Wednesday, February 9, 2011


Abner Weiss, Rabbi



And I shall sanctify the tent of meeting and the altar: Aaron and his sons shall I sanctify to serve me as priests.  And I shall dwell in the midst of the children of Israel, and I shall be their God. (Ex.29: 44-45).

The Torah reading of this week is a continuation of last week’s reading. Parashat Terumah was dedicated to the construction of the portable sanctuary and its contents. This week’s reading focuses on the priests who would serve in the completed structure, the fashioning of their vestments, their ritual consecration, and their emoluments. It concludes with a summary of the daily sacrifices and instructions for construction of the altar of incense. This concludes the mandate for the great building project of the newly liberated Israelite people.

As Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has pointed out, the erection of the sanctuary in the wilderness is the second communal building project recorded in the Torah. The first was the infamous Tower of Babel:

And the whole earth was of one language and a single speech (devarim achadim)… And they said, “Come, let us build us a city and tower with its top in heaven, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad on the face of the whole earth.” (Gen. 11:1; 4).

There are striking differences between the two construction projects. The first relates to the goals of the conceivers of the projects. The purpose of the portable sanctuary is: “And they shall make me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell in their midst.” (Ex. 25:8). The beneficiary of the construction is not the One who conceived it. The construction of the tower of Babel was to benefit those who conceived the project: “and let us make a name for ourselves.” It was motivated by ego and grandiosity.

The second major difference between the two projects is the attitude of the planners to the people whose lives would be affected by their structures. Our text describes God’s attitude to the Israelite worshippers in the sanctuary:  “And I shall dwell in the midst of the children of Israel.”  As the sages have emphasized, the parallel verse is: “And they shall make me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell in their midst” (Ex. 25:8), but not in its [the sanctuary’s] midst. Its purpose was the spiritual elevation and transformation of the users of the structure, rather than of any perceived need of its divine planner for a home on earth. It was people focused rather than authoritarian and self-serving.

This contrasts radically with the vision of the planners of the tower of Babel. Commentators have pointed out the subtext of the verse: “And the whole earth was of one language and a single speech (devarim achadim].”  There was neither freedom of thought nor expression. The structure was meant to preserve the groupthink of the masses and the ideology of the authorities. There was to be neither freedom of thought nor movement: “ lest we be scattered abroad on the face of the whole earth”.  Their project was exclusively dedicated to the preservation of the existing social and political structures, rather than on the needs of the people. Indeed, the needs of the people were utterly irrelevant.

This notion is movingly articulated in the Midrash: “Should a construction worker fall to his death, nobody would show concern. But should a single building block fall [from high in the tower], they would sit and weep, saying ‘Woe is us. When will another large block be hoisted up in its place?’” (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 24:39). The structure mattered, not the people.

The contrast between the two worldviews is reflected in many areas of human activity. It certainly applies to religious structures. In all too many societies the preservation of the structure is far more important than the well-being and happiness of the people it pretends to serve.

To my deep shame, this attitude accounts for the cruelty of rabbis who undo the conversions and religious divorces performed by other rabbis of whom they disapprove. They are unconcerned by their disenfranchising of generations of Jews and of the unutterable pain they cause. The “House” matters infinitely more than those who dwell in it.

This ideology is the visible face of Islam. Islamists have increasingly become the virtually unopposed leaders of the international Muslim community—and the ugliest contemporary practitioners of human sacrifice. To preserve their ideological structures, they send human bombers to be killed and to kill other human beings, both Muslim and non-Muslim. They stone people who dare to think outside the ideological box and have the gall to choose another faith.

There is an exquisite aggadah on this week’s Torah reading. Exodus 25: 20 presents the cherubim [cherubs] atop the ark in the sanctuary as facing each other. But Chronicles II 3:13, describing Solomon’s Temple, declares: “And they [the cherubim] stood on their feet, their faces to the House.” Attempting to resolve the contradiction, the sages said that when they faced one another, they were doing the will of God, but when they faced the House and were primarily concerned with the structure, they were not doing the divine will. (Bava Metzi’a 99a). The implication is obvious. There is no need for me to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.

The contrasting building projects also characterize antithetical political structures. Democracy is premised on the interests and freedoms of the members of society. Structures serve people, rather than the converse. Government of the people is by the people for the people.

In authoritarian regimes, people serve the political structures, and can be sacrificed to ensure the endurance of those structures or to create alternative revolutionary structures. Such activist theorists of revolutionary political structures,  as Herbert Marcuse, have been open to actually calculating the acceptable number of citizen lives to be thus sacrificed.

Anything that threatens the continued stability of the structure is off limits—political dissent, effective political opposition, a free press, and so on. Secret police, special militias and armed thugs sow fear and control the masses. Opposition parties are banned, elections (when they are held) are rigged, and opponents of the regime routinely imprisoned, tortured and even murdered in the interests of preserving the “House.”

Current events in Egypt highlight the tension between the conflicting ideals. Hosni Mubarak has ruled the country with an iron fist for thirty years, using all the strategies just delineated. Opposition has been silenced and the needs and freedoms of the population ignored in the interests of the stability of the regime. The regime change demanded by protesting masses is articulated not merely as a change of leaders, but as a systemic change from an authoritarian to a democratic vision of the society. The rabbinical comment about the cherubim seems applicable.  The leaders face the House, and preserve the existing order at all costs.  They are not open to one another, to the expressed needs of their people.

The “talking heads” in the democracies appear to have concluded that Egypt is about to be refashioned in their own image. Identifying with the protesting masses, they have declared: “We are all Egyptians.” Are they correct? Does the overthrow of hated regimes always presage a systemic shift from oppression to freedom?  Lenin and Stalin substituted communist repression for imperial dictatorship. The repressive Muslim theocracy of the Ayatollah and his Revolutionary Guard replaced the regime of the hated Shah of Iran. Oppression by one authoritarian system can follow repression by another.

What do the Egyptian people really want? Nobody knows for sure, but the polls are disquieting.  Fifty nine percent of Egyptians want democracy and 95 percent want Islam to play a large part in politics. (As Egypt is approximately 5 percent Christian, this means that 100 percent of Muslims want Islam to play a large part in politics.) Eighty four percent, for example, believe that apostates should face the death penalty for exercising their freedom to choose how to worship. This means overwhelming support for the murder of individuals in order to maintain the religious structure of the nation.

The outlook is ominous for the State of Israel. Hamas was elected by a majority and has imposed radical Islamism on the populace, rejecting the right of Israel to exist, and rocketing its citizens.  Hamas is the Palestinian incarnation of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Will the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood honor the peace treaty with Israel? As an outlawed party they were rejectionist. Will they really change their religious convictions and policies when they come to wield real political power?

You and I are the only unconditional guardians of Israel. We are the cherubim who please our Maker when we face one another and defend one another. Whatever our views are of Israel’s government (the only true democracy in the region), our fate is inseparably bound up with the fate of our Israeli brethren—and we shall increasingly be summoned to their support.

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