Rebuilding from Cheit HaEigel by Zachary Ottenstein


Parashat VaYakheil appears immediately after the Cheit HaEigel, the sin of the Golden Calf. The Children of Israel had just experienced the low point in their history, so we can easily question how Bnei Yisrael were able to rebuild their community and restore moral order after this disgraceful, abominable act that they committed? Was it even possible for them to do so, or was it too late? The answer to this question lies in the very first word of this week’s Parashah, namely “VaYakheil,” “and he assembled” (Shemot 35:1).

Rav Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, poses a similar question. To discover the answer to our question, Rav Sacks presents the ideas of two contemporary thinkers to help us further understand why the word VaYakheil is so important. He presents the story of Charles Darwin, the founder of modern evolution, and that of political thinker and author of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville . Darwin writes in his The Descent of Man about the concept of natural selection. This well-known theory states that creatures must compete with each other for a share of limited resources, and only those that fight successfully for what they need will survive. If this were true, ruthlessness would be the guiding influence in every creature’s life, and altruism would not exist. Altruism is a value upon which many societies, especially those that are based on faith and religion, place an extreme emphasis. Altruism promotes the practice of making an individual sacrifice on behalf of others. This reveals a major flaw in the opinion of Darwin. Darwin goes beyond suggesting the concept of survival of the fittest but even writes that altruists and those willing to sacrifice “would on average perish in larger number than other men.[1]” Charles Darwin answers his own question, but the answer contradicts the premise of natural selection. Darwin explains that at the individual level, survival of the fittest is the guiding force in a human . When that same man forms a community or a civilization, his “survival of the fittest” instincts change from only caring about his own survival to caring about the collective survival. It is possible to change man's instincts from selfishness to selflessness, from serving one's self to serving one's community.

Approximately during the same time that Darwin was developing his theory, Alexis de Tocqueville was writing about how communities function in the newly created United States of America. Relative to the Americans, the French were not so committed to their religion. Tocqueville wanted to understand the role of religion in American society. Logically, since there was a separation between church and state, religion had no power in the political sphere; however, in contrast to what Tocqueville assumed, religion had a major influence on American life. Tocqueville even wrote, “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains greater influence over the souls of men than in America.[2]”

After asking various clergymen why religion and politics don't commingle, Tocqueville came to the following answer: Politics are divisive. The goal of religion is to improve the individual and unite the individuals into a community in which they can further improve their morals and character. The opposite effect would be achieved if religion and politics were combined.

Individualism, as explained by Darwin, is the greatest threat to a society. What protects any society from the dangers of rugged individualism is the formation of religious communities. In a religious community, members are more likely to give charity and give thought to the needs of others. Survey data from Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam suggests that frequent synagogue or church goers are more inclined to give charity than other people[3]. This inclination towards giving is not due to religious belief, but rather due to the influence that a community has on the individual. According to Putnam, an atheist who went to a communal gathering regularly would still give more to charity than one who didn't. Religion creates a community, a community will lead to altruism, and altruism will lead people away from self-interest and lead them toward the common good.

What Moshe Rabbeinu had to do after the Golden Calf was turn the Jewish People from just a religious group into a community – “VaYakheil.” Moshe accomplished this in multiple ways. When Moshe returns from Har Sinai, the Torah writes that the Children of Israel were “Faruah,” “disorderly and chaotic” (Shemot 32:25). Moshe restores order and is able to settle the wild people. Moshe then proceeds to remind the people of the laws of Shabbat and the Mishkan, because both Shabbat and the Mishkan are Mitzvot based on community. Rav Sacks writes in his The Home We Build Together that the best way to strengthen a community is to build a communal structure together; therefore, Moshe commands Bnei Yisrael to build the Mishkan (editor’s note – this approach fits with Rashi’s assertion that the Mishkan serves as a Kapparah for Cheit HaEigel). Additionally, Moshe commands the Jews about Shabbat, because Shabbat is a time in which self-interest is put aside and people come together to pray, eat and rejoice. Rambam writes in Hilchot Teshuvah (3:11) that “One who separates himself from the community, even if he doesn't commit any sins, but stands apart from the Children of Israel, has no share in Olam HaBa.”

Community has the power to improve the world, a society within that world, or even an individual person. Moshe Rabbeinu saw the need to improve every aspect of the Jewish People, and it is for that reason that he commanded them to build the Mishkan and guard the Shabbat. It was through this command that Moshe was able to restore order to an unruly mob of idol worshippers and turn them into a community based on charity, respect and love. With the help of Hashem, we can all participate in the establishment of a stronger Jewish community and also be able to improve our individual character traits. If we accomplish this, we will hopefully be Zocheh to seeing the coming of Mashiach.

[1] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, Princeton University Press 1981, 84

[2]Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, abridged with an introduction by Thomas Bender, New York, Modern Library, 1981, 182

[3]Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000

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