Thursday, 24 Feb 2011

Written by Esther Hugenholtz

‘Don’t you know, they’re talking ‘bout a revolution, it sounds like a whisper.’

Folk singer Tracy Chapman’s warm voice trills with restrained anticipation during the first bars of this famous song. I heard it as an idealistic teenager and was instantly inspired. It was Tracy Chapman’s music that encouraged me to learn how to play the guitar.
The days of revolutionary spirit seemed long gone. But revolutions can appear suddenly and unannounced, like a thief in the night. At first, they sound like whispers, but then their clarion call grows triumphant.

These last few weeks we witnessed history in the making. With baited breath we watched the footage as Tunisia burst into flame, shortly followed by Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya. The initial euphoria over protesters marching on Tahrir Square ousting Egypt’s Mubarak was dampened by grisly reports of Gaddafi’s onslaught in Benghazi, Libya.
I feel trepidation mixing politics and Torah. ‘Shivim panim l’Torah’, our tradition teaches us, ‘seventy faces to the Torah’. The Torah is a multifaceted and eternally lustrous diamond. Blocking out its natural iridescence in favour of one set of opinions is dishonest at best and dangerous at worst.

Yet silence in the face of tragedy or travesty is immoral. And keeping quiet reduces the wisdom our tradition can offer during momentous times. The challenge is to give Torah a voice. A voice that makes our tradition contemporary and concerned for the world but that is also pluralist and self-aware. A voice that speaks with authority derived from justice.

In this week’s parasha, Moses embodies that very voice.  Va-Yakhel Moshe et kol adat b’nei Yisrael,  ‘And Moses assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel’ (Exod. 35:1). At first glance, this opening line seems unremarkable. There are numerous times in the Torah when Moses relays God’s commandments, assembles the people, and addresses them. Yet, when examined more closely and in context, this verse grants us insights into a world aflame.

These last few parashiyot have rocked the fundamentals of our understanding of covenantal community and its leaders. In Tetzaveh, Moses was not mentioned altogether; it was his brother Aaron who stepped into the limelight as the High Priest. In Ki Tissa, Aaron makes a crucial error in judgement when he allows the children of Israel to build their golden calf. At the same time, Moses is profoundly challenged as he loses his temper with the idolatrous Israelites and smashes the tablets of the Law, not long after he was pleading with God on behalf of these Israelites.

It is not only the leaders who are torn and tested. Our sequence of events, like many dynamic social changes, starts off idealistic. In parashat Terumah, God commands the Israelites to donate generously to the Sanctuary (Exod. 25:1). But in Tetzaveh, God commands Moses brusquely with the rare use of ve-ata tetzaveh, ‘and you shall command the children of Israel’ (Exod. 27:20). Like in Terumah, the Israelites are put to work building the tabernacle. The narrative shifts towards the ostentatious description of the priestly vestments, only to shift back to the narrative of involuntary taxation in Ki Tissa when the half-shekel is collected. The message seems clear: perhaps the people are used to serve Moses and Aaron and their theocratic ideals. Is it small wonder that they build the golden calf?

In parashat Ki Tissa, we experience the fallout of the political hegemony established by the sibling-leaders. Va-yikkahel ha-am al Aharon – ‘And the people assembled against Aaron’ (Exod. 32:1). The same verb, koph-heh-lamed, ‘to assemble’, is used in this week’s parasha. The difference, however, is small but significant. When the people assembled to force Aaron to build them their idol, they gathered against Aaron, as illustrated by the Hebrew preposition, al. Their unity was not ‘for the sake of Heaven’, or for a lofty cause. It was driven by fearful and idolatrous impulses. It was the take-over by a mob. The Torah does not fail to recount the terrible consequences: the breaking of the tablets of the Law, and worse yet, the slaughter of three thousand people by overzealous Levites: a political act one could construe as ‘counter revolutionary’. Never would the relationship between the Divine and the people be the same again.

Yet there seems to be a tikkun, a repair, in parashat Va-Yakhel. Moses takes charge: he finally finds his own voice as a political leader and as a mediator. His experiences and shortcomings have tempered him. It is he who assembles the people—peacefully and without ulterior motive. And rather than demanding riches and labour, he gives the people Israel a precious gift: Shabbat, with its promise of dignified rest, free from slavery (Exod. 35:2). The Sanctuary is invested with a deeper meaning, as a place to define sacred time, space and community.

Rashi states that Moses assembled the community on the tenth of Tishrei: Yom Kippur. Rather than the community gathering against its leadership, Moses takes pains to include the entire congregation. Now the people have been forged into a covenant community bound by shared values rather than merely their ethnos. The result is touching: the people give willingly and are empowered with a lev chochmah, a wise heart (Exod. 35:10). Their labour and destiny is no longer a source of alienation but of meaning. Here we glimpse Redemption, where even God learns to relent and where all can find dignity and fulfilment as complete human beings.

‘Poor people gonna rise up, and get their share’, Tracy Chapman continued, urgency mounting in her voice. Yet she concludes hopefully with ‘and finally the tables are starting to turn’.

With our eyes on the events in the Middle East, it is my prayer that the upheavals of the disempowered turn to a vision of peace where each citizen and political leader alike is granted a ‘lev chochmah’, a wise heart. May we all continue to assemble, wherever we find ourselves, to become truly an edah, a global congregation united under the banner of democracy, freedom, peace and equal rights for all.

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.