February 29, 1992, was the last time the Lubavitcher Rebbe spoke on Shabbos to his chassidim. In one of his talks, the Rebbe dwelled on the fact that the Torah reading of the day, Vayakhel, in many years is read together with another section, Pekudei. Because of the varying length of the Jewish year, the annual Torah reading cycle includes certain sections that are sometimes combined with each other to form a single reading. An interesting feature of these potential “pairs” is that often their names express opposite meanings. For example, Nitzavim, which means “standing,” is often joined to Vayeilech, which means “going.”
Vayakhel and Pekudei, which this week coincide, form one of these paradoxical pairs: Vayakhel, which begins by telling how Moses assembled the Children of Israel, means “And he assembled” and is related to the word kehillah, “community.” Pekudei, which begins with an audit of the Sanctuary’s components, means “the counted things” and “the remembered things” — the emphasis on the specific items within the whole and the individual within the community.
In other words, explained the Rebbe, Vayakhel and Pekudei express the contrasting values of community and individuality, and the need to unite the two: to build a community that fosters, rather than suppresses, the individuality of its members, and to cultivate an individuality that contributes to, rather than conflicts with, the communal whole.
Then the Rebbe asked a question: If that is the case, why does Vayakhel come before Pekudei? Don’t we first need to develop and perfect the individual, before hoping to make healthy communities out of him and his fellows?
To build a brick wall you need bricks. To make a watch you need gears, springs, and balance wheels. To create a community you need people. You can’t build a lasting building out of half-baked bricks. You can’t assemble an accurate timepiece unless each of its components has first been honed to precision. Nor, it would seem, can you put together a perfect world out of imperfect individuals.
But this, the Rebbe explained, is the Torah’s very point: Make communities, even before you have perfect individuals. People are not bricks or gears, which must be individually forged to perfection before they can be assembled together in a constructive way. People are souls, with the potential for perfection implicit within them. And nothing brings out a soul’s potential as much interacting and uniting with other souls.
As we approach this Torah reading and contemplate this lesson, I can’t help but think of the many children in our and other communities who find themselves outside the box of the normative yeshiva education system. Perhaps they learn a little differently, perhaps they have some social issues and perhaps they have nothing more than a personality conflict with the administrators of their particular school. In so many cases that have come across my desk I have found that children who are not “perfect” are either directly or indirectly disenfranchised from our education system. This isn’t exclusive to any one community. I have seen it in chassidish, yeshivish, and modern Orthodox circles. We make conferences and gathering crying and wailing about the OTD (off the derech) crisis that hits our community and yet how much of that is due to children being pushed out of schools or made to feel inferior because they are different? If Jewish education leaves a child with a negative self-image it’s a very good chance that child will drop Jewish education. Can you blame them? I can’t.
I am reminded of the story (Baba Metzia 84a) of the initial meeting between Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish. They went on to become two of the greatest talmudic authorities in our history, but they didn’t start out that way. Rabbi Yochonan was a scholar and Resh Lakish was a bandit, far removed from Jewish observance. One day when Rabbi Yochanan was bathing in the river, Resh Lakish spotted him and jumped into the water with nefarious motives. Rabbi Yochanan turned to him and said, “Your strength would be better suited for Torah.” When he was rebuffed by Resh Lakish, Rabbi Yochanan told him that if he would turn his life around and dedicate himself to Judaism and to learning, then Rabbi Yochanan would mention him as a marriage partner for his sister. In one moment Resh Lakish turned his life around and became one of the greatest scholars in our history. How did that happen? What made him change?
The answer is obvious. Rabbi Yochonan believed in Resh Lakish. When you show someone you believe in them, it empowers them to accomplish great things. How much more so does this apply to our youth. The greatest message we can give to them is our belief in them. They are special, they are unique, they have a role in the universe that no one else but them can fulfill. When our children get that message from our educators, it is incredibly empowering.
Banim etem l’Hashem Elokeichem, we are like children to our creator. Just as a parent doesn’t throw away a child who isn’t “perfect,” but loves them and cherishes them and helps them and guides them, so too God created us all, with all of our imperfections and doesn’t desire that we be perfect but rather desires that we strive to live up to our individual potentials. How painful must it be when He sees our children being disenfranchised from various schools and yeshivos because they fall short of some imaginary state of what a perfect student should be.
We would all do well to recall these last words from the Lubavitcher Rebbe regarding these two Torah portions and remember that imperfect individuals, brought together in love and fellowship, make perfect communities.