Repairing a broken world: Parashat Hachodesh

Vayakhel, the first of this week's two parashot, means 'he assembled' - we will never again take for granted to ability to assemble a community.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Hakhel at Kotel
Hakhel at Kotel
INN:DP

Until just a few weeks ago, the opening word of Parashat Vayak’hel would have seemed so banal; yet now it takes on a meaning more profound than anyone could have foreseen:

וַיַּקְהֵל, “he assembled”:

“Moshe assembled the entire community of the Children of Israel…” (Exodus 35:1).

It’s only now, in this unprecedented period, that we begin to understand how wonderful it is to be able to assemble a community. It’s something we have taken for granted for all our lives, throughout history…until now.

We say, every morning in our prayers: “Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the Universe, Who did not make me a slave… Who gives sight to the blind… Who releases prisoners”.

The vast majority of us who never were slaves can never truly appreciate liberty; the vast majority of us who were never blind can never truly appreciate the blessing of vision; the vast majority of us who were never prisoners can never truly appreciate the blessing of freedom.

Only someone who was once a slave and who was liberated, or who was blind and had his sight restored, or who was a prisoner and was released, can truly appreciate what a blessing this state, which almost all of us take for granted, really is.

And those of us who are living through the strictures currently imposed due to the coronavirus will never again take for granted the idea of community, the idea of freely gathering and assembling for work, for recreation, for prayer, for study, for work, for mourning, for celebrating, or for any other reason.

וַיַּקְהֵל, “he assembled”, from the root קהל, “assemble”; hence the word קְהִלָּה, “assembly”, or more idiomatically “congregation”. That which has been such a fundamental component of our lives that we have never really appreciated it, or even consciously thought of it…until now.

The Ohr ha-Chayim (Rabbi Chayim ben Atar, Morocco and Israel, 1696-1743) begins his commentary to Parashat Vayak’hel by asking why the Torah specifies at this juncture that Moshe וַיַּקְהֵל, “assembled”, the Children of Israel; after all, he points out, assembling them was standard procedure whenever G-d commanded him anything.

So since the Torah doesn’t say that he assembled them on any of the other occasions, why does it specify this now?

And the Ohr ha-Chayim explains:

“Apparently this is because they saw the rays of light radiating from his face [with which last week’s parashah, Ki Tissa, concluded], so they were frightened to approach him; for this reason he was forced to assemble them all, so that none of them would stay away out of fear, which is why the Torah specifically uses the wording ‘the entire community’”.

The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) offers a somewhat different perspective:

“וַיַּקְהֵל, ‘he assembled’ – immediately above, it is written ‘the skin of his face radiated light’, and immediately following this comes the mitzvah to keep Shabbat; to say that the light-radiance of the face on Shabbat is unlike that of the other days. And the Torah says ‘he assembled’ because he came to tell them of the Shabbat, alluding to [the principle] that on Shabbatot and Holidays we assemble to hear the Torah being expounded upon”.

So both the Ohr ha-Chayim and the Ba’al ha-Turim see an organic connexion between וַיַּקְהֵל, “he assembled”, and the light which radiated from Moshe’s face.

It is only in this crazy, unsettling, unpredictable time that the connexion between Moshe assembling the Children of Israel and his face radiating light becomes starkly relevant:

The phrase that the Torah uses is that קָרַן עוֹר פָּנָיו, karan ‘or panav (“the skin of his face radiated light”). Is it just coincidence that the words קָרַן עוֹר, karan ‘or, are an intriguingly direct reference to the dreaded corona?

Why did Moshe’s face radiate light this time, when he descended Mount Sinai with the second Tablets of Stone? This was, after all, the third time that Moshe had ascended and descended the Mountain:

He had ascended for the first time on the 7th of Sivan, staying up there for forty days and descending on the 17th of Tammuz, the day of the sin of the golden calf and the day that he smashed the Tablets of Stone.

