No Torah portion stresses the potential of each human being’s contribution to the community more than Vayekhel. Filled with details of the desert Tabernacle’s trimmings, embellishments, and sacred symbols, sifting our way through the minutiae, we are always moved by one compelling detail: “and everyone who was willing and whose heart moved them, came and brought an offering to the Eternal for the work on the Tent of Meeting, for all its service, and for the sacred garments. All who were willing, men and women alike, came…” (Exodus 35:21-22).
This was a significant community endeavor and Moses opened it up to everyone to get involved. I imagine that that Craigslist ad would have read: “Interested in building God’s dwelling place in the wilderness? Come one and all! Bring all the stuff you have lying at home and help out! Women, men, and all those with a willing heart invited!”
Moses’ explicit invitation to different constituent groups (namely women, men and just anyone who cares) has served as an important example for how the Jewish community should welcome all kinds of people into our communities. Advocates make it clear that an organization’s website, mission statement and signage should explicitly welcome groups that are often marginalized: individuals with disabilities, interfaith families, LGBTQ Jews and their partners, students with learning differences and Jews of color. By offering a direct invitation, an organization moves beyond a vague “we welcome all” to actually opening the door. When we do this we follow Moses’ lead and say, “you have a place in this communal endeavor.”
But it can’t end there. [Tweet “An invitation is great, but we know that actions speak louder than words.”] Here’s where another detail from this week’s parasha can guide us. Before Moses even delivers the instructions for the project, before he invites all to join in, he informs the people that they will work for six days, but that on the seventh day, they will rest.
What an odd thing to do. No one has been asked to work yet and Moses is already telling them when they will stop working. This injunction is a clear reminder of the significance of Shabbat, but it is also an important accommodation being made for members of the community. The labor may be difficult for some. It might not come easily or it might feel foreign. From the get-go, Moses lets the people know that there will be a period of rest and a time to re-group. Here we learn that there are many ways to serve God. Doing so should not feel like a burden, it should not take one so far outside their comfort-zone that they are no longer able to connect to the community. Moses saw this Tabernacle project as a way to bring all kinds of people together under a common goal, recognizing that each member of the community had different needs. Think of it as differentiated communal construction. After all, they were not just building a Tabernacle, they were building the Israelite community.
In our modern context this can extend to creative educational opportunities for those with learning differences, quiet, calming spaces and accessible buildings. This can mean gender-neutral bathrooms and signage and inclusive language in organizational literature and from our bimahs.
Before we even make the invitation for all those with a willing heart to join our community, we must be prepared to do things a little differently in order to actually acknowledge their contributions and help them to feel at home. As our parsha teaches, it’s not just about showing up to community, but it’s about feeling nourished and valued while there.
Rabbi Mara Young is the Director of Congregational Learning at Woodlands Community Temple in Greenburgh, NY. She was ordained at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, where she also earned a Certificate in Jewish Education Specializing in Adolescents and Emerging Adults. She’s a graduate of the Matan Institute for Educators and serves as the current chair of the Westchester Association of Temple Educators.