My siblings and I grew up in wooded suburbs abundant with lakes and fields. In winter, I skated, the fantasy-child in me carving the most graceful of figure-eights. And I skied – oh I loved skiing. In summer, I swam competitively and dove from the low and high boards. I vividly recall trying my first half-gainer (you jump off the board facing forward, then do a back dive) – and came too close to the diving board, skimming my nose. I was terrified. But like any aspiring athlete, trembling yet determined, I came up and dove again.
I went to Hebrew school, became bat mitzvah, was a gymnast in high school, and yes, I was a cheerleader. I also read, painted and sculpted, made the honor roll. I went to high school in Israel for 6 months, then an inspired summer at Urban Mitzvah Corps engaged in community service.
I was a well-rounded, high-achieving Jewish girl. I grew up realizing – even with the double standard of men and women in those days – that I could aspire to anything. Over time, I came to understand that what I did was shaped by who I was becoming. My character would guide my choices and achievements; and my character was informed by the well-being of my soul.
Maimonides teaches: the body is the vessel for the soul. Certainly if the body is overstressed or damaged, so is the person. But the person is not the vessel. The person is the content: one’s spiritual essence. That essence needs as much, if not more attention than one’s body, if one is to age into wiser expression.
In last week’s Parashat Ki Tissa, Moses carried down the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. Weren’t they incredibly heavy? Tradition holds that the sacred Hebrew letters absorbed the weight of the stones so Moses could carry them. The dreadful sin of the golden calf caused the letters to fly off, and the stones became so densely weighted that they dropped from Moses’s hands.
This week in Parashat Vayakhel, we study the first verse: “Moses then gathered the entire people of Israel.” “The entire people” is specified as the Israelites. Yet there had been others at Sinai, too: the so-called mixed multitudes – other people that had left Egypt alongside the Israelite slaves. Rabbi Hiyya taught that the mixed multitudes were the ones who had constructed the golden calf; and subsequently, Moses banished them. Only the Israelites were assembled now to hear the mitzvah of observing Shabbat and the instructions for building the Mishkan, the vessel for God’s dwelling.
Rabbi Hiyya reveals the wisdom that before our people could absorb the mitzvot of Shabbat and the Mishkan, they had to be released from the influence of the mixed multitudes. Otherwise, they couldn’t have heard a true, spiritual call.
Who are the mixed multitudes around us? Those who want to convince us that the spiritual doesn’t matter. Perhaps: those deride and prevent Shabbat and a gathering place for Jewish community.
I found my true voice on Shabbat amidst my people. It wasn’t a Shabbat of restriction, but the Shabbat of celebration: sweet challah, music and joyous prayer, Torah wisdom, with family and friends, fellow Jews who laughed and nourished one another.
The mixed multitudes are those in our lives who scoff at our desire – no, our essential need – to refresh our souls. Such people lack a spiritual language.
Without Shabbat and without a Mishkan, we Jews will lose our spiritual language and grow mute and heavy as stone. We will fall and shatter. We need one another. I need you. That’s why Moses gathered us all together. His first message after the golden calf was: “We can’t do this alone. The pressures are huge. Remember this going forward: Come together.”
It’s why we join for Shabbat.
And it’s why we build synagogues, the places that shelter us from the storm. We create the Mishkan for ourselves and for each other. This Shabbat let’s join in our sanctuaries to celebrate what really matters in our lives. Step away from task and time. Step into love and life.
Here’s how the opening verses of our Torah portion read in full: “Moses then gathered the entire people of Israel and said to them, ‘These are the things that the Eternal has commanded you to do. On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest…'”