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Community or Individuality?

Shabbat Vayakhel & Shekalim - Exodus 35:1-38:20

by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

This week's Torah starts with the word Vayakhel. It means “gathering together.” Moses gathered together the whole of the community to be involved in the construction of the Tabernacle under the direction of Bezalel and Oholiav. It is an unusual word that is used again right at the end of the last book of the Torah (abbreviated from Deuteronomy 31:10-13).

“Every seventh year, at the Feast of Sucot, all Israel should be gathered together, and you shall read the Torah aloud in the presence of everyone men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities that they may hear the words of the Torah and so learn to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching.”

This emphasizes two important fundamentals: community and individuality. The Torah subdivides the community into families and tribes and then ascribes different roles to each one of them. The idea of a people, a nation, a community is an obvious one and its cohesive culture is underlined by the fact that immediately after the opening instruction, the Torah mentions Shabbat and adds one specific law that we haven't mentioned before. “You shall not burn fire in your habitation on the Shabbat”(Exodus 35:3). We've already heard in the Torah the idea that on Shabbat there should be no work although we haven't yet defined what work is. And we've also had the idea that on Shabbat you should not leave the area in which you live. So, what does the law about fire add? Some literalists like the Samaritans and Karaites believed there should be no fire at all in our homes on Shabbat. But the Oral law decided that we may, so long as it is prepared beforehand.

Why do we now in the 21st century associate fire with electricity? In ancient times it was fire that drove society. Shabbat aimed to create a day as different and not dependent on the way society ran during the week when everyone needed and made use of fire. Nowadays it is electricity that is the basis of industrial and technological societies. If we were to cut off electricity, we would be stuck. We are dependent. And Shabbat tries to make a break in this dependency to appreciate other values. To do this we come together to create an alternative community. Thus, again, stressing the importance of the nation as a specific group.

But just as important is the idea of individuality. It is a modern concept. That does not mean that personal empowerment, responsibility, and differences were not recognized and valued by the Torah. In Exodus Chapter 35 men and women who have skills, expertise, and talent are invited repeatedly to contribute to the construction of a community focal point. Thus, both individuality and community are stressed.

We have to preserve the community. But the community depends on individuals, and they have to be recognized for their individuality both in skills and ideas.

There are examples throughout Jewish history, as there are in our times, of different emphases, opinions, and pressures. The need to come together and the desire to live in like-minded communities on the one hand and yet be individuals and empowered spiritually and materially. Yet to be different at the same time. Just think of all the various sects and political positions within Judaism today. In many ways, this may seem divisive. But I argue it is what has helped us survive. Being a community but also being different. Having our cake and eating it so to speak.

There is a marvelous blessing to be said on seeing crowds of our people, Chacham HaRazim. God knows our secrets, and despite the togetherness of hundreds of thousands, we are still regarded as individuals in the ”eye” of Heaven.

Shabbat Shalom



Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.


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