February 21, 2014: Holy Gatherings (Vayakhel; Berman Family Celebration)

This week’s Torah portion is entitled Vayakhel, which means “and he convoked:” “Moses convoked the children of Israel and said to them…” The verb vayakhel, “and he convoked,” comes from the noun, kahal, which means “congregation.” Rashi comments: “he does not gather people with his hands, rather, they are gathered through his words.” (Rashi on Exodus 35:1) I take Rashi to mean that although the leader can convene people together forcefully (“with his hands”), if they come against their will they will not cohere into a congregation. However, if they are gathered of their own accord by means of praise, blessing, and thanksgiving (“through words”), then they cohere into a kahal, into a congregation.

We have gathered together to honor the Bermans, to bless their union of fifty years, and give thanks for their granddaughter, Lexi. It is the epitome of a kahal. We pursue our activities as individuals throughout the work week. Of course, sometimes we pool our efforts to labor for a common goal, such as, here at the synagogue, teaching our children in religious school, or, outside the building, volunteering on behalf of a social or environmental cause. However, on Shabbat we gather for a different purpose: to pray and to bless, to raise our voices in song, to inspire and be inspired, to console and be consoled, to share our sorrows and our joys together. On Shabbat, we form a qahal. We are not coerced; what propels us is our own desire to join in celebration, in blessing, and—yes, I’ll say it—in prayer.

The children of Israel came together to hear the instructions of Moses, so that they might build together the Mishkan, the dwelling place for God’s presence on earth. In Pirkei Avot, the sages teach: “when two or more persons sit together and words of Torah pass between them, the Shechinah dwells among them; but if two or more individuals meet and do not exchange holy words, they are regarded as a band of scoffers.” (Pirkei Avot 3:3) Whenever a group of individuals assemble, they have a choice, simply by the words they pass back and forth to each other, about the type of assembly they create. If their language is banal, or worse, derisive, then they make up nothing more than a throng, a rabble, with no higher purpose or constructive intention. However, the converse is also true. If they speak “words of Torah”—meaning, if their language to one another is considered, thoughtful, caring, and ennobled—then they create a dwelling place for God’s holy presence. That is what we have done here this evening.

My blessing and prayer for each of us: whenever we meet another person, may the Shechinah dwell between us and the other. May every one of our meetings constitute a qahal. May we always come together with holy intention. May all our gatherings be like this gathering—joining together in appreciation and gratitude.