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The Triumph of Hope over Experience

Torah Talk on Vayakhel 5779

Hope is a tangible, unstated presence in our Torah portion this week, Vayakhel, the penultimate sedrah in the book of Exodus. On the surface, this parshah is nothing more than a listing of how the Tabernacle in the Wilderness was constructed by our ancestors, lists of materials used, processes employed, structures and implements assembled. This many pieces of wood or gold or skins of animals used to make that item; these artisans employed on that project; Moses asked for these specific materials and they were graciously donated. And so on.

But in another sense, this is an incredibly hopeful Torah portion, a section that truly represents the triumph of hope over experience. In last week’s Torah portion of Ki Tissa the people of Israel dramatically failed both God and Moses: they made a Golden Calf, and worshipped it, and bowed before it and insisted that it was their god. Just 40 days after receiving the Ten Commandments at Sinai they forgot the revelation and abandoned monotheism and morality and everything they had just been taught. It was a devastating moment for Moses; it must have been an incredibly depressing event for God, as well.

Yet just a few passages later we find God instructing Moses to build a Tabernacle, a permanent home for the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, right in the midst of this same rotten people. Those people, the Israelites, our ancestors, have just proven they are not worthy, and yet God immediately gives them a place—no, insists that they create a space—that will be a constant and permanent reminder that God will always be with them, never abandon them. It seems like a sort of reward for treachery.

Actually, it’s a promise of hope. For if God will dwell among them—asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham we were told in the earlier Torah portion of Terumah, build Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among you—that’s a pledge that things can always be made good, that losses can be recovered, that we are always able to come into grace and blessing.

That juxtapositioning has great resonance: if our ancestors could go almost immediately from the betrayal of the Golden Calf to the blessing of the brand spanking new Tabernacle, perhaps we can similarly rise from any communal failure to ultimate success. For the Tabernacle is the model for every temple in Jewish history, a promise and a pledge of hope.

You probably know the Hebrew word for hope, tikvah, from the national anthem of Israel, the Hatkvah. But for me, tikvah is a kind of promise from God that even after our worst moments, even in our depths of despair or failure, we can return to God and holiness and goodness. God will forgive us, and be present for us and among us.

So may it always be.

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