by Ari Hart
“I felt, as the group passed over its metaphorical clif, that I had literally become weightless. I had abandoned gravity, was greater than it. I felt myself to be hovering above myself, capable of perceiving everything in slow motion and overwhelming detail.”
That’s from “Among the Thugs,” sociologist Bill Buford’s book about the time he spent running with soccer hooligans in the UK. It could also describe experiences at Burning Man, an intense melavah malkah in Jerusalem, or a political rally: all gatherings of of people striving to reach something beyond themselves.
The first verse of this week’s parasha, Vayakhel also describes a collective gathering:
וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה, אֶת-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל - “And Moshe gathered the whole congregation of bnei yisrael (Shemot, 35:1)”
This spiritual gathering of the people in our parasha this week is for a specific purpose: to join and perform the physical and spiritual work of building the mishkan. Through adding their personal contributions to the efforts of the collective, the Jewish people were able to build something they never could as individuals: a dwelling place for God. Those who have been a part of meaningful service on behalf of a good and just cause know the intese feelings, meaning and power that come as a result of doing the work in a large group. It can be a real high.
But there is an extra significance to this week’s gathering. It comes on the heels of last week’s parasha, Ki Tissa, where Bnei Yisrael also gathered together for a profound spiritual event: the building of the golden calf. Through the tremendous spiritual power of the gathering, Bnei Yisrael crossed sacred boundaries into worshipping false, material Gods, violating the sacredness of sexuality, and committing murder (Rashi).
Rabbi Aryeh Gordon notes the Torah’s direct contrast between this week’s and last week’s gatherings highlights the power of community and its different potentials. To illustrate, let’s go back to the example we started with for a second. Buford continues:
“I realized later that I was on a druggy high, in a state of adrenaline euphoria. And for the first time I am able to understand the words they use to describe it. That crowd violence was their drug. What was it like for me? An experience of absolute completeness.”
What is most alarming about Buford’s experience isn’t the high, the euphoria, or even the violence. It’s the experience of absolute completeness. The kind of group action described in last week’s parasha and Among the Thugs indulges our darker desires. It promises easy solutions and satisfaction to the fears and darker sides that we all struggle with. And it has power.
The good news is though, the completeness he describes, as he writes, was just an experience. The collective action of Vayakhel, in contrast, is not just a fleeting high. The power of the mob becomes holy when it demands responsibility, contribution, skill and talents. The power of the crowd can be used for good or evil. In Vayakhel, Moshe’s gathering shows the potential for true completeness. This happens when we use channel our collective energies towards positive ends, when we hold ourselves accountable to the standards of chessed and tzedek. It happens when we realize that we are, in fact, always a part of a collective, under the concern of one loving God, encouraging and supporting us in our efforts to repair the world.