The Exodus:5 Project
and place the gold altar of incense before the Ark of the Pact. Then put up the screen for the entrance of the Tabernacle. Exodus 40:5
It is not the first time I have been weary to my bone with America. Paul Simon captured the national fatigue in “American Tune” in 1973. I was in college, having barely escaped the draft (lottery number 19) and facing the worst economy in my lifetime just as I needed to look for a job. Richard Nixon was president, irreparably sullied but not yet certain to be impeached. We thought we had reached the end of the dream. High up above my eyes could clearly see the Statue of Liberty sailing away to sea.
A few more years of frustration were followed by Ronald Reagan. I won’t enter the debate about his political philosophy, but there is no denying he brought back the American dream. Maybe it didn’t dawn on me until the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics, when Lionel Richie presided over the Church of Unbridled Joy and the athletes danced arm in arm all night long, but the spirit of America had been restored. It took ten years, but we could be enthused about our country again, enjoying the vibrant debates among people of divergent opinions and convergent values.
And where are we now? It is nearly thirty-five years later and once again when I think of the road we’re traveling on I wonder what’s gone wrong. No one is happy; even the people who believe they are in charge and making decisions can’t go out for sushi without being accosted. People who gather for inspiration in middle America wind up laughing at cruel jokes about yesterday’s heroes. And I think that if it were really possible for the Statue of Liberty to sail away to sea, she would be encouraged to do so.
Is it over? Not by a long shot. When you are as old as I am (OMG, I cannot believe I wrote those words) you have a point of reference for despair. No story worth telling ends in the middle.
The Book of Exodus powers through an inspiring and challenging time in the early history of the Jewish people. The titanic struggle between the adopted prince of Egypt and his oppressive adoptive brother is filled with high drama and great promise. The Israelite people, muted by slavery, find their voice and then use it to complain. Small kindnesses and great miracles populate the narrative. A profound set of instructions on how to live the good life emerges from a barren wilderness. Betrayal, forgiveness, betrayal again and forgiveness again. Heaven and earth touch.
And then, the action stops. The book is overtaken by the excruciating detail of the construction of the Tabernacle. Commentators have spilled oceans of ink finding meaning in hooks and curtains and the counting of cubits but face it – unless you are an architect or a fashion designer, this is really boring stuff. Has the power of the story come to an end?
It sure seems like it. Wading patiently through ephods and fire-pans, we finally come to the denouement of the book: put up a screen at the entrance. The end. Strength, strength and more strength.
Is it over? Not by a long shot. The tone of the Torah changes in each of the three books ahead, the drama returns, and what seemed like a comprehensive moral code in Exodus is expanded to a global mandate of peace and righteousness in upcoming sections of the upcoming books.
That screen sure feels like an anticlimax. It is not much of a payoff, kind of like the shambles our government was in during the 1970s or 2018. I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered, don’t have a friend that feels at ease. Who will lead us out of this morass and lift the dreamers from their knees?
I can feel 65-year-old Jack Moline shouting back across an adult lifetime to 21-year-old Jack Moline not to give up. What lies behind the screen is fulfillment, good times, renewal and inspiration. Right now, tomorrow’s just another working day and I’m trying to get some rest. But soon, we will rejoice. All night long.
This column concludes the Exodus:5 Project. Thanks for sticking with me. I am taking a few weeks off before I start these weekly columns again, but it doesn’t mean you won’t hear from me. Meanwhile, look ahead to the Leviticus:8 Project, coming soon to an inbox and Facebook page near you.
WHEN THINGS MAKE NO SENSE
The Exodus:5 Project
The decorated band that was upon [the ephod] was made like it, of one piece with it; of gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen—as the LORD had commanded Moses. Exodus 39:5
Especially when discussing technology, I often find myself saying to someone, “I know the meaning of every word you just said, but I do not understand a thing about how they fit together.” Actually, that is mostly true. As often as not, the most confusing part is a word I think I ought to know, like “transmogrifier,” without which I am without hope of connecting the rest of the vocabulary.
