Sermon Vayakhel Pekudei 5780
Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona
The Rabbi is alone in the shul when an angel appears. The Angel says to the rabbi, "Rabbi, you are an example to all of your fellow men. You are totally unselfish; your behavior is faultless; your study of Judaism extensive; and your tzedakah, your charity, is exemplary. So, in return for being such a mensch, I am going to offer you a choice of reward. You can either have infinite wealth, infinite health, or infinite wisdom. What will it be, rabbi, wealth, health, or wisdom? Whatever you choose your wish will be immediately granted."
Without any hesitation whatsoever, the rabbi replies, "I would love to have infinite wisdom."
"Mazal tov to you, rabbi," says the Angel. "It’s done. Enjoy!"
At that moment, in the fullness of wisdom, the rabbi realizes he should have taken the money.
We have been studying the Book of Ecclesiastes with our Confirmation Class at Beit Simcha this year. Ecclesiastes, or Kohelet, is a beautiful Biblical book that explores what the best course is for us to follow in life. What is it we must seek? Is it great wisdom? Great wealth? Infinite pleasure? Self-awareness?
Or is it something else?
Inspiration can come from anywhere in this world. This morning my chiropractor, Dr. Aaron Halle, a devout Catholic, told me that during this challenging time what he really is providing in his own practice is hope. In his case, it is hope of relief from pain, of restored freedom of movement, of healing. He implied that in this sense we are in the same profession, for religion can supply many things, but surely one of the most important, if not the most important thing, is hope.
So as a synagogue, here at Beit Simcha, and as Jews, during this extreme period of loss, fear and confusion, the key question is how do we find hope when the entire world seems to be breaking?
Perhaps the secret ultimately will lie in how we repair that which is currently broken. The great Caribbean poet Derek Walcott wrote, “Break a vase, and the love that re-assembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole.” Broken bones grow together in such a way that they initially are stronger than they were before they broke.
Hope is the essential gift that God gives humanity: the capacity to start over, to renew our faith, to rebuild what we constructed once before. And there can be no better season to do this than the one we are entering now, on this Shabbat HaChodesh, the Sabbath when we will proclaim the blessing for the Hebrew calendar month of Nisan, the month of springtime.
Some people associate complex emotions with the seasons of the year: fall is a time for reflection and wisdom, winter for deep purpose, and summer for the lightness and escapism of vacation. But spring—well, spring is for hope.
Hope is an odd emotion: one part vision, one part idle wish, one part the confidence born of mystical belief. We simple human beings must live in hope, for without hope life becomes purely mechanical and perhaps untenable.
It’s not that hope can’t blossom at any time and in any weather, but the green grass, warm, pollen-filled days, and the rich embracing feel of the air of spring are somehow all hopeful in their own ways. And spring is, of course, the time when life seems new, fresh, dream-like; in short, washed in the pastel shades of hope.
And we need hope. We live, in a way, for hope: the hope and promise of joyous occasions, of simchas, of Beit Simcha; the pleasant notion that life will get better, that things are improving. Hope gets us through days of trial and pain, makes us accept that here in our own world there is the promise of blessing and goodness even when they are invisible.
It’s also a tangible, unstated presence in our very own Torah portion this week, the double portion of Vayakhel-Pekudei, the final portion 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. So many pieces of wood or gold or skins of animals used for this; these artisans employed on that project; Moses asked for these materials and they were graciously donated. And so on and so forth.
But in another sense, this is an incredibly hopeful Torah portion, a section that truly represents the triumph of hope over experience. For in last week’s parashah of Ki Tisa 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 a fundamentally depressing time for God, as well.
And 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 is a sort of reward for treachery…
Or, at the least, it’s a promise of hope. For if God will dwell among them—asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham—we are told, build Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among you—well that’s a pledge that things can always be made good, that losses can be, in some sense replaced, that we are always able to come into grace and blessing.
That juxtapositioning is no accident, that connection between the betrayal of the Golden Calf and the blessing of the brand spanking new Tabernacle, the model for this and every Temple in Jewish history. It is a promise and a pledge of hope.
You know the Hebrew word for hope, tikvah, from the national anthem of Israel, the Hatkvah. But for us, tikvah is a kind of promise from God that even after our worst moments, even in our depths of despair or panic or failure, we can return to God and holiness and goodness; God will be present for us and among us.
As Emily Dickinson famously wrote,
HOPE is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all…
My friends, at this time of crisis, what we seek is not infinite wealth, nor infinite wisdom either. What we need, what we truly need, is infinite hope. And that, in a way, is the essential promise of Judaism, of our God, whose very name, yud hey vav hey, indicates infinite potential. It is made, as many of you know, of the Hebrew words for past, present, and future, hayah, hoveh, yihiyeh—anything is possible for our God of the all-possible.
You know—the God of hope.
In the darkest of times, as poet Raymond Foss wrote,
“A kernel of hope
Against the pain
Our task, as Jews, as members of Beit Simcha, as human beings, is to find that great Source of hope, and allow it, and the God of hope, to provide us confidence and compassion now.
As Albert Einstein said, “Learn from yesterday, live for today, but hope for tomorrow.”
On this Shabbat, in this season of springtime and possibility, at this strange time of chaos and confusion, may we all be blessed with the gift of hope; for a future after this current insanity, of brightness, goodness, joy and peace. And of faith in the God of infinite possibility, who provides an abundance of hope if we only choose to seek it.