By Rabbi Jill Levy
Special to WJW
This week’s Torah portion is Vayakhel-Pekudei, Exodus 35:1-40:38.
In 2017, Hurricane Harvey flooded 10 feet of water into the basement of the Jewish Community Center in Houston where I worked. After the flood, I saw a small handwritten note taped to the front door that read, “JCC closed.”
Three years later, the word “closed” was taped to institutions all over the world due to a global pandemic. The pit I felt in my stomach during Harvey returned as we made the difficult decision to close Ramah Day Camp, Greater DC, where I am director. Our sacred spaces are supposed to draw people in, not turn them away.
In this week’s parshah, Vayakhel-Pekudei, Moses learns the pain of being shut out from his holy space. One of the final pesukim of our parshah reads, “And Moses could not enter into the tent of meeting,”
For more than a year, Moses worked tirelessly with the people to construct the mishkan, the place of Divine encounter between Moses and God. And now, as the construction came to an end, we learn that Moses was shut out from the sanctuary that he built. He, too, looked to his institution and saw a sign that read, “closed.”
I moved to Montgomery County with my family in August 2019 to be the first full time director of Ramah Day Camp, Greater DC. My first camp summer was 2020. Having to notify families that camp was closed was painful. It meant shutting the door to community, which is the exact opposite of our mission.
Closing camp was also a huge loss for me, personally, as our team had worked so hard to create an amazing summer. As I read this week’s parshah, I could identify with the sadness and pain that Moses must have felt when he could not enter the mishkan.
Moses was not battling flood waters or a virus. In fact, the text is not entirely clear why he was not allowed inside the mishkan. Rashi notices that elsewhere in the Torah, Moses was allowed to enter the tent. Rashi suggests that Moses was only kept outside when God’s cloud of glory descended onto the tent as God’s presence filled the entire space. But when the cloud withdrew, Moses could enter and speak with God. In other words, God had to make room for Moses to go into the tent.
Vayakel-Pekudei essentially coincides with the one-year anniversary of our country’s COVID shutdown. This has been a long and difficult year, teaching us that there are world events that sometimes necessitate our distance from each other.
Other times, like God, we have to intentionally design environments that make room for participation. There are people who feel shut out of our communities for a variety of reasons: income, disabilities, sexual identity, racial identity or religiosity, among others. We all now know the difficulty and pain of isolation. We can use this an opportunity to build empathy for those who have felt alienated from Jewish life for reasons beyond the shutdown.
The first words of next week’s parshah are, “Vayikra” — “and God called to Moses,” a sacred invitation for Moses to step forward and re-engage in his relationship with God. As we begin our re-openings, we also have an opportunity to “call to” and reengage our communities with a sign that reads, “Open for all.”
Rabbi Jill Levy is director of Ramah Day Camp, Greater DC.