Vayakhel: Moses and Miracles by Michael Carasik

Feb 25th, 2011 by developer in Portion of the Week
This week’s portion contains what may be the greatest miracle in the entire Torah—though it’s one that people rarely think of as miraculous, or would put into the same category as the splitting of the sea (Exodus 14), the manna (Exodus 16), or the quail (Exodus 16 and again in Numbers 11). Each of these has been given naturalistic explanations by those who prefer to keep talk of miracles at a distance. But at the beginning of this week’s reading, Moses assembles the Israelites and addresses all of them at once: an event that could not have happened without miraculous intervention.

The person who determined experimentally how many people could be addressed at once without amplification was none other than Benjamin Franklin.  He writes in his Autobiography of a visiting Irish preacher in Philadelphia who “had a loud and clear voice, and articulated his words so perfectly that he might be heard and understood at a great distance”:

Being among the hindmost [of his hearers] in Market Street, I had the curiosity to learn how far he could be heard by retiring backward down the street toward the river; and I found his voice distinct till I came near Front Street. . . . Imagining then a semicircle, of which my distance should be the radius, and that it was filled with auditors, to each of whom I allowed two square feet, I computed that he might well be heard by more than thirty thousand.

“This,” Franklin writes, “reconciled me . . . to the history of generals haranguing whole armies, of which I had sometimes doubted.”

The crowd that Moses was addressing, though, was greater by two orders of magnitude.  There were more than 600,000 Israelite men of military age; give each of them a wife and 2.2 children and you’re up over two-and-a-half million people.  And, in contrast to Franklin’s preacher with his loud and clear voice, Moses was “not a man of words.” Assembling all of these people at the same time and speaking to them as a single crowd is reminiscent of the miracle that, according to the Talmud, took place in the Temple every year on Yom Kippur, when the entire nation “stood crowded together, but all prostrated themselves with ease.” In both cases, as when (later in the Bible) the sun stood still for Joshua, the laws of physics must have been suspended.

But Moses was performing another kind of miracle, too: a sociological one.  The verb that describes Moses’ action—the first word and the name of our portion, Vayakhel—is a causative form of the root k-h-l.  (It’s the same root that gives us the Hebrew name of Ecclesiastes, “Kohelet.”)  Moses was not just addressing the Israelites; he was causing them to become a kehillah, a congregation or community, united behind a single purpose: creating a tabernacle (mishkan) where God could dwell (shakhan) among them.

The Jewish mystical tradition actually refers to the “Assembly of Israel” not as making a space for God but as constituting an element of God, the Shekhinah—that aspect of the divine that dwells among us on earth and connects us to the infinite God beyond time and space. That’s a purpose that well deserves the greatest miracle ever.

It would take an equal miracle, or an even greater one, to unite all Jews behind a single religious purpose today.  But as the scholar Moshe Halbertal has pointed out, “In the Jewish tradition the centrality of the text takes the place of theological consistency.”  There can be many different perspectives on the Torah, but the Jews who take them are all reading the same chapters of this ancient book at the same time—starting, this week, with the word describing one of the miracles wrought by Moses: vayakhel, “he created a community.”

Michael Carasik is the creator of The Commentators’ Bible.  He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.