The next day, 18th Tammuz, Moshe ascended Mount Sinai for the second time, staying up there for another 40 days (Deuteronomy 9:25) pleading for mercy for Israel, and returned to the Israelite camp on the 28th of Av.

And then he ascended Mount Sinai for the third and final time the next day, 29th Av (Exodus 34:4), remained up there for another 40 days (Deuteronomy 10:10), returning to the Israelite camp on the 10th of Tishrei, Yom Kippur, his face radiating light.

So of the three times that Moshe came down from Mount Sinai, it was only this third and final time that his face radiated light.

Why?

The Bechor Shor (Rabbi Yosef ben Yitzchak Bechor Shor, France, 12th century) comments:

“‘And behold the skin of Moshe’s face radiated light’ – because He had infused it with the glorious radiance of the Shechinah, as in ‘there were rays of light [קַרְנַיִם] from His hand for him’ (Habakkuk 3:4)… Because the first Tablets had been given with resounding Voice, and these [second Tablets] had been given in privacy, G-d had to demonstrate that these, too, were holy, from His mouth and from His hand… Also because they [those who had participated in the golden calf] had wanted to appoint another leader to replace Moshe, G-d showed them that he was filled with the radiance of the Shechinah, so Moshe could not be replaced as leader except by express word of the Shechinah, which has no replacement”.

Yet again the idea that the radiance of the skin of Moshe’s face was directly connected with the débâcle of the golden calf.

And we can extrapolate that this radiant lustre shining from Moshe’s face demonstrated to a chastened nation that the sin of the golden calf had been forgiven. G-d had restored their leader to them, not just whole but even greater than before. “In the place where ba’alei teshuva [repentant sinners] stand, even perfect tzaddikim cannot stand” (Brachot 34b, Sanhedrin 99a), and when the nation as a whole had sinned and subsequently repented, they merited a leader of even greater holiness.

So on this level, קָרַן עוֹר, karan ‘or [hinting at corona?] the skin of Moshe’s face radiated light to signify that the sin of the golden calf had been repaired.

We live today in a broken world. We – humanity as a whole – has failed miserably to build the world that G-d intended us to. If our task – the Children of Israel’s mission – as G-d’s nation is לְתַקֵן עוֹלָם בְּמַלְכוּת שַׁדַּי, to repair the world in G-d’s sovereignty, such that all humanity will call on Your Name (as we say three times every day in the Aleinu prayer which concludes all three daily Prayers), then we still have much work ahead of us.

We live in a world in which the wealthy and industrialised nations of Western Europe and North America produce such a veritable cornucopia of food that they have government programs to destroy the surplus – thousands of tons every day – while perhaps half of Africa is starving to death.

We live in a world in which the greatest technological advances have been the direct consequence of wars. Virtually all of today’s aircraft, radar, computers, communications systems, medicine, and all other technologies were developed during two World Wars and forty years of the Cold War. With all humanity’s ostensible civilisation, war is still the single greatest impetus for progress.

We live in a world in which the most civilised nations still regard trophy hunting – killing animals for sport, killing sentient creatures purely for the fun of killing, with no human benefit whatsoever – as a socially acceptable and respectable form of recreation.

We live in a world in which the most brutal dictatorships, the most despicable tyrants, are regarded as equals in deciding humanity’s shared destiny.

It is inevitable that in a broken world, our spiritual malaises will cause physical diseases.

Consider the example of a man who smokes two packets of cigarettes every day, gorges himself on deep-fried red meat and cream cakes, guzzles a dozen litres of beer and a bottle of whisky (or brandy) every day, and never does any exercise.

Before he reaches 40 years of age he dies of lung-cancer, or colon cancer, or heart attack, or a stroke, or kidney failure, or of any other condition.

It is of course impossible to point to one specific cigarette, one specific fatty burger, one specific can of beer, one specific bar of chocolate, one specific bottle of vodka, and say: It was this one which killed him. Rather, it is the aggregate of consistent unhealthy living that killed him so young.

