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Vayakhel and Gathering Goodness

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira was a popular teacher in pre-war Poland, leading a community in Piaseczno, a suburb of Warsaw. After the German invasion, and following the death of his family, he was shipped to the Warsaw ghetto. There he managed to run a secret synagogue. His teachings and sermons were popular among those trapped in the ghetto.

In the months prior to the ghetto’s final days, as the Warsaw ghetto uprising neared its bitter end, Rabbi Shapira prepared for the worst. He hid his sermons and teachings in a milk canister. After the war they were found by a construction worker. His writings continue to be studied to this day. I have spent some mornings in the warmth of Jerusalem’s summer pouring over his words. I return again and again to his work Bnai Machshavah Tovah, a treatise on creating and sustaining a conscious community.

He writes there of the power of community. He opens with the goals of the synagogue community he wishes to create.
Our association is not organized for the purpose of attaining power or intervening in the affairs of community or state, whether directly or indirectly. Quite the opposite: our goal is to gradually rise above the noise and tumult of the world, by steady incremental steps. It is not consistent with our goals to hand out awards as to who is advanced and who lags behind. The whole premise of our group is the vast human potential for both baseness and elevation. Our bodies and souls are currently quite unevolved, but our potential for holiness is very great. Holiness is our key and primary value; honors and comparisons serve no useful purpose. (Translation by Andrea Cohen-Kiener)
For Judaism gathering is of prime importance. Our tradition maintains an unmitigated faith in the group. It believes that we are at our best when standing with others, that with the aid of the group we can better achieve holiness and realize our full human potential. The community is the corrective to individual wants and needs. The congregation lifts us. The synagogue nurtures us. The community guides us.

And so in this week’s portion we read: “Moses then gathered (vayakhel) the whole Israelite community… This is what the Lord has commanded: Take from among you gifts to the Lord, everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them…” (Exodus 35:1-5) The people join together and build the mishkan, the tabernacle, so that they might focus their worship of God while wandering throughout the wilderness.

Still I wonder. Should this faith in the edifying power of the group remain unqualified? We also confront the opposite example. In last week’s reading we are reminded of the golden calf: “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered (vayikahel) against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us…’” (Exodus 32:1) The group gathered for ill. Together they built an idol.

In one instance the people gathered for good, the other for bad. The Hebrew root of “gathered” indicates how close the positive and negative stand near each other. The two portions stand side by side. The line between whether we gather for good or for bad remains but a hairsbreadth apart.

That line continues to haunt thinkers. Following the Holocaust the field of social psychology began to emerge. It struggled with the question of how so many people could join together for evil ends. Studies were conducted. Research analyzed. In one such experiment the conforming impulse was unveiled. Members of a group were asked true or false questions that could be objectively measured. Is A taller than B, for example. Nine out ten people were told to offer the wrong answer when asked in public. These nine said true when in fact the answer was false. The tenth person was then asked for his answer. In the vast majority of situations this person also answered true. The desire to conform colored people’s vision. Truth and falsehood were obscured.

Do we conform for good or bad? Do we gather together to build the golden calf or the tabernacle? The group can either serve as medicine or toxin. Rabbi Shapira notes: “The techniques available to a group are qualitatively different than what an individual can hope to attain.” Much rests in the hands of the leader. In one instance Moses was present. In the other our leader was absent. The group’s vision became blurred.

After the uprising the Nazis sent Rabbi Shapira to the Trawniki work camp. There he was offered the opportunity to join fellow prisoners in an escape attempt. He elected instead to stay with his students. Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira was shot to death on November 3, 1943.

And yet the people continue to gather and read his words.