A long drama had taken place. Moses had led the people from slavery to the beginning of the road to freedom. The people themselves had witnessed G-d at Mount Sinai, the only time in all history when an entire people became the recipients of revelation. Then came the disappearance of Moses for his long sojourn at the top of the mountain, an absence which led to the Israelites’ greatest collective sin, the making of the Golden Calf. Moses returned to the mountain to plead for forgiveness, which was granted.
Its symbol was the second set of tablets. Now life must begin again. A shattered people must be rebuilt. How does Moses proceed? The verse with which the sedra begins contains the clue:
Moses assembled the whole Israelite community and said to them: “These are the things G-d has commanded you to do.” (35:1)
The verb vayakhel – which gives the sedra its name – is crucial to an understanding of the task in which Moses is engaged. At its simplest level it serves as a motif-word, recalling a previous verse. In this case the verse is obvious:
When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they assembled around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us.” (32:1)
Moses’ act is what the kabbalists called a tikkun: a restoration, a making-good-again, the redemption of a past misdemeanor. Just as the sin was committed by the people acting as a kahal or kehillah, so atonement was to be achieved by their again acting as a kehillah, this time by making a home for the Divine presence as they earlier sought to make a substitute for it. Moses orchestrates the people for good, as they had once been assembled for bad. The difference lies not only in the purpose but in the form of the verb, from passive in the case of the calf to active in the case of Moses. Passivity allows bad things to happen – “Wherever it says ‘and it came to pass’ it is a sign of impending tragedy” (Megillah 10b). Proactivity is the defeat of tragedy: “Wherever is says, ‘And there will be’ is a sign of impending joy” (Bemidbar Rabbah 13).
At a deeper level, though, the opening verse of the sedra alerts us to the nature of community in Judaism.
In classical Hebrew there are three different words for community: edah, tsibbur and kehillah, and they signify different kinds of association.
Edah comes from the word ed, meaning “witness.” The verb ya’ad carries the meaning of “to appoint, fix, assign, destine, set apart, designate or determine.” The modern Hebrew noun te’udah means “certificate, document, attestation, aim, object, purpose or mission.” The people who constitute an edah have a strong sense of collective identity. They have witnessed the same things. They are bent on the same purpose. The Jewish people become an edah – a community of shared faith – only on receiving the first command:
“Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household” (Shemot 12:3).
An edah can be a gathering for bad as well as good. The Israelites, on hearing the report of the spies, lose heart and say they want to return to Egypt. Throughout, they are referred to as the edah (as in “How long will this wicked community grumble against Me?” Bamidbar 14: 27). The people agitated by Korach in his rebellion against Moses and Aaron’s authority is likewise called an edah (“If one man sins, will You be angry with the whole community? Bamidbar 16: 22). Nowadays the word is generally used for an ethnic or religious subgroup. An edah is a community of the like-minded. The word emphasizes strong identity. It is a group whose members have much in common.
By contrast the word tzibbur – it belongs to Mishnaic rather than biblical Hebrew – comes from the root tz-b-r meaning “to heap” or “pile up” (Bereishith 41:49). To understand the concept of tzibbur, think of a group of people praying at the Kotel. They may not know each other. They may never meet again. But for the moment, they happen to be ten people in the same place at the same time, and thus constitute a quorum for prayer. A tzibbur is a community in the minimalist sense, a mere aggregate, formed by numbers rather than any sense of identity. A tzibbur is a group whose members may have nothing in common except that, at a certain point, they find themselves together and thus constitute a “public” for prayer or any other command that requires a minyan.