Parshas Pekudei - A Community of Individuals
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Many years Vayakehl and Pekudei are read as one double parsha. The connection between these two parshiyos is obvious as both deal with the Mishkan but when we look at the names of these two parshiyos we see that there is an interesting contrast.
Vayakhel means "and he gathered"while Pekudei means "accounting."One cannot help but notice that Vayakhel connotes a focus on the gathering together of individuals to form a community whereas Pekudei connotes the individual being counted as a unique and disparate entity.
So which one are we? Are we all individuals with our distinct personalities, talents etc... or are we only meaningful when we use our individual talents to become a part of a larger community and contribute to the greater whole?
What is strange is that these parshiyos seem to have switched names. Vayakhel begins with Moshe gathering together the people to give them the Mitzvah of Shabbos and the Mitzvah of the building of the Mishkan. These are the two centers of community in Jewish life, one is a community in time and the other a community in space. On Shabbos we set aside our creativity and come together as a community in our Shuls (modeled after the Mishkan) where the community has its home. But Parshas Vayakhel mostly deals with the individual details of the building of the Mishkan. We know the exact dimensions, materials and design for each one of the components of the Mishkan. Vaykhel seems very much focused on the individual.
Pekudei too seems to be erroneously named. While Pekudei does give a detailed account of the Mishkan it is mostly comprised of the actual building of the Mishkan. It describes how each component of the Mishkan fit in with the other in order to build the greater structure. Parshas Pekudei would have been more appropriately named Vayakhel and vice versa?!?
Individual vs Community
The individual and the community often have opposing needs. As an individual we may want to focus all of our efforts on self improvement. Becoming a more passionate davener, having a more inspired Shabbos table, committing to a greater devotion in our learning... these are all fundamental to the growth oriented Jew. But at what expense? If we spend our time focusing on ourselves what about the needs of our community and our nation as a whole? I will never forget when I ran into Rabbi Gordon zt"l at a family simcha. Rabbi Gordon was a shliach of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and played an instrumental role in some of our family returning to a more observant lifestyle. He was a beloved and revered figure. When he asked what I was doing with my life I proudly responded that I was learning in Kollel. I thought this would make him proud. I thought he would return home and share with his family that one of the women he helped bring close to Judaism has a son who has truly committed himself to building a family on the pillar of Limud HaTorah. I was mistaken. Rabbi Gordon asked me, and what are you doing for Klal Yisrael? I was taken aback. Far from the pride I had hoped for, he almost seemed disappointed in my decision. I remember discussing it with my mother right then and there. She gently explained to me that this was the Lubavitcher way. You are focused on your individual growth but what about the Jew next to you who does not know about the beauty of putting on Teffilin or the majesty of keeping Shabbos? If we don't share what we know with the world then are we not abandoning the very mission for which we were created?
On the other hand, focusing on the needs of the community also comes with a price. If we spend all of our time giving to others we may lose ourselves in the process. If we are always focused on teaching, where is our time for learning? If we are always having guests for Shabbos, will our own family feel like they are strangers in their own home? If we are so focused on teaching others to daven when will we have the time to really pour out our hearts before our Creator?
So what should we do? Focus on our own needs or the needs of the community?
Like many things in life the answer is not black and white. Subtlety and complexity are the hallmark of great thinkers. Sometimes Vayakhel and Pekudei are read as individual parshiyos and sometimes they are read together. There are times in our life when we cannot integrate the two. I am proud of the sacrifice my wife and I made so that we could spend the formative years of our marriage learning in Kollel. Our family would not be the same had I chosen to go into chinuch right away. It was a time in our life where we were more focused on ourselves. Other times we are more focused on the community. We put the needs of others ahead of our own. Leaders eat last, the saying goes. Our children, our needy, our community institutions all require us to sacrifice our internal focus and place primacy on them. This is what it means to be a part of a community and it is a privilege we should never want to forego.
But even in those times where Vayakhel and Pekudei are read alone we cannot be exclusively focused on one or the other. Vayakhel is about the community but it consists of many details. Pekudei is about the details but it is focused on the building of a larger community. Rabbi Gordon wasn't wrong. Perhaps he saw in my answer a bit of arrogance. I presume that he would not have had an issue with my answer if it focused on the teaching that was my ultimate goal. But I didn't mention that. I was focused on my own individual needs and while it may have been the right time ultimately I lacked the proper focus. Even when we are focused on the community needs we need to be careful to ensure that we don't lose ourselves in the process. A Rebbe can be so focused on his teaching that he forgets his learning. An askan (community doer) can be so focused on the needs of the community that he neglects his own family. Focus matters. We will most often act out the intent that we have.
The Harmony of Opposites
In some years Parshas Vayakhel and Pekudei are read together. Harmony is possible. While it is true that there are times when we need to prioritize one or the other, there are also times where the needs of the individual only appear to conflict with the needs of the community. We can choose to learn but with a chevrusa who might be weaker. It will still be a learning experience but with the added benefit of being a chesed. We can choose to have guests for Shabbos and while we want our guests to feel comfortable it does not mean that our children should not have the bulk of our attention. There is a time to focus on our own needs or the needs of the community but more often than not we can do both.
I am proud to call myself an alumnus of Yeshiva Darchei Torah. I can still hear the shmuessen that Rabbi Bender shlit"a gave to us even as young boys and they still resonate in my heart. Many times over the years I heard our Rosh Yeshiva speak strongly against the "aleph" Yeshivas. Torah was given to all of Klal Yisrael, he taught us, not only to the boys who are intellectually gifted. He implored us to help out those boys in our shiur who had learning challenges and he guaranteed us that our learning would not suffer as a result. He was of course correct. I was not shocked (and I imagine few were) when I found that our Rebbe's sefer was entitled "Chinuch with Chesed."It got to the heart of the message that he so eloquently taught us so many years prior. Chinuch and Chesed. The Individual and the Community. They are not opposites but they are awaiting a voice of reason and a sensitive soul to put them together to live harmoniously.
Chazak, Chazak V'nischazeik. May we be strong, be strong and let us be strengthened both on an individual and on a communal level.