Tag Archives: Vayakhel

Vayakhel-Pekudei: Come Together

Mount SinaiMoses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do.

Exodus 35:1 (JPS Tanakh)

The verb vayakhel – which gives the portion its name – is crucial to an understanding of the task in which Moses is engaged. At its simplest level it serves as a motiv-word, recalling a previous verse. In this case the verse is obvious:

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they assembled around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us.” (32:1)

Moses’ act is what the kabbalists called a tikkun: a restoration, a making-good-again, the redemption of a past misdemeanour. Just as the sin was committed by the people acting as a kahal or kehillah, so atonement was to be achieved by their again acting as a kehillah, this time by making a home for the Divine presence as they earlier sought to make a substitute for it. Moses orchestrates the people for good, as they had once been assembled for bad (The difference lies not only in the purpose but in the form of the verb, from passive in the case of the calf to active in the case of Moses. Passivity allows bad things to happen – “Wherever it says ‘and it came to pass’ it is a sign of impending tragedy”. (Megillah 10b) Proactivity is the defeat of tragedy: “Wherever is says, ‘And there will be’ is a sign of impending joy.” (Bemidbar Rabbah 13)

At a deeper level, though, the opening verse of the portion alerts us to the nature of community in Judaism.

In classical Hebrew there are three different words for community: edah, tsibbur and kehillah, and they signify different kinds of association.

-Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
From the “Covenant and Conversation” series
“Three Types of Community”
Commentary on Vayakhel

There’s a tendency in certain corners of Christianity to struggle with the definition of words like “kahal” and “kehillah” vs. the word “ekklesia.” Does “ekklesia” mean “church” or is it associated with one of the words that has to do with “Jewish” gatherings? Certainly “ekklesia” and “synagogē” although related, tend to be split in our modern world to mean (Christian) church and (Jewish) synagogue. But digging just under the surface, here’s what we find.

At its most basic level, “ekklesia” means “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly.” (see BibleStudyTools.com). This strips the word of all its religious connotation and gives us the “nuts and bolts” understanding. An ekklesia can be any gathering of citizens called out into a public place. They could be football fans or a lynch mob. They don’t have to be “the church.”

Interestingly enough, one definition provided by my source says, “the assembly of the Israelites,” but there’s no way to understand in that context if we are to take “Israelites” as strictly Jewish people or rather to overlay a Christian understanding and include Gentile believers as “Israelites.” Given that ekklesia tends to be considered a compound word made up of “ek” (out of, from, by) and “kaleo” (to call, to invite, to give a name to), it seems more likely that the application in this sense, is recognizing “Israelites” as those called by God in the original “called” or “chosen” manner at Sinai. I don’t see the idea of a “mixed” population of Jews and Gentiles being called collectively “Israelites” here.

By contrast:

A synagogue (from Koine Greek: συναγωγή transliterated synagogē, meaning “assembly”), sometimes spelt synagog, is a Jewish or Samaritan house of prayer (When broken down, the word could also mean “learning together” – from the Greek συν syn, together, and αγωγή agogé, learning or training) that emerged at first essentially within the context of Hellenistic Judaism in the diasporas of Greece and the Hellenized regions of the MENA area (Cilicia, Syria and Alexandria) in the second half of the Second Temple period, then progressively became the typical place of Jewish worship and education after 70 CE, when Roman persecutions accelerated the geographic dispersion process that accompanied the abrupt ending of Temple worship and priestly rituals and traditions.


So synagogue seems to be more related to “house of assembly,” “house of prayer,” or “house of study,” but within a specifically Jewish context (we do see God-fearing Gentiles periodically attending synagogues in the late Second Temple period, but they were clearly non-Jewish guests within a Jewish venue). People don’t typically ever say something like “Christian synagogue” or “Jewish church.”

calvin-susie-conflictBut why am I delving into all of this and why should you care?