I sometimes feel the same way when reading the Bible, including the occasional what-the-heck-is-that word. The technical details of constructing the Tabernacle and outfitting the priests are filled with familiar words like “gold” and “crimson” and “linen,” but figuring out how they fit together has always been a challenge for me. Throw in a word like “ephod” and I go running to picture books drawn by people who believe Aaron the High Priest was the ancestor of Santa Claus.
Occasionally, I am the one who possesses the secret language. The cubical leather boxes containing hand-lettered parchments with Biblical verses on them that attach to arm and head with leather straps that I wear to pray are called “tefillin.” If you don’t know what “tefillin” are, then the description in the preceding sentence needs a lot of unpacking. And if I tell you that the translation of “tefillin” is “phylacteries,” that helps not at all.
I learned this lesson long ago and far away in a study circle I joined with local evangelical Christian clergy. We were talking one morning about our daily prayer ritual. One pastor greeted the Lord from his bay window upon arising. One opened his Bible to a random page, plunked down his index finger and reflected on whichever verse was underneath it. The rabbi (me) said, “Well, first I tie myself up in leather straps…” I wasn’t invited back after that.
There is not necessarily an arbitrary nature to the meaning of words in specialized circumstances, but it can sure feel that way. The usual quotation invoked when discussing these matters is what Humpty Dumpty said to Alice who was in Wonderland (and why should I be different?): “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” The speaker who chooses a word, a phrase or an oration declares what she or he chooses. It is the rare (and unusually secure) listener who does not pretend to know just what the word has been chosen to mean.
In my professional life, the current version of transmogrifier, ephod and tefillin is the term “religious liberty.” It is bandied about as if it were as self-evident as the unalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence. In fact, it is used with conflicting meanings, depending on who is speaking. Its Constitutional meaning, in my humble and somewhat educated opinion, is that the right of religious conscience is guaranteed. Those beliefs and practices which make up my faith (or lack thereof) may not be outlawed or constrained (or, conversely, enacted or promoted) by the government compared to others.
But in its political usage by some segments of our citizenry – most of them to the far right of their own faith traditions – insists that nothing can constrain the free exercise of deeply held religious beliefs. Religious liberty, they claim, protects the imposition of legalities and precedents on anyone who objects to them. I am a jeweler who will not sell wedding bands to a couple whose nuptials do not fit my idea of a marriage. I am a real estate broker who will not show a home to a family whose cultural preferences do not fit the character of the neighborhood. I am a taxpayer who does not want my income supporting medical procedures I would not allow women in my community to undergo. And I claim these exemptions based on the very first freedom in the Bill of Rights: religious liberty. It trumps (small “t”) the rule of law.
I know the meaning of every word in these arguments, but I do not understand how they fit together. By reinterpreting a term that sounds so official, the specious representations begin to sound reasonable. By isolating the examples of genuinely nice people who are bakers or florists or county clerks agonizing over the choice between fidelity to their personal beliefs and the requirements of the laws that the rest of us are duty-bound to obey, the overlay put upon the ephod of the Bill of Rights looks just like original material.
But don’t be transmogrified. When things make no sense, there is usually a pretty good reason.
The Exodus:5 Project
He cast four rings, at the four corners of the copper grating, as holders for the poles. Exodus 38:5
Among the great delights of my free time is the opportunity to put something together. Over many years and many visits to Ikea and other assemble-it-yourself purveyors I have discovered deep satisfaction in laying out a seemingly random assortment of parts both large and small and putting them together with screwdrivers, pliers, hammers and impossibly small Allen wrenches.
The biggest problem I have with such projects is resisting the impulse I share with lots of men I know. I would rather eyeball everything and try to figure out how it all goes together than read the actual directions. If you are someone who struggles with this affliction, please learn from my experience. Read the actual directions.
Some manufacturers include extra material in the kits they sell. I have many odd-sized nuts, bolts, screws and braces (and a generous handful of tiny brads) left over from my assembly projects. I save them all because…you never know. In forty-plus years of salvaging serrated wood plugs and proprietary locknuts, I am grateful that once or twice my hoarding has been vindicated.
