Finchley Reform Synagogue
This sermon explores the overarching theme touched upon in last week's sermon: can we draw an analogy between the power struggles in Torah and the pressing events of today's world?
It’s been quite an intrepid journey, a political saga. These past five weeks, we have witnessed a people and its leadership wrestle with each other. Five weeks ago in parashat Terumah, the building of the Tabernacle was birthed in idealism. The people generously laid their riches at the feet of Moses and Aaron. But something transpired. The outpour of popular devotion was used to furnish not only the Mishkan itself but was also used to bolster the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Did the nascent Israelite democracy shift towards a theocracy?
In parashat Tetzaveh we saw the Israelite donations transformed into priestly wealth. The High Priest, Aaron, is made a glorious garment. Yet Moses is silent. What happened between the sibling-rulers? Was there a power struggle? Only our imagination can reconstruct the white spaces of the Biblical narrative. The political dynamic deteriorated from that point on. Aaron, newly minted in his leadership role and in the absence of Moses made a crucial error of judgement. Afraid and desperate, the disgruntled Israelite community relapsed into idolatry as they sought solace in the Golden Calf. Perhaps they rebelled because they felt exploited. They had wanted to build God a house, not dress the Priesthood. This is the unanswered question that the text poses us.
Under Divine threat of annihilation, Moses is finally galvanized into action and intercedes on behalf of his community, staying God’s hand in the slaughter. Even so, there is a ‘counter-revolution’. Moses demanded to know who will stand with him and his God. Those who refused were executed. Three thousand people fell by the sword.
The Israelite community is left profoundly broken. All sense of trust between leaders and people and even God has been shattered. This fragmented community needs careful mending through a delicate tikkun.
Thankfully, such a tikkun is initiated in last week’s parasha, Vayakhel. Had the people previously assembled against their leaders in discontent, now they assembled to do the holy work of the Mishkan once more. Moses engages the people tenderly and gives them a most precious gift of freedom: Shabbat. Hope is renewed and a vision for more transparent leadership emerges. Now comes the moment for that leadership to be held accountable.
The larger question is: who is to be held accountable? Moses and Aaron? The Israelite community? Or perhaps even us today?
This week’s parasha opens with an unassuming yet remarkable statement: ‘Eleh pekudei hamishkan’- ‘These are the accounts of the Tabernacle’ (Ex. 38:21). Previously, we are told what the Israelites give and how it is used. But here the Torah gives us exact figures (on which we would have to apply an inflation correction in order to grasp their full value!) Not only does the Torah balance the books, but the formulation is equally striking: ‘asher pukad al pi Moshe avodat haLevi’im’ – ‘as they were accounted, according to Moses, through the service of the Levites’. Are these the same Levites who fanatically executed the Israelites during the Golden Calf incident? Notice the use of the word ‘avodah’, service. Perhaps Moses started implementing hard-won lessons of transparent and democratic leadership.
Midrash Tanchuma recounts how at least two people need to be appointed as trustees to public funds in order to ensure accountability. Even a great leader like Moses is subject to this rule as he balanced the books with the help of Itamar, Aaron’s son. The audit of the gold, silver and copper is completed. The children of Israel can trust in the newfound transparency of their leaders and economists. The parasha continues to recount how the priestly vestments of Aaron are constructed, including the costly ephod, breastplate. And as if to seal the hard-won commitment to community values, the names of the children of Israel are inscribed upon the breastplate. The High Priest may be ‘kadosh l’Adonai’, holy to God, but ultimately he is in service of and accountable to his community.
And so our saga comes to a close in this last book of Shemot, Exodus. In our own time, we have witnessed several communities’ brave journeys towards democracy and transparency. The Middle East, from Ben Ali’s Tunisia to Gaddafi’s Libya, trembles under the popular yearning for freedom. Likewise, the American state Wisconsin is rocked by social protests as workers fight the controversial ‘budget repair bill’ which would drastically impair workers’ rights. During the Crisis, we have seen desperate Western governments scramble to save the banks in order to prevent total economic collapse.
We cannot remain blind to the affairs of the world. Although our eternal Torah does not take an explicitly political stance on any matter, our beloved Torah does take a firm stance on social justice. If Moses and Aaron were to be held accountable, then should we not expect the same for our political and economic leaders? Is it not our ethical duty to stave off the ‘moral hazard’ of economic injustice? And is not also our ethical duty to support nascent democratic movements?
Collective action does not displace personal responsibility. The overarching question is how we can become more accountable in our professional, personal and spiritual lives. The great mission of democracy affects us all. No-one is spared the scrutiny of moral conscience. Perhaps if we have the honesty and fortitude to stand up for what we believe, we can change the course of history and improve it.
Parashat Pekudei proves that it is possible. The Torah tells us how the ‘ananei kavod Adonai’, the clouds of glory of the Eternal, would cover the Tabernacle at the center of the Israelite camp. The Eternal travelled onwards with the B’nei Yisrael and they were transformed from a ramshackle nation into a conscious community, the ‘Beit Yisrael’, the ‘House of Israel’.
If we hold fast to what is good and right in our world, and if we have the courage to hold each and every one of us accountable for every ‘half-shekel’ and ‘piece of gold’ that we pay into our institutions, then perhaps we will journey on to a better world under the wings of the Divine Presence.