Parshat Vayak’hel details the construction of the tabernacle. In order to accomplish a complex project like building God’s home on earth, one needs a lot of people. So, “Moses convoked the whole Israelite community…” (Exodus 35:1).
The Etz Hayim commentary notes that the word often translated as convoked or assembled (vayak’hel) “is used only for assembling human beings. Other verbs are used for gathering herds of animals.”
Similarly, the 11th century scholar Rashi remarks that the word vayak’hel expresses the idea of causing a thing to be done, rather than doing it directly. He writes, “One does not actually assemble people with one’s hands, but they are assembled by one’s speech.” The English word convoke, meaning “to call together” fits this distinction remarkably well.
But how does this convocation, this calling of people together into a community (k’hilah), work?
It cannot be mechanical, as Rashi observes – meaning, you cannot literally push people into place. Nor can it be simply behavioral, the way you train animals to respond to your commands. Humans are more complex. The type of speech that motivates us to gather together and work in concert is storytelling.
Stephen Denning, in his charming book Squirrel Inc.: A Fable of Leadership Through Storytelling, teaches that “when individuals have shared stories, they work together much better. That’s virtually a definition of a group or a community: it’s a set of individuals who know the same stories and see the same meaning in them.” (pp. 61-62)
Judaism at its simplest is a shared story. But if you have ever been to Torah study, you’ll know we rarely agree on the meaning of our shared story! The Torah – perhaps intentionally – provokes endless discussion, leading to laws, anecdotes, poems, and philosophies which can diverge wildly from each other.
Yet if we think we are disagreeing about the meaning of our story, perhaps we misunderstand the true story – whose deeper meaning we do in fact share. That story might go something like this. In the beginning, God had no one to share stories with, and so created the world and humans in it. But humans saw differently from each other, which resulted in violence and harm. So God planted a seed which over many generations grew into the splendid Tree of Life that we call Torah, and the purpose of Torah wasn’t to say who was right and who was wrong. The purpose of Torah was to teach people how to gather together and debate, discuss, and (occasionally deride but more often) endow dignity even to those opinions that didn’t become mainstream.
The Tree of Life will be fully grown when all humans treasure their different perspectives, and cease to cause harm through speech and deed. Will this day ever come? Whenever we gather today, may it be to advance us one step closer to the peaceful diversity that Jewish tradition imagines as our ultimate project.
As the midrash says, “Everything that was written in the Torah was written for the sake of peace” (Tanchuma, Tzav 3). May this Shabbat bring you stories of peace.