This week’s Torah portion is Vayakhel, in some congregations Vayakhel-Pekudei (Exodus 35:1-38:20).
In Exodus 35:10 we find the Hebrew expression chacham-lev, which is translated as skilled, while literally meaning wise-hearted: “And let all among you who are skilled (wise-hearted) come and make what the Lord has commanded.”
This includes the work of skilled craftsmen for the furniture and accessories, the table, the menorah, the altars, the laver, the tent, and the work of the architect and designers, the metal workers, the fabric makers.
We read that “the women spun with their own hands” in Exodus 35:25. Here we are presented with a people who are inclusive, with important work and with many skills. Everyone can do something. Just as people were counted in the census, now everyone counts in the building of a community and a people.
Years ago, professor Ori Soltes and choreographer Liz Lerman contacted me for a gathering of dancers in Washington. They wished to spend a day at Adas Israel Congregation as part of their study sessions.
We opened that event in the Miller Chapel, which was used for the daily minyan, and both Soltes and I spoke about Jewish symbols and ritual objects and their importance: mezuzah, tallit, ner tamid, aron kodesh and Torah.
The group discussed how these symbols could be used in dance, as well as motions made during prayer: swaying, bowing, rising up on your toes. These were movement concepts.
One of the dancers brought up the fact that she always felt marginalized and unwelcome in synagogues. Her dance skills were not useful in the synagogue.
Another dancer commented that she disliked the separation in some congregations with women sitting on the sides, or in the back pews, or upstairs in a balcony. A third women said she always felt alienated by the fact that she was not allowed to go to the bimah, or to touch or hold a Torah.
At my suggestion, we moved to the larger Kogod Chapel. We opened the ark, and as the women stood in a circle, I handed the Torah to each of them. For most of the women it was the first time they held a Torah, a shehecheyanu moment.
One woman trembled and kissed the Torah. More than one woman wept, and one said it had a healing effect on her. I had tears as well.
Following this, we moved to the Smith Sanctuary where prayers were taught and sung with great depth and beauty.
We are confronted with this question:
How do we include everyone in our community, welcoming their unique and special talents which can enrich the building of the tabernacle and the future of a vibrant religious and cultural Judaism?
We need to answer this question: Why does alienation from the community occur, since we know that only 50 percent of the community affiliates with congregations?
And this: How do we address this important issue?
One way is to examine the words chacham-lev – skilled, wise-hearted.
Our Torah teaches that all are included in the making of a community. The voluntary gifts you bring towards making our present and our future, which can be dance, visual arts, music, fabric art, fashion, film, architecture, humor, technology, science, sound medical practice and math — these gifts help to make us a community which is welcoming and wise.
With such gifts we can be inspired to build a tabernacle worthy of the gathering in Vayakhel and which gives us the sense of true community and wellness as a people.
Rabbi Arnold Saltzman is rabbi of Hevrat Shalom in King Farm, Congregation Beit Chaverim of Calvert County and Sha’are Shalom of Waldorf.