But every now and then, I finish a project (like the barbecue grill I built in time for Passover one year) and there remains a piece too large and distinctive to be a just-in-case addition from the company. Maybe you know the feeling when you reach the next-to-last step and a large piece of metal or a brass hinge or a tightly coiled spring is looking at you accusingly, silently taunting you about the imminent collapse of that wardrobe or about the lid that will slam shut on your fingers or head.
Nothing in these kits is incidental, including the occasional spare peg or wood screw. In order for the finished product to function as intended (and maybe at all) everything must be in its place.
The Ark of the Covenant was outfitted with rings, two on each long side near the corner, into which the crafted poles were to be inserted. Designated Levites could then lift the ark like a bride hoisted at a wedding feast in order to carry it to its next destination. Without every ring fastened securely and identically in the specified place, the ark could fall – a calamity, according to the tradition – or a fast-thinking Levite would reach out to steady it – a scenario played out to fatal results in the time of King David.
I have some understanding, I think, of the haphazard way our government seems to be lurching among policies these days. The people in charge, who are enthusiastic but inexperienced, see the pieces laid out in front of them and hold a picture of the finished product in their minds. But they are loathe to follow any established protocol. There are too many extra pieces, they believe, and they trust their instincts to compensate for their novice status. Why do we need so many foreign service members? Why can’t we combine entire departments with similar missions (like Labor and Education – after all, all they do is train people to work [I am not making this up])? And if we know the outcome of an immigration hearing before it begins, why go through the motions at all?
Instead of using those cumbersome and uncomfortable little wrenches, a hammer and some leftover nails will secure the pieces together. If it was someone’s ingenuity that put the thing together to begin with, let’s use the ingenuity that made America great before to make America great again. After all, we know what we want, don’t we?
You may think I am lampooning the way pieces of government (and culture) are being discarded or placed in the drawer with the leftover locknuts. I am not. I may be critical of the way things are, and I may sprain my eyes from rolling them so frequently at the lack of both procedural and Constitutional literacy, but I take these times in with deadly seriousness. Not every civil servant or policy may be singularly necessary to a functional government, but you don’t want to be looking at something you thought wasn’t necessary after you discover that without it you are left with a cageful of motherless children.
Pay attention, please. You won’t balance a television on a cabinet that was built sort-of to spec, and you shouldn’t balance a budget with a cabinet that was chosen sort-of to spec. Every piece is there for a reason. Every department. Every policy. Every civil servant. Every political appointee.
Oh, and every vote.
The Exodus:5 Project
He made a cover of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. Exodus 37:5
At exactly what point does fruit become poisoned?
When the Second World War came to an end, the victors were confronted with an agonizing dilemma. The Nazis pursued scientific knowledge with intensity. Much of the “research” they did was to justify the warped notions of human genetic hierarchy that formed the underpinning of Aryan racialism. A particularly perverted subset was pursued by researchers with dubious credentials among the captive and disposable populations in the concentration camps. Most notorious of these “doctors and professors” was Joseph Mengele who perpetrated unconscionable experiments on children and adults, especially identical twins.
The medical value of those efforts has since proven to be negligible, but until it was, “pure scientists” who considered the pursuit of knowledge as an end wondered about making use of the tainted results to mine them for their usefulness.
They faced a more intense pushback than the defense and space research establishments that snapped up the scientists who developed the Third Reich’s rocket power and used it to inflict misery on the Allies, especially England. The dilemma was captured for the popular imagination by the satirical song by Tom Lehrer, “Werner von Braun” in which Lehrer imagines the rocket scientist saying he is “not hypocritical,” rather “just apolitical” in switching his allegiance to America…and then maybe China.
