Shlomo Hamelech tells us that two is better than one (Kohelet 4:9). The wise king then goes on to explain that the benefits of more people pulling together are pragmatic. Yeah, but the name he chose for that book (KOHELET) seems to suggest there’s more than practicality, because it means the ‘one who gathers the community’. That title also seems connected to this week’s Torah reading VAYAKHEL, ‘and he gathered’. Something remarkable seems to happen when the Jewish nation gathers. Let’s explore that phenomenon.
Our parsha has Moshe gather the whole nation, and then tells them about Shabbat. I mean it could be that we’re being informed about the importance of Shabbat, that it must be announced in a solemn convocation. But this is at least the fifth time (mentioned previously in Shmot 16:23, 20:7-10, 23:12, 31:13-17) that we’re being told about Shabbat. So, why does it require the whole nation this time? Or, perhaps, the gathering isn’t about Shabbat?
The Ohr HaChaim suggests that Moshe has changed since experiencing the 13 Attributes of God in last week’s parsha. That incident of great immersion into Divine Presence left Moshe with KARNEI OR (the skin of his face was radiant, JPS; shone, KJ; sent forth beams, AMPC; horned, DRE). At first Moshe was unaware of the change, but after he became aware of this new reality, he wanted to gather the whole nation to see that he was still available to them as before and diminish the fear (MORA) of him. Shabbat was just a convenient excuse for the gathering, since it’s so central to Judaism.
The Kli Yakar says (among some other fascinating comments) that after the horrible incident of the Golden Calf, when the whole the nation had broken into warring factions, they had to be made aware that they were again one unit (MADOR ECHAD). They stood combined together (AGUDA ACHAT) to accept two tasks; one eternal (SHABBAT) and one for that historic moment (MISHKAN). Nothing unifies like joint effort. The Chassidic master Shem M’Shmuel adds to this idea that the Mishkan could only be built by a nation with God in its midst. Before the Calf, Divine Presence was manifest in each Jew, but after the sin only the unified nation could draw SHECHINA into this world.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, I believe, continues this powerful idea about the potential of KLAL YISRAEL when we are united, with a critical addendum. The Rebbe says that Moshe Rebbeinu teaches us how to achieve this critical level of unity. When Moshe gathers the nation, the Rebbe avers that Moshe gathered (M’ASEF), unified (M’YACHED), and joined (M’KASHER) himself to all of Yisrael, even the lowliest and ignored of the people were included. This explains the verse, ‘All are dross, one and all are befouled (Tehillim 5:34).’ The Rebbe declares that if God sees even one Jew who is treated like dross (refuse), and abandoned, then the entirety is ‘befouled’. The sanctity of the Jewish nation and its power derive from the perfect national unity that Moshe achieved and we must emulate. Literally: No Jew left behind.
These are all fantastic ideas and goals. We could emphasize, as many do, that this goal can be achieved through the mitzvot of Shabbat and Mishkan. However, many follow the lead of Rashi who emphasizes that this event took place on the day after the first Yom Kippur when Moshe descended from Har Sinai with the second tablets. This unity should be achieved by the forgiveness of that holy day. It is that date which should propel the nation towards the goal of perfect unity because everyone has been forgiven by God. Can we do less?
When the Jewish nation is united, we can do amazing things, including realizing our people’s destiny. So, let’s all get together and have a grand old time. By which I mean: Renew our days as in the days of old, as in former years, and may it happen speedily, in our days.