This week, I’ve been discussing (complaining) about the interactions and friction that seem to occur between certain groups of believing Jews and certain groups of believing non-Jews (i.e. Christians). One of the questions that comes up in such transactions is how closely those groups are related. Are they a single group with a single identity, differentiated only by a bit of DNA and a slice of culture, or are they defined as more distinct and separate on the level of community and covenant?

Let’s take a look at what we know about “ekklesia,” which is how we commonly think of the community of disciples of Jesus Christ, and compare it to Rabbi Sacks’ definitions for different communities of Jews (and I’m setting “synagogue” aside for the sake of this conversation). First, Rabbi Sacks’ discussion:

Edah comes from the word eid, meaning “witness.” The verb ya’ad carries the meaning of “to appoint, fix, assign, destine, set apart, designate or determine.” An edah can be a gathering for bad as well as good. The Israelites, on hearing the report of the spies, lose heart and say they want to return to Egypt. Throughout, they are referred to as the edah (as in “How long will this wicked community grumble against Me?” Bemidbar 14: 27). The people agitated by Korach in his rebellion against Moses and Aaron’s authority is likewise called an edah (“If one man sins, will You be angry with the whole community?” Bemidbar 16: 22). Nowadays the word is generally used for an ethnic or religious subgroup. An edah is a community of the like-minded. The word emphasises strong identity. It is a group whose members have much in common.

By contrast the word tsibbur – it belongs to Mishnaic rather than biblical Hebrew – comes from the root tz-b-r meaning “to heap” or “pile up”. (Bereishith 41:49) To understand the concept of tsibbur, think of a group of people praying at the Kotel. They may not know each other. They may never meet again. But for the moment, they happen to be ten people in the same place at the same time, and thus constitute a quorum for prayer. A tsibbur is a community in the minimalist sense, a mere aggregate, formed by numbers rather than any sense of identity. A tsibbur is a group whose members may have nothing in common except that, at a certain point, they find themselves together and thus constitute a “public” for prayer or any other command which requires a minyan.

A kehillah is different from the other two kinds of community. Its members are different from one another. In that sense it is like a tsibbur. But they are orchestrated together for a collective undertaking – one that involves in making a distinctive contribution. The danger of a kehillah is that it can become a mass, a rabble, a crowd.

The beauty of a kehillah, however, is that when it is driven by constructive purpose, it gathers together the distinct and separate contributions of many individuals, so that each can say, “I helped to make this.” That is why, assembling the people on this occasion, Moses emphasises that each has something different to give: Take from what you have, an offering to God. Everyone who is willing to bring to God an offering of gold, silver and bronze … All you who are skilled among you are to come and make everything the Lord has commanded …

Moses was able to turn the kehillah with its diversity into an edah with its singleness of purpose, while preserving the diversity of the gifts they brought to God…

And to sum up his definitions, Rabbi Sacks states:

To preserve the diversity of a tsibbur with the unity of purpose of an edah – that is the challenge of kehillah-formation, community-building, itself the greatest task of a great leader.

Kehillah seems to be what God, through Moses, was trying to forge from the Children of Israel. Each type of group had something valuable to offer but those elements needed to be brought together and combined within a single container to result in both diversity and unity being focused on constructive purpose.

How does that compare to our understanding of ekklesia?

In a Christian sense:

  • an assembly of Christians gathered for worship in a religious meeting
  • a company of Christians, or of those who, hoping for eternal salvation through Jesus Christ, observe their own religious rites, hold their own religious meetings, and manage their own affairs, according to regulations prescribed for the body for order’s sake, those who anywhere, in a city, village, constitute such a company and are united into one body
  • the whole body of Christians scattered throughout the earth
  • the assembly of faithful Christians already dead and received into heaven

many peopleBut ekklesia can also mean “any gathering or throng of men assembled by chance, tumultuously.”

It’s as if ekklesia is trying to mirror the Jewish (or at least Rabbi Sacks’) understanding of kehillah. Ekklesia is taking the general understanding of a group of people who are called out, in some sense, who are dissimilar, who can also be assembled by random chance, but who also, when given a purpose by God, gather together from widely diverse backgrounds to be united into one body of believers for the sake of Jesus Christ.