Our current dilemma about poisoned fruit is a result of the long-overdue #MeToo movement. Men who are titans of their fields – entertainment, sports, technology, finance and, of course, government – have been revealed to be misogynistic abusers. In some cases, their exploitation of power to assault women (or younger men) clearly calls into question the worth of their accomplishments. An actor whose ability to secure a role was dependent on the casting couch (or shower) calls into question the project itself and the wealth generated for the perp. The organization that oversees Olympic training for athletes tarnishes gold, silver and bronze by enabling the abuse of a pedophile in the name of medical procedures. And (once again) of course, an elected official whose misconduct toward women is a matter of public record ought not to be given free rein to decide or even recommend policies that encroach on a woman’s autonomy in determining medical care.
What happens to genius likely unconnected to later transgression? I cannot hear or read the word “cubit” without thinking of one of the great comedy bits of all time. Bill Cosby, when he was a struggling young comedian without supplies of drugs and females to exploit, wrote and performed “Noah,” a quick and brilliant retelling of the story of the Flood. It is filled with quotable lines – “voopah, voopah,” “only two, only two,” “who is this really?” and, to my point, “what’s a cubit?”
For years, I was able to make use of Cosby’s routine to illustrate for students the process (if not the result) of midrash, the very close reading text with an eye toward interpretation that makes up so much of Jewish tradition. Cosby is no scholar of the Bible, but he hit on exactly the kinds of questions a human being might have in trying to suss out actual or hidden meanings. Including “what’s a cubit?”
Is the early work product separate from the later moral decay? Does criminal activity irreversibly taint every aspect of the criminal’s life? Is transgression retroactive, as if the seed of misconduct had been planted and germinated before it came to sprout…and bear poison fruit?
I have no answer, but it is not about sexual abuse alone. Otto Kerner was one of a long parade of Illinois governors to wind up in jail, but not before he chaired an investigation that cast a spotlight on institutionalized racism in America. H.L. Mencken was an insightful critic, but his private diaries revealed an unmistakable and deeply-rooted prejudice against Jews. And can I drive a Ford or a Volkswagen? (I still marvel at the WWII veteran who framed the Purple Heart license plate on his Toyota with “proud to have served in the Pacific theater.”)
Extreme examples, or those that resonate with current events, may feel easier. But what do we say to people inside our community who will not interact with advocates for the Palestinian cause, or to Muslims who will not interact with any Jew who professes any form of Zionism – and not just on matters related to the Middle East?
This is a very difficult question, and I distrust any easy or even categorical answer. This much is true: the imposition of suffering or indignity on another human being is a permanent taint on any benefit that emerges from it. Figuring out what to do is a journey of many cubits and overlaying it with gold is not the answer.
TOO MUCH IS NOT ENOUGH
The Exodus:5 Project
They said to Moses, “The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the LORD has commanded to be done.” Exodus 36:5
Every clergy person who is called upon to speak on this verse will make the same joke: if ever there were evidence that the Bible isn’t true, it is Exodus 36:5 – “the people are giving more than is needed.” (When the laughter subsides, generally very quickly, the congregation starts a-squirmin’ because they know they are about to be asked to contribute to the capital campaign.)
There is a better use for these words in this day and age, and I never understood it quite the way I do now that I am responsible for the operation of a small non-profit. And here is how it hit home most recently.
I was invited to a screening of a new documentary produced by a non-profit that enjoys tremendous support for its humanitarian work, deservedly so. The documentary was well done even if it is a bit more than hagiographic in its treatment of its subject. Before the first scene appeared on the screen, credits rolled listing the contributors to the production. Dozens of people were acknowledged for contributions of over $100,000. A smaller number contributed $250,000. One donor gave a million dollars. A few donors and funds seem to have given more than that. I was, frankly, jealous.
Look, it takes a lot of money to make a movie, especially one with such admirable production value. Arguably, it is a story that is important to tell. Whoever secured the funding had a great pitch, persuading very wealthy people to be a part of an admirable project.
But the people brought more than was needed for the tasks entailed. Regardless of the destinations, hundreds of groups focused on human dignity (the essential value of the documentary’s subject) could have accomplished so much more if the film