An ant can spend an entire day, or many days, doing nothing but moving grains of sand from point A to point B. Sometimes, an ant will do this without even noticing that another ant, simultaneously, is moving the same grains from point B back to point A.
A colony of ants, though, can do remarkable things. Leafcutter ants, for example, plant, feed and harvest a fungus that provides for all their food. They make adjustments in the care of the fungus in response to factors like temperature and their nutritional needs. Other ant species can build tunnels underground starting from two distant points that meet, incredibly, at exactly the right place in the middle.
Taken individually, ants are mindless. Taken as a community, they are miraculous. In a way, this is what this week's Torah portion is about.
Parashat Vayakhel begins with Moses instructing the Israelites about Shabbat: "On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Shabbat of complete rest..." Moses gathers the people to remind them (they've heard this before) about how to observe the sanctity of the seventh day. "...You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on Shabbat" (Exodus 35:1-3).
Then, abruptly, the subject changes. In the very next verse, Moses instructs the Israelites about the materials they should donate for the construction of the Mishkan, the tabernacle for God they will carry through the wilderness. Moses tells them to bring metals, yarns, skins, stones, and incense.
What does Shabbat have to do with building a portable temple?
The Isbitzer Rebbe (whom I quoted in one of last week's post) states that the connection between Shabbat and the building of the Mishkan has to do with bringing people together. In the collection of his teachings, Mei HaShiloach, he says, "The building of the Mishkan brought all of Israel together in their hearts, with none raising his or herself over a fellow worker." This is like Shabbat, he says, because Shabbat is all about connecting ourselves to something greater than our own individuality.
The Isbitzer explains that when the Israelites would look at the things they themselves had done to build the Mishkan—attaching an animal skin to a frame, beating a golden fastening ring into shape, or carving a tent peg—they would be suitably impressed by the careful and loving work of their own hands. However, it was only when the Israelites saw the Mishkan assembled as a whole—how the frames all fit together and how the skins and tapestries came to form a unity—that they realized how each piece belonged to the others.
The Israelites had the simultaneous experience of great humility for the smallness of their own individual contribution and great pride in what they had done together. Each saw that this particular sum was composed of more than their individual human parts. In allowing themselves to come together in holiness, holiness itself provided the crowning glory for their labors.
The Isbitzer says, "The Shechinah [God's indwelling presence] would not have been able to dwell within Israel if even one tent peg had been missing. Therefore, none could think him or herself as higher than any fellow worker—not even the one who made the Ark over the one who made the tent pegs for the courtyard."
When we seek a spiritual life, we strive to discover personal meaning. We want to know the purpose for which we were made and we want to know how we can reach toward God. We sometimes forget, though, that living a spiritual life is not, so to speak, an individual sport. We are most able to see ourselves as part of something larger than ourselves when we do it as part of a community. We see the path toward our own individual life's meaning when we see it reflected in the eyes of others.
As you go through this week of Vayakhel, take some time to consider how community plays a role in your spiritual development. When you are feeling that you are lost in your life's journey toward meaning and purpose, when you are lost in seeking God's presence in your life, do you allow connection to community to guide you back? Do you (perhaps privately and quietly within yourself) believe that you have to "go it alone" to find spirituality? Just think about those tent pegs.
Jews are not ants, but we can learn something from them. As human beings, we need to be more self-reflective than an ant is capable of being. Ants don't have egos, but we need to allow our ego to assert itself within us from time to time. Yet, we can follow the ants in learning to let go of the illusion that we are isolated beings, independent from each other. Like the ants, we can see our own smallness in contrast with the miracle of being part of something larger than ourselves.