I know that some people don’t think being gathered together for the sake of Christ is a “constructive purpose.” Certainly the vast majority of Christian history has shown us we haven’t been very “constructive” in relation to the Jewish “kehillah.” Many atheists would also agree that, based on their perception of “Christian bias,” the body of believers is hardly constructive and especially not “progressive.”

But for those of us who authentically and honestly seek out God through being disciples of the Master, being gathered together in the ekklesia of Messiah very much is a constructive purpose. Feeding the hungry, comforting the grieving, visiting the sick and imprisoned is all “constructive purpose” as far as I’m concerned and as far as the teachings of Jesus and the Torah are concerned.

Pulling all this together within the widest possible sense of the body of believers, just how close a comparison can we make between the Messianic Jewish kehillah and the Christian (including Hebrew Roots) ekklesia? I’m unwilling to say that the only difference between Jewish and Gentile believers is a string of DNA or a bit of cultural context and rather, believe that the manner in which God distinguished the Children of Israel at Sinai continues to distinguish their descendants, the Jewish people, even within the community of Messiah. I also believe, going back to Rabbi Sacks and his commentary, that community must be active and not passive, we must live holy lives, not just talk about holiness.

In other words believing Jews and Gentiles are and aren’t different at the same time. We are different in that Sinai is the defining moment for the Children of Israel and always will be relative to their special “called out-ness” from the nations. All Jews are born into this covenant relationship whether they want to be or not. But what believing Jews and Gentiles have in common is that we all had to consciously and willingly hear the voice of Messiah and respond to him, and to accept the good news of salvation from sin and the promise of the restoration of national Israel under her King.

There are groups who want to separate the believing Jews and believing Gentiles completely and have us live in two parallel but isolated silos. There are other groups who want to pour us all into a single silo like so many millions and millions of grains of wheat, completely indistinguishable form one another.

black-and-white-sheepI believe we are more like two sheep pens united in a single flock with a single shepherd. Not all sheep look the same. Not all sheep act the same. Some of the sheep, a relatively small number, have a more specified purpose within the flock than the vast majority of other sheep in the flock. In spite of that, we have one shepherd whose voice we all listen to and who we all respond to in faith and trust. Since we’ve originally come from two separate pens, we have two separate histories and we different sheep have a lot to learn about one another. Sometimes, that means we “butt heads,” so to speak. The shepherd, seeing this, encourages us to live at peace with one another, not as identical drones or dough stamped out from the same cookie cutter, but as sheep from the Jewish pen and sheep from the Gentile pen in the flock of Messiah.

Kehillah/Ekklesia: different and distinct but brought together for a common and constructive purpose, offering our distinctive talents and identities in a unified container all for the sake of Messiah and by the plan of God.

Come together, right now
Over me

-John Lennon (credited to Lennon-McCartney)
Come Together (1969)
from the Beatles album Abbey Road

Good Shabbos.

Vayakhel-Pekudei: The Missing Kahal

The Hebrew language does not lack synonyms, and there are several other verbs which could have been chosen to begin the verse: “And Moshe gathered together the children of Israel.” The word employed, vayakhel, is significant, for it implies the fusion of the people into a kahal or communal entity, far more than a collection of individuals.

A group which gathers together can also move apart, and even while together, the union is not complete. A kahal, by contrast, represents an eternal entity that unites individuals in a new framework, highlighting the fundamental bond that joins them.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
“More than Gathering Together”
Commentary on Vayakhel; Exodus 35:1-38:20
Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXI, p. 250ff;
Sefer HaSichos 5749, p. 292ff;
Sichos Shabbos Parshas Vayakhel, 5752

This commentary should speak to those people who believe that the Jewish people no longer are a people before God. It should speak to those who believe that God divorced Israel and married the Christian church. It should speak to those who believe that God abandoned His people Israel and transferred His eternal covenants to the church as the “new Israel.” It probably won’t, but it should. Look at what Rabbi Touger is saying. He’s saying that the Jewish people are uniquely a people, a unity, a kahal. They were at Sinai and they remain so today.

