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Michael Berger Dvar Torah

Dear Pardes Educators,

I really wish I could be together with you at your shabbaton; nothing gives AVI CHAI nachat as much as seeing the wonderful individuals nurtured by Pardes who are dedicated to avodat ha-kodesh and give so much of themselves to educate young Jews in North America.

Susan asked me to share a dvar Torah with you, and I consider it a privilege.

Last week’s Torah reading is far from a rabbi’s dream – it offers a seemingly redundant set of chapters about the Mishkan’s construction (“couldn’t the Torah have just said ‘And they did as Moshe commanded’?)

As you all learned in your years of study at Pardes, repetitive passages are actually among the richest, as they provide the close reader – and we know Pardes wants us ALL to be close readers! – an opportunity to compare and contrast two treatments of the same thing.  Minor alterations in the text stand out against the backdrop of other similar or identical texts, forcing us to notice things that we would have otherwise missed.  I think the same is true of these chapters.

Nechama Leibowitz has treated some of these discrepancies, but I would like to focus on one in particular.  In the beginning of Parshat Terumah, Hashem tells Moshe to collect from Bnai Yisrael a wide array of materials for the Mishkan’s construction.  That opening passage concludes with the famous:

וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָם.

“And they will make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.”

If we read the previous week’s parshah in chronological sequence, then Moshe actually never got a chance to let the people know what Hashem instructed them to do.  They built a golden calf while Moshe was still up on the mountain, and he has spent the last 80 days seeking G-d’s forgiveness.  Hashem relents, forges a new covenant based on mercy and forgiveness, and Moshe returns to the camp to inform the people that they should build a mishkan.  That’s where the Torah portions – Vayakhel and Pekudei – begin.

And here’s where our first discrepancy appears.  For after Moshe actually informs the people of all the material they should bring, and what vessels they will be building, he leaves out any mention of the ultimate goal – G-d’s indwelling among the Jewish people.  Even as Moshe invites “all those of wise heart” to step forward and contribute their talents, they never really hear what all this is for, what the ultimate goal is.  I could easily see Moshe saying “G-d wants to dwell among us!  We share the same destiny – come, let us build the Mishkan!” – that would have been inspiring! Instead, Moshe dryly tells the people what’s needed, and the section concludes with the rather anticlimactic, even stoical

וַיֵּצְאוּ כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִלִּפְנֵי מֹשֶׁה.

“And the entire congregation left from before Moshe” – we don’t know if they were enthusiastic, excited, worried, nervous – they just left.  Why did Moshe keep this fact, this promise from them?

It seems to me that the Golden Calf changed everything.  After the Jews’ famous “na’aseh ve-nishma” at the end of Parshat Mishpatim, Hashem was raring to go, eager to dwell among the people.  But then the people strayed, violating their oath of allegiance and worshipping a graven image.  As G-d told Moshe in Ki Tisa,  He is choosing not to dwell among them for their own sakelest the divine anger be kindled against them and they suffer.  That’s why Moshe had taken the tent of meeting, the Ohel Moed, and pitched it OUTSIDE the camp.  There would be no indwelling, not yet anyway.

Moshe then decided to re-frame chapters 25-27.  G-d’s initial command in those chapters was, in reality, to build a tabernacle around a promise.  Metal and wood were merely a frame around the centerpiece of G-d’s promise to live among the people.

But after the chet ha-egel, neither Moshe nor the people were sure that G-d would dwell among them again.  Moshe could not put the promise first, because – well, it was not a promise.  It was a hope.  A dream.  A possibility.  The people’s infidelity had turned a guarantee into a maybe.

So in Vayakhel and Pekudei, Moshe needs to put the people’s donations and construction first.  Would they show the same zeal and enthusiasm in building this potential house for G-d as they had for building the Golden Calf?  Would they go above and beyond what they were expected to do, only in the HOPE that G-d would accept their offering?  Constructing the mishkan was now a test, a measure of the people’s desire to restore their relationship with G-d.  No guarantees, but if the people showed genuine effort, then Hashem might accept their work and choose to dwell among them.  But He might not.  Instead of a structure surrounding a divine promise, Moshe set up the project as a building with a human hope.

This is why Parshat Terumah starts with the keilim, the vessels, with the aron at their head – the aron is the symbol of the divine promise of dwelling, Hashem’s throne, if you will.  There is no greater sign of the reality of G-d residing among the Jewish people.  But now, in Parshat Vayakhel, they will be building the frame, the structure, hoping to bring into it the aron – if G-d accepts their offering.

Teaching Judaics, and especially texts, to Jewish children in day schools oftentimes feels just like Moshe.  We leave Pardes with a promise, a starry-eyed belief that the children’s connection to the Torah is already there, that their proper motivations and spiritual yearnings are merely in need of a framework, some structure that our refined pedagogy will no doubt supply.  Then, at some point – be it the first day, the first week, or the first semester – we all see our students at a low point.  We see them with their egel, relishing the chance to miss Judaics, poking fun at the text or grumbling against any serious contact with Judaism.  We, those who were lucky enough to dwell at the top of the Judean mountains with the tablets, those precious divine words in our hands, come down and see the people as they truly are.  Our tablets are shattered.  How can we re-build the students’ relationship with Torah? With Judaism?

Thankfully, we have the incredible support of Susan, Amanda, and inspired Pardes faculty helping us.  And of course, we have the scores of Pardes Educators who came before us, who re-built their students’ attachment to Judaism.  We re-enter the classroom, not jaded but realistic.  We’ve shed the delusion that the students are self-motivated, eager to have Judaism in their midst.  But we are prepared to try and motivate them.  We see a hope, a potential that with time and effort, these students will build a solid if temporary structure of which they will be proud, and into which they can invite G-d to have a relationship with them.  We, the educators, must help our students see that there’s hope, a chance for the raw material of words and texts to have life breathed into them, an indwelling of the divine spirit.

It is an awesome task, a formidable responsibility. We who teach in day schools are almost always in the parshiot of  – Vayakhel Pekudei – helping our students build without promises, but with a hope.  We have to help them see, feel and experience the dream that what they construct with their own two hands will be blessed with an infusion of divinity unlike anything they’ve ever known.  You’ve been on the mountain, you’ve been with the Shekhinah and experienced G-d’s word.  They have yet to experience the same.

Maybe that’s why Moshe’s face had to shine – without saying a word, the people looked at their leader and knew what was possible.  They may have suffered a setback, but their leader, their teacher, was living proof of what could be achieved.

AVI CHAI is proud of Pardes and especially proud of you.  May your faces forever shine before your students young and old, radiating to them the hope that their properly constructed tabernacles will soon host the shekhinah.

Shabbat shalom.