So too with our broken world:

No one can point to one specific condition, one specific activity, isolate it, and state categorically: It is this that has caused the current global pandemic of coronavirus.

Rather, it is the aggregate of behaviours of a world which is broken, a world which is most emphatically not מְתוּקָן בְּמַלְכוּת שַׁדַּי, repaired in G-d’s sovereignty, that makes outbreaks like this inevitable.

This Shabbat is not only the double-parashah Vayak’hel-Pekuddei; as in the majority of non-leap years, it is also Shabbat Hachodesh – the Shabbat which either coincides with or immediately precedes Rosh Chodesh Nisan (Mishnah, Megillah 3:4; Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer 13:20; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 685:1-4; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 140:2).

Rosh Chodesh Nisan of the year 2448 (1312 B.C.E.) was when we, as a nation, began for the first time in our history began to take responsibility for and control over our own destiny: it was during this charged period, in those tense, exciting, and expectant days between the ninth Plague (Darkness) and the tenth (the Slaying of the First-Born), with the Children of Israel teetering on the very threshold of redemption and freedom, that “Hashem said to Moshe and Aharon in the land of Egypt, saying: הַחֹדֶשׁ, This month is to be the beginning of months to you; it is to be for you the first of the months of the year” (Exodus 12:1-2).

This is the first mitzvah which G-d gave us collectively, as a nation: the commandment to take charge of our own destiny and our own time by calibrating our own calendar.

 

As the S’forno (Rabbi Ovadyah S’forno, Italy, c.1470-1550) expressed it, “From now onwards the months will be yours, to do during them whatever you desire; but in the days of slavery, your days were not yours – rather, they were subjugated to other people and their desires. Therefore, ‘it is to be for you the first of the months of the year’, because in this month your freedom of choice begins to be actualized” (commentary to Exodus 12:2).

And as the Abarbanel (Don Yitzchak Abarbanel, Spain, Italy, and Corfu, 1437-1508) and others have pointed out, the Hebrew name אָבִיב, Aviv, meaning “spring” (as in “the month of spring), denotes אַב י"ב, “the father of 12”, meaning the father of all twelve months of the year. Not just the beginning, but the progenitor of our entire calendar. With the month of Aviv, the Jewish calendar, Jewish independence, indeed the Jewish mission in this world, comes into existence.

This dreaded sickness is forcing people apart, making the opening word of this parashah, וַיַּקְהֵל, “he assembled”, a sad impossibility. Fewer Jews than ever before in living memory will be able to attend a Synagogue this Shabbat, and will be coerced to pray alone.

Yet paradoxically, this same dreaded sickness which is forcing people apart has also united humanity in a way that few if any phenomena have ever done in history.

This is the one topic which unites everyone in the world, regardless of age or creed, country or nationality or language, poverty or wealth, or any of the other categories which usually define us and separate us from each other.

We stand on the threshold of potential global tragedy and disaster – and on the threshold of potential great salvation.

We are about to begin a new month, the month of Nissan, the month of redemption:

“In Nissan they were redeemed, in Nissan they are destined in the future to be redeemed” (Rosh Hashanah 11a, Mechilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 12, Tanchuma, Bo 9, et al.)

This is the time for us, for Jews the world over, to recognise and to actualise our mission in the world: לְתַקֵן עוֹלָם בְּמַלְכוּת שַׁדַּי, to repair the world in G-d’s sovereignty; to take responsibility not only for ourselves, for our own family, community, village, or people, but for the entire humanity which G-d created in His own image.

And to recognise, decades overdue: that the only way that we can ever possiblyמְתַקֵן עוֹלָם בְּמַלְכוּת שַׁדַּי, repair the world in G-d’s sovereignty is for the Nation of Israel to return home to the Land of Israel, here to rebuild the nation of Torah, sovereign in its homeland.






 



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