A few days ago it was my wife’s birthday and, just like any other special event we celebrated over the past year or so, we had a Zoom birthday party. We pulled out all the stops — special Zoom backgrounds, a screen-shared video of people she loves wishing her a happy birthday, an online app with a quiz about her, and so forth. It was as festive and joyful as a celebration could be on a screen, with family and friends from around the world saying hi and singing together. Our toddler already knows all about Zoom, and his little fingers reached out to each of the relatives in their squares, saying their names one at a time.
It’s both sweet and a little strange that our little one knows so much about video calls.
This week’s parsha is, ironically, called Va-yakhel or and he gathered. The ‘he’ is Moses, and the gathering refers to the children of Israel who are being called upon, once again, to serve the Lord. The very first verse talks about gathering people together, something that makes me both squeamish and filled with a longing for simpler times.
A few years ago, my wife had a 90s-themed birthday party in the backroom of a local cafe where I worked. Tens of people squeezed into a tiny sweaty room where the DJ blasted Destiny’s Child and Backstreet Boys tunes, and Space Jam was projected on the wall. We danced and danced ’til our legs gave out in the early hours of the morning. Naturally, no one wore a mask or used any hand sanitizer.
That kind of behavior is unthinkable to me now. First of all, who would stay up that late when they have a toddler-led wake-up call at 6 o’clock sharp? Second of all, being in an enclosed space with that many unmasked people would probably give me a panic attack.
And yet, how I wish that we could gather with our loved ones to celebrate a special day, or even just to hang out and listen to my kiddo try to say avocado (it’s something like “a-oh-AH-too”).
Moses gathers the people to serve the Lord, but not in a bowing down sort of way. The children of Israel are called upon in this Parsha to reflect on their crafts and see how they may help to build a holy space in which God’s spirit will reside. Projects are assigned by self-designation. “…everyone who had in his possession acacia wood for any work of the service brought that,” says Exodus 35:24, adding two verses later that “all the women who excelled in that skill spun the goats’ hair.” In other words, everyone can do something, and no one has to do everything. In this collective way, a sacred space is created. In fact, according to these verses, the space can’t be created alone. It takes a village.
That adage is what my wife and I had in mind when we set out to start a family. We never had any intention of doing this all by ourselves. Not only is it helpful for us to have other adults around when you’re a parent, we believe that it’s better for our kids as well. After all, we don’t have just two trusted friends in our lives, and why should that be different for children? We’ll always be his main people, but it’s important to have other role models, other examples of how to live life, and other trusted adults to turn to when, like it or not, he does not want to talk about certain things with his Mama and Eema.
In some ways, we’re farther than ever before from the village we imagined would support us as parents. We have a dream of living near family and friends, where everyone’s kids are pals and all the parents lend a hand. These days, it’s just us and the babysitters.
On the other hand, we’re closer than we’ve been. Would we have thought of such an elaborate Zoom party in the era before COVID-19? Probably not. Would our kiddo be video-chatting with his grandparents and aunties as regularly? Also, probably not. These days, it’s expected that we should be able to attend graduation ceremonies, birthdays, and weddings around the world as easily as we check our email. In a weird way, the pandemic has led us to reach out in ways we’d have shrugged off as too complicated just a year ago.
I still want to watch my kid play with other kids and to share our everyday lives with other friends and family members who live next door. I guess that, for now, the wisdom of the Parsha needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Ultimately, we all are doing our part for our respective villages. We’re just doing it in a way that keeps us all safe, in a way that speaks to our hearts as the right path forward.
Exodus 35:29 says that “…all the men and women whose hearts moved them to bring anything for the work […] brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord.” Or, in other words, God trusts that, if we listen to what our inner-voice moves us to do, we will know the next step. Whether it’s spinning goats’ hair, or overlaying the Tabernacle in gold leaf, or making a birthday video for your far-off family member, each craft has its place in the village. The village is still a place to gather, even if it has to be digital for now.