"Moses assembled the whole Israelite community and said to them, 'These are the things the LORD has commanded you to do.'” —Exodus 35:1
The Torah portion for this week is a double reading, Vayakhel-Pekudei, from Exodus 35:1–40:38. Vayakhel means “assembled,” and Pekudei means “counting.” The Haftorah is from 1 Kings 7:51–8:21.
Which is more important – the whole or its parts?
We all know that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but it is equally true that the value of the whole is completely determined by the value of its parts. So which is more important?
In life we confront this dilemma all the time. Do we push for a team mentality – do we teach ourselves and our children that individual needs should be set aside for the sake of the community? Or do we stress the value of individuality and emphasize the uniqueness and specialness of each person, created in the image of God?
The tension between these two streams of thought is brought together in our two Torah portions – Vayakel and Pikudei – which, unlike previous portions, are usually read together on the same Sabbath day.
Vayakel means “assembled” as in “Moses assembled the whole Israelite community . . . ” There are many Hebrew words for “gather” or “bring together” but Vayakel, more than any other word, stresses the coming together for the purpose of forming one whole. The “assembled” become an “assembly.”
Pikudei, on the other hand, means “counting.” This word emphasizes that everyone “counts.” Every individual is important and unique, an indispensable part of God’s creation.
The fact that these two Torah portions are usually read together teaches us that both perspectives are correct. They aren’t mutually exclusive; rather they are complementary. One without the other is incomplete; it takes both ways of looking at things to get life right.
Perhaps this is why one renowned rabbi used to keep two pieces of paper in either pocket every day. In one pocket, the paper read: “The world was created for me!” In the other, “I am but dust and ashes.” Together, both of these outlooks keep a person balanced. The tricky part is knowing when to pull out which piece of paper. Some situations call for individual expression, while others call for quiet subservience. With God’s help, we will know which situations call for which approach.
The message of this week’s double Torah portion teaches us that we need to spend time every day addressing both our individual needs and also the needs of the world around us. We must begin each day by asking both “what do I need today?” and also “what can I contribute to the world?” If we do so, we will end each day with the profound satisfaction that comes with knowing that we have both contributed to the perfection of God’s world while also taking care of ourselves, His children.