A funny thing happened at the gym. My favorite class is called “Intensati,” where we pound it out to high-intensity aerobics as we repeat the call of the instructor who is yelling out positive affirmations—kind of like positive psychology on your feet. One little part of the routine is to clap your hands together overhead, then in front of you, finished by a clap behind your back. This particular move is called “Appreciation” (don’t ask me why). Some women who are fit and athletic jump in the air, while others, like me, who are averse to bouncing, prefer to stay more grounded. After this went on for a bit, the instructor had us form two large circles we would have to jump up while reaching out and clapping the hands of the woman on either side.
How was this going to work, I wondered? We are such different heights and varying capabilities. And yet, as we began, I noticed that instinctively, each woman’s hand met every other’s woman’s hand without fail. After a few rounds, I heard the instructor yell out 16! 15! 14! And I realized (with some alarm) that we were counting down that many repetitions, and now that I was performing them albeit with more effort, I didn’t think I had that many moves in me. But, of course, I did it—16 times—because the woman to my right and the woman to my left needed my hand to be there—16 times. And it wasn’t even that big of a deal, after all. Because when you connect to other people, when you are part of a community, even briefly, you get to be a stronger, bigger, and better version of yourself.
The Third Time’s the Charm
In Vayakhel, we read again about the building of the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle in the desert. First, in future tense, the Torah provided us with the details of how to build it. But then the Torah gives us the exact same information in the past tense—what we did, in fact, build. Why the repetition? Is this a version of spiritual gymnastics?
“If you believe you can destroy, believe you can repair.”
— Reb Nachman of Breslov
By most accounts, the building of the Mishkan occurred after the sin of the Golden Calf, which created a spiritual rift between G‑d and the Jewish people. What relationship doesn’t experience episodic moments of disconnection, a protective shrinking back to one’s own borders in the face of pain and confusion? Under the right circumstances, even the most robust bonds can fray or snap. Until the moment the universe personally slams us up against the wall, our hypothetical reactions to challenges are all untested dogma. We like to think that we know who we are, but sometimes, especially when we feel betrayed, we break the faith, we shatter, and like Humpty Dumpty, we fall from the wall of our beliefs of how the world is supposed to be. And then what? What’s our next best move?
Where Do You Want to Go From Here?
The message of Vayakhel is this: Gather up your broken pieces and rebuild. Construct a holy sanctuary. Don’t wallow in despair and self-defeat. Reconnect. Restore. Repair. G‑d gave us an eternal set of blueprints with which to reconstruct after we self-destruct—a spiritual compass by which to regain our bearings, and to achieve happiness and joy even after we’ve taken a beating and endured loss.
How do we get there? Not by being passive. We can’t create resilience in dark times or heal by the mere act of looking at a set of blueprints. We actually have to build something. We have to construct that which we have been shown is possible so as to come out on the other side and say, Look what I created! This is not a one-and-done thing. And no one can do it alone.
While officiating at a funeral, a rabbi remarked to the circle of graveside mourners: “Judaism is not a spectator sport.” Quite right. Judaism is a “team sport.” We built the holy Mishkan as a community, and each tribe camped around it. For the strength of a community lies in a circle of unbroken connection, facing the center, the Source from which our true power emanates.
As a portable structure, the Mishkan was designed to move with us. In the 40 years of our wanderings, we broke and set up camp over and over, sometimes even coming back to a place where we had previously encamped. Today, we are over here. Tomorrow, we may be someplace else. Some days, we find ourselves back in a place that we thought we had outgrown, and we come face to face with that old dragon again. We break. We heal. We break again as we lose and then regain our center. Perhaps the measure of our ability to make peace with this cycle is the speed with which we regain our spiritual equilibrium. Otherwise, we may fall down the proverbial rabbit hole.
To be whole is to be holy, to keep what is eternally true at the center of your world and the core of your being. But it ain’t easy. On those days when you want to give up, where you feel like you can’t reassemble the broken pieces or jump in the air one more time, know one thing for certain: We’ve got this! Our hands will meet, and somehow, it will be OK.
G‑d told us that when we build the Mishkan, He will dwell—not within it, but within us. We are not alone. We have G‑d. And we have each other. That is a pretty good message, and one worth repeating, even for the third time.