Kippur, the tenth of Tishrei.

Thus, it was on Yom Kippur that the Jewish people realized they were really forgiven and had been given a second chance, with a second set of luchot. What Rashi points out is not the connection between gathering and Yom Kippur, but rather between this gathering, the day after this particular Yom Kippur.

You see, six months after the great Exodus from Egypt, the people, like the first set of luchot, were broken. On the seventh of Sivan, G-d Himself had spoken to them from Mount Sinai. Moshe brought the luchot to the Jewish people encamped at the mountain’s foot — “as one, with one heart,” writes Rashi. But with the Levites meting out justice to idolaters, the dream of Sinai seemed far away and … broken.

So Moshe gathered everyone together and, at the behest of G-d, gave them a special mitzvah: to build a Mishkan together. Because for any community to accomplish its goals, it must work together as a team.

This word, vayakhel, to gather, appears in almost exactly the same form at the beginning of the story of the Golden Calf: When the people saw that Moshe was returning, “vayakhel ha’am al Aharon,” “the nation gathered around Aharon” (32:1).

So, before the Golden Calf they gather as an am, a nation. But on the day after Yom Kippur, they are gathered by Moshe as an eidah, a congregation. Perhaps, when coming to Aharon after Moshe did not returned, the people gathered for a mission — what unites a nation is its purpose, its mission.

Here, however, the purpose is actually to gather. How do you rebuild a broken people? Your bring them together. Perhaps the Torah is alluding to the fact that they are not gathering just to build a Mishkan, they are building together in order to rediscover the beauty of being “gathered.”

I recently read a wonderful book on the value of team building by Patrick Lencioni, in which he describes the five dysfunctions of a team.

The first dysfunction, he suggests, is trust — not trust in the conventional sense, which is about assumptions of a person’s future behavior based on their past behavior; but trust as in the confidence among team members that all their intentions are good and are pursued for the good of the team or a higher purpose than themselves. This includes the willingness of team members to be vulnerable and share their mistakes, confident in the knowledge that they will not be judged, because all the team members simply want to help each other and become better in the interest of the team, or of a higher purpose. It includes the ability to engage in healthy conflict and even point out other team members’ mistakes and flaws, secure in the knowledge that no one is making it personal, but that it’s always about the team.

As an example, if a basketball player is more concerned with his own scoring than whether the team wins, then something is dysfunctional in the way that team works. On the other hand, the coach has to be able to tell a team member where he messed up without his taking it personally, because it’s not about him, it’s about something much bigger.

This is true of every team setting and every healthy relationship. Your spouse or parent has to be able to tell you where you need to improve without you taking it personally, secure in the knowledge that they love you and have no axe to grind; they simply want to help you become even better.

And so, 3,200 years ago, with the first tablets shattered at the foot of the mountain, and the dream of a better world at risk, Moshe gathers together the entire Jewish people and tells them to build a Mishkan, a special place, together.

And here is some food for thought for the Shabbat table: Seventy years ago, with the Jewish people and the Torah communities of Europe in tatters, Hashem tells us to build a State of Israel … together. And here we are, living the dream; we just have a bit of a ways to go to build it … together.

Perhaps this Shabbat of Vayakhel, we might all consider thinking how to get a little better at the “together” part.

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.

A version of this column was published in 2016.