Vayak’hel-Pikudey: We Have Been Refugees


There seems to be a growing gap between Israeli and Diaspora Jews – whether the issue is controversy over the egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, or over the attempts of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate to gain a monopoly over conversions, or over the growing racism among sectors of the population. Was there ever a time when our people enjoyed unity? And is there a way to achieve that state today?

A commentary to our double Torah portion, Vayakhel-Pikudey, suggests that there was indeed such a time. Vayakhel begins: Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community (Ex. 35:1). Eretz Chemda[1] comments:

At the revelation of the Torah they were unified, as Scripture states: Israel encamped there in front of the mountain (Ex. 19:2) – to which Rashi comments, “Like one person with one heart.” During the episode of the Golden Calf the people were split apart, each person alienating the other. Therefore the objective of building the Tabernacle was to atone for the incident of the Calf. And so Moses sought to convoke them, in order that they might return to the state they had achieved at Mount Sinai.[2]

Once the people had regained this unity of spirit, they engaged in a flurry of activity to fashion the parts of the Tabernacle and to assemble the structure. Our ancestors, recent refugees from slavery in Egypt, now found common purpose and values within God’s sacred space. The Tabernacle accompanied them into the Land of Israel. In the time of King Solomon, this temporary structure was replaced by the Temple in Jerusalem, which served as the spiritual nerve centre that united all the tribes.

But only for a short time. After Solomon’s death, the tribes split into two separate kingdoms. And a few centuries afterward, the Babylonians destroyed the Temple and carried our people into exile. According to the Talmud, the First Temple fell due to sin’at chinam[3], baseless hatred between one Jew and another. As they languished in a foreign land, the People of Israel regretted their divisiveness and longed for asylum back to their homeland.

Coming closer to the present, we have been blessed to experience the birth of the State of Israel, where Jewish refugees from around the world could find sanctuary, where every Jew could live in safety. Whether or not we choose to live in Israel, Jews from every corner of the globe feel the sense of unity that draws us to Zion and Jerusalem.

However, most recently, a bitter irony has arisen: some of us seem to be turning our backs on another group of refugees. At the time of writing, the government of Israel plans to deport approximately 38,000 men, women and children who have fled from African countries, hoping to seek asylum within a free and democratic Jewish state. Many of them fear facing imprisonment, torture and even death if they return to their native countries. Many of them have taken on menial jobs that no one else wants, and hope that the granting of refugee status in Israel will enable them to continue their education and better their lot in life. Many of them have given birth to children during their time in Israel, and hope that their families might become loyal and productive citizens in their new home.

How shall we find the unity to address this crisis in a fair and moral way?  There is no longer a central Temple to unite us – only a western retaining wall that has provoked even more baseless hatred and division. We fear that our newly-found freedom and power will turn us from refugees into oppressors.

We may find a ray of hope in one of the final verses of our second parasha, Pikudey, which concludes the Book of Exodus. As Moses completes the dedication of the Tabernacle, the Torah records that the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the Presence of the Eternal filled the Tabernacle (Ex. 40:34). According to the Hasidic teacher Rabbi Ya’akov Aryeh of Radzymin,[4]

The entire Tabernacle was filled with Israel’s love and their desire for the Holy Blessed One. For the Tabernacle and its vessels were derived from the generosity of their hearts and their strong yearning. Thus it is clear that the Shekhinah dwelt upon them, until there was no division or empty space among them.[5]

According to this commentary, the Tabernacle was able to fulfill even what the Temple failed to do. Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf of Zhytomir[6] explains the reason for this by explaining how the words mishkan (Tabernacle) and shekhinah (God’s immanent Presence) are both derived from the verb  שכן, “to dwell.”  In true Hasidic fashion, Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf teaches that the Tabernacle is not merely a structure that was built a long time ago, but that it also resides within every human being. The sanctuary of God’s Presence within each of our souls is the source of our moral values, our Jewish voice for justice and compassion.

That voice is gaining in volume. It is heard from the thousands of Israelis – including the leadership of our own Israeli Reform Movement – who have taken to the streets to protest en masse deportation of the asylum seekers. It is heard from rabbis, NGO’s and Jewish organizations in Israel and throughout the world who have sent messages to the Israeli government urging reconsideration of this policy. It is heard in the Din Torah (arraignment) issued to an Israeli Cabinet minister to answer the charges of transgressing Torah laws of compassion.[7] Our internal Tabernacle, our voice of Jewish conscience, calls for a just and humane treatment of the African asylum seekers. The collective soul of our people hangs in the balance.


Rabbi Lawrence A. Englander is Rabbi Emeritus of Solel Congregation of Mississauga and Adjunct Rabbi at Temple Sinai of Toronto. He is co-editor (with Rabbi Stanley Davids) of the book The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism, recently published by CCAR Press.

[1] An institute of advanced Torah study, founded in Israel in 1987.

[2] Iturey Torah (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Press, 1988), 3:273.

[3] Bab. Talmud, Yoma 9b.

[4] D. 1877. Author of Bikurey Aviv.

[5] Iturey Torah 3:299.

[6] Or HaMe’ir, commentary to Terumah, cited in Arthur Green, Speaking Torah (Woodstock VT: Jewish Lights, 2013) 1:216.