On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - P'kudei: The Individual and the Collective

What is the difference between individual spiritual experiences and collective experiences? Is one more powerful than the other? And, if so, what does that mean?  Rabbi Rick Jacobs teaches how Parshat Pikudei highlights what can happen when communities become holy.

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Welcome to episode 7 of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by reformjudaism.org. Every week we come to you with a shot of insight into the weekly Torah portion, condensing 2,000 years of Jewish wisdom into just 10 minutes of modern-day commentary. Of course, we think there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah, and we want to hear what you think. You can weigh in on this week's Torah portion and what you hear today by talking to us on Twitter. Our handle is @URJ. And by liking us at facebook.com/reformjudaism. And you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. Each week we hear from Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. In this episode, he delves deeper into Parashat P’kudei from the Book of Exodus.

This week we read Parashat P’kudei, the very last Torah portion of the Book of Exodus. Don't you love to finish a big project? You work so hard, maybe for years and years. There are incredibly important details. It could be a research project. It could be a building. It could be some new website. But that feeling of completion, that feeling of, “we did it” is the feeling that our ancestors experienced in this week's Torah portion. Because what they have accomplished, they have built in the middle of a godforsaken desert, without material resources, they have put together an exquisitely beautiful praying place that they can carry with them in their journey through the desert.

I don't know what happens when you finish a big project or you finish maybe repairing something. Sometimes there's a quiet moment of satisfaction. Remarkably, in this last portion of Exodus, we're told it's not just a quiet internal feeling. But God's very presence is experienced by the people. In Hebrew, kavod Adonai. That's the phrase. After all the hard work that they did together-- it wasn't built by one person. It wasn't built by a small team. It was built by the people together. And the result is kavod Adonai. They have a collective experience of holiness, of the divine.

Amazingly, there are only two other times that we find this phrase, kavod Adonai, in the Torah. And it will be worth paying attention to which of those moments in the journey we have this phrase describe how the people experienced God. We know that in the revelation on Sinai that they experience kavod Adonai. Something was just different about that moment of connection to one another, to God—kavod Adonai.

The first example from the 16th chapter of Exodus, verse 7 is the most surprising. It comes after the people have been complaining, and they do, by the way, a lot of complaining on this journey. It's too hot. It's too long. I'm tired. I'm hungry. God says, OK, you're going to eat, and you're going to eat lots, and there's manna, and the people are filled and satiated. And kavod Adonai is experienced there. So when the people complain and are fed, they experience God. When they experience the revelation on Mount Sinai, they experience God collectively. And then this week, when they complete the building of the ancient tabernacle, they experience God.

What is it that connects those three? There's really only one dimension that is found in each of those three moments, and that is they are collective moments. They're not the quiet moment, waking up at dawn in the Grand Canyon or that moment of absolute close-your-eyes, inner-connection experience of maybe some very deep and inspiring sense of being in God's presence. The Book of Exodus describes collective experiences of God.

Those may not be our most familiar or common experiences. But think about what the Torah is teaching us. There can be experiences of solitary moments with God. But something happens when we are our best selves, and in the Torah we don't start in each of those cases being our best selves. But something happens when we are literally connected, bound together, that the oneness of the universe is not a concept. It's not a number. It's an experience. We are one with God, and God's oneness is experienced.

It's sometimes elusive. It can't be one of those things that really makes sense, unless we've had moments where we have been at one. And kavod Adonai, the very manifestation of God in our midst is felt. It may be in that sense of doing something incredible. This summer I marched with a group of religious leaders-- African-American and Jewish and Christian-- and we marched for civil rights from Selma, Alabama, to Washington, DC. We walked along this path, and when we reached Washington, DC, was there the sense of kavod Adonai, that we had done something consequential together, that we had become vessels for the Holy One in this world, in this life?

I like to think that we have the possibility to experience kavod Adonai in our lives. It's not automatic. It's certainly not necessarily every day. But it connects us, and it changes us. So as we conclude our study of the Book of Exodus for this year, let's hope that we together can have a moment of kavod Adonai.

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at reformjudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. Between podcasts you can visit us to learn more, not just about Torah, but about all aspects of Reform Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more.

On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Visit www.urj.org to learn more. L’hitraot. We'll see you next week.