After finally completing infantry officer’s course and then tank officer’s course, I was assigned to the 430th Battalion of the 500th Armored Brigade in the Jordan valley. Given a few days to rest up after grueling months of training, I reported for duty.
Standing at 6 am with my new unit I was given my first mission: to inspect all their rooms and then get them down to the tanks to do the morning’s inspection and make sure all the tanks were battle-ready for the unlikely event that we’d face combat. I quickly discovered it was much easier getting men ready for a combat patrol in Lebanon than it was getting guys up and working on their tanks in the Jordan valley, where we were stationed as part of a critical mass for the extremely unlikely event that Jordan were to suddenly attack.
In the Yeshivat Orayta gap year program where I work today, every year 70 to 80 boys arrive from many different places and backgrounds, but they share in common two essential things: they all want to be there, and we chose them from among a much larger pool of applicants out of a sense that Orayta is offering exactly what they are looking for.
This was not the case in the IDF tank unit I commanded. Many of these boys were drafted and would have much rather been almost anywhere else, and the IDF’s vision of what makes a boy appropriate for such a front line combat unit is surprisingly broad, so the collection of 18 and 19 year olds I met that morning seemed to have little in common. They were from almost every social and cultural strata in Israel — Sephardic and Ashkenazi, some bright and some seemingly quite thick-headed; some athletic and some looking like they were more accustomed to a couch than a good run; some ready to work, most looking like they just wanted to get back into bed. How would I ever be able to turn them into a cohesive unit?
This week, we will conclude Shemot, the Torah’s second book, which began with the ominous undertones of the first Jewish family becoming ensconced and then enslaved in Egypt, but then continued gloriously through the great Exodus, the splitting of the sea, and the receiving of the Torah at Sinai, only to see everything nearly destroyed with the sin of the Golden Calf. Now it concludes with the Jewish people seemingly finding their way back and building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle as a space for G-d on earth.
Immediately after the sin of the Golden Calf and its subsequent debacle, Moshe gathers the people (Shemot 35:1) to begin building the Mishkan. Rashi points out that this gathering occurs on the 11th of Tishrei, the day after Yom Kippur, thus linking forever the day when we received the second set of tablets, representing forgiveness for the Golden Calf, and the subsequent building of the Tabernacle.
One cannot help but notice that vayakhel, the verb used for the gathering (from which the parsha derives its name) parallels the same verb used when the people gathered for an almost antithetical purpose: the Golden Calf (ibid. 32:1: “Vayikahel ha’Am,” when the people gathered and demanded of Aaron to make for them a g-d). The building of this tabernacle would somehow be a tikkun (a fixing) that would undo the damage brought into the world with the sin of the Golden Calf.
This type of gathering created a specific type of group known as a kehillah. And yet the verse (ibid 35:1) has Moshe gathering an eidah, or congregation. (“Vaykahel Moshe et kol Adat B’nei Yisrael.”)
What is the difference between an eidah and a kehillah?
The word eidah stems from eidut (testimony) and relates as well to the concept of ye’ud (destiny). It describes a group that comes together as a community based on a common experience, which leads them to a shared purpose. The Jewish people first become an eidah when they are commanded (ibid. 12:3) to bring a lamb for each family for the paschal offering prior to the Exodus. What they share in common is that they all experienced suffering as Egyptian slaves, and they want to get out. They do not know yet where they are going, or even what they would do with freedom if attained, they just know they want to get out.
It is important to note, however, that being an eidah is not always necessarily a positive thing. As an example, in the infamous sin of the spies (Bamidbar 14:27), the Jewish people are also described as an eidah, a community heading in a direction — but not necessarily the right direction. After 200 years of slavery, the Jews first need to become an eidah, to bear witness to something greater than themselves. They need a purpose and a direction.
In the rebellion of Korach the rebels are also called an eidah; they feel they have experienced injustice and although they may not all want the same thing, they share a collective, if misguided, experience which leads them toward a common purpose.
A kehillah, however, can easily be a group of people who do not share previous experiences, but gather for a common purpose that can also result in disaster, as with the Golden Calf. But a kehillah wants to build something together; whether it be a Golden Calf or a tabernacle, the desire to build is a force that can be harnessed for tremendous good. Perhaps that is why Moshe gathered the eidah as a kehillah (“Vayakhel Moshe et kol Adat B’nei Yisrael” 35:1).
Quickly realizing that earning the trust of an entire company of men was a tall order, a few nights later I decided to start small, with my own tank crew — three men who could not have been more different from each other. To earn their trust I pursued the fastest route to success in such endeavors: unabashed bribery.
I invited them to the commissary and treated them to sodas and cake.
They were very curious as to how an obviously American boy was now their officer (back then lone soldiers were much rarer) and I made a deal with them that they could ask any question and I’d answer but then they had to answer one of mine.
They were more interested in how we were different; I was looking for what we shared in common. The one that stands out in my mind was Galai, our tank driver. His family was Iraqi and he described to me how they had actually walked hundreds of miles before the state of Israel was born because his grandfather knew it was time to come to the land. As it turned out, though he did not wear a kippah he had a deep connection with Jewish tradition and was very close to his grandparents who were very proud of him for being in a combat unit. When I asked him what he thought his best talent was, he told me he could fix anything, a talent we would make good use of on many occasions.
And I got to know Avi, our loader, who was an awesome cook (he knew how to use tank oil to fry luf [kosher spam] which was the only time I ever enjoyed eating battle rations) whose family came from Tunisia in Operation magic carpet in the 50s, and Dudi, who did not talk much but as a gunner never missed. His father was a Holocaust survivor and his mother was Israeli from a Kibbutz, and he did not think he had any special talents. As it turned out, he was wrong; his special gift was that he was incredibly calm and focused under pressure, another talent we would eventually put to good use on many occasions.
Looking back, that night was the night we discovered we were an eidah, and we started becoming a kehillah. We, all of us, are an eidah, bearing testimony to a long and magnificent journey over thousands of years which has led us back at long last to where our journey began. Now our challenge is to discover our collective purpose: what will we collectively contribute towards making a better world?
In building a space for Hashem in our lives (as suggested by the building of the Mishkan) we demonstrate that there is and must be a larger purpose to who we are, and that we have been placed here to make a difference. Perhaps soon, all of us, with all our differences, and shared experiences as an eidah, come together as a kehillah to build a better world.
Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.