But what about the church?

I’m sure I’ve written about this before (but the problem with writing so many “meditations” is that I can’t be sure when or where), but is Christianity “a people?” In the strictest sense of the term, the answer is “no.” One is only a Jew if you have a Jewish mother (though having two Jewish parents would be really great) or if you converted to Judaism using a formalized process in a recognized branch of Judaism (this last part is problematic, since Orthodox Jews don’t recognize converts who went through Conservative or Reform synagogues). On the other hand, anyone can be a Christian. All you have to do is profess faith in Jesus Christ. You can come from any language, nation, or tongue, and God will not withhold the grace of Christ from you. You will belong (actually, I’m still working on that “belong” part).

But will you be a “kahal?” Will you be an “eternal entity that unites individuals in a new framework, highlighting the fundamental bond that joins them?”

How many Christian denominations exist today? I can’t find any one statistic that is authoritative or definitive, but it seems to be in the tens of thousands. Tens of thousands of individual and unique Christian denominations.

That’s a lot. Are they all a unity together; an eternal entity together?

That’s hard to say.

I’m not just commenting on this week’s torah portion (which is a double portion that includes Vayakhel and Pekudei). I’m performing a minor comparison of Judaism and Christianity. This is extremely oversimplified and open to tons of criticism, but hear me out.

My friend Gene Shlomovich has written a couple of blog posts recently. One is 50 signs you may subscribe to Replacement Theology which, as you might imagine, highlights a series of factors that contribute to elevating the Christian church at the expense of Jews, both in society and supposedly in the eyes of God. The more recent blog that caught my attention though is Test of a true convert to Judaism. The test is an easy one. If you want to convert to Judaism but you find out that the next Holocaust is just around the corner, would you still convert?

This is one of the reasons that Jews do not evangelize and are very hesitant to accept converts. When the going gets tough, the converts may not see themselves as integrated with the Jewish kahal. If you are born a Jew, it doesn’t matter how you see yourself. Hitler’s Nazis took all Jews to the camps, religious or secular. It didn’t matter if they saw themselves as part of the kahal of Israel, they still suffered and died. A Jew is bound the the community body and soul.

But is a Christian?

I admit, the church probably has to work harder at it, since we come from such a diverse set of backgrounds, but it’s not impossible to become a unified entity under Christ. The problem is how we see the rest of the world. Unlike Judaism, Christianity has a mandate to speak to the rest of the world. We are directed by Christ to make converts of all nations (see Matthew 28:18-20). No man must be our enemy because he has the potential to be our brother in the Messiah, regardless of his former life.

I had a discussion on another Christian blog recently regarding the Coexist Bumper Sticker phenomenon. The writer of that blog (no, I won’t provide links) was generally against the bumper sticker campaign as he felt it was directing Christians to simply get along with those of different faiths or or no faith at all, denying our mandate to evangelize to those groups. He also felt the coexist bumper stickers denied this:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. –John 14:6 (ESV)

The blog writer separated the world into two camps…us and them. Those who are not part of us (Christianity) are against us. But if that’s true in an absolute sense, how will we ever be able to share the “good news” to people we hold in disdain? To be fair, he wasn’t really rejecting secular humanity, just resisting the “dumbing down” of Christian convictions for the sake of political correctness. But it reminded me of how many other churches erect extremely rigid barriers against the “unsaved,” and those of us who came to Christ late in life and with “a past.”

I’ve always been bothered by the arrogance and even apparent cruelty of these type of churches. This is particularly poignant for me, as I’ve mentioned, since I didn’t become a believer until my early 40s. If any of these folks had encountered me in those days, what would they have thought of me? Would they have thought I against them? Would they have thought I was their enemy? But weren’t we all enemies of Christ at one time?

For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. –Romans 5:10 (ESV)

No one is born God’s “friend.” As we grow and develop and become aware of God, we each negotiate our relationship with Him. It may be different from a Jewish point of view, I don’t know. I suspect that although God has promised that all of Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26), that doesn’t give each and every individual Jew a free pass to ignore God or the Torah without certain consequences.

I don’t have all the answers, so don’t ask me to provide them.

But I do know that we, as Christians, cannot simply dismiss the Jewish people or Judaism just because it suits our “superiority” theology, and we certainly can’t spit on those who have not accepted Christ as Lord and Savior because we can only feel better about our salvation in comparison to other people’s state of being without God. There are plenty of people I don’t really like and maybe a few really bad people I’m absolutely against, but how can I be an enemy to someone who was once just like me? How can I refuse to speak to anyone who desires to hear the good news just because they aren’t already just like me?

For me, coexisting isn’t surrendering my convictions in order to get along with the political correctness of the world. It’s the willingness to walk and talk and live in the world around me in all of its diversity, to illustrate that a life lived as a disciple of the Master is not one lived in vain (no matter how many secular and religious people tell me otherwise). How can anyone come to a knowledge of the Messiah if we refuse to share that knowledge, in love and forbearance, with others?

Returning to Rabbi Touger’s commentary, we can’t forget that what God has promised His people Israel was long ago said and done, and we in the church (though I attend no church) cannot undo the will of God toward His kahal.

The most complete expression of this oneness will come in the Era of the Redemption, when “a great congregation (kahal gadol) will return there.”Jews from all over the world will stream together to Eretz Yisrael. This ingathering will be more than geographic in nature. G-d will “bring us together from the four corners of the earth.”But more importantly, there will be unity and harmony among us, and this unity will embrace all existence. “The world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d as the waters cover the ocean bed.”

These are not merely promises for the future, but potentials that can be anticipated today. The massive waves of immigration that have reached Eretz Yisrael in recent years are obvious harbingers of the ultimate ingathering of our nation. And even as the physical reality of the Redemption is coming to pass, so too we can have a foretaste of its spiritual elements. We have the potential to establish a new harmony within ourselves, and to spread that harmony among others. And by these efforts to anticipate the Redemption, we will help make it a reality.

We cannot live in arrogance, taking the place of the groom at the wedding feast (Luke 14:7-11) when we have been commanded to sit down at the lowest place. Not if we expect to be a part of the harmony of which Rabbi Touger speaks. If God wants to honor us, He will move us to a more distinguished seat. It is not up to us to automatically occupy the head of the table.

If Christianity wants to be a kahal of God, unified under our Master and Savior, we must emulate him in being loving to others, as he was to the woman at the well (John 4:7-26). He was not dishonest with her, nor did he “soft pedal” his message to her, but he did not send her summarily away, either.

AbyssI tried to explain my point of view on the aforementioned blog, but the blog owner and I continued to talk at cross purposes (forgive the small pun). Eventually, I was inspired to write today’s Torah commentary, such as it is, not speaking to the blog writer as such, but to all Christians in the hope that someone will listen with a softened heart.

Lately, I’ve been writing about my own spiritual journey, which admittedly has become interrupted “at the bottom of a well.” I’m focusing on prayer as the means by which to respond to being “stalled in traffic” so to speak. I understand that a great many things I object to today, I’ll eventually have to accept and let them be. One of them is the idea that I can always have fellowship with other Christians. I want not to be hostile or anxious or upset with those people who are different than I am. Unfortunately, if the church, or some of its members, are circling the wagons and defending themselves against anyone who is even slightly different, then what fellowship do I have with them?

I should say at this point that we are all doing our best to understand and obey God, so I can’t really be upset or angry at the blog writer I’ve been referencing. I know he’s sincere and really does want to help others, but where he may see enemies such as Stalin, Haman, Hu Jintao and Ahmedinijad, I see my next door neighbor, my co-workers, and my family.

I may have to accept that the church is not my kahal and that such a unity will never exist for me. My closeness and unity to God may be found, not within the walls of a church or synagogue, but in the slender pages of the Bible and in solitary prayer. But then, not every Christian blog has the same response to the “coexist” bumper stickers, so who knows what the future may bring?

Good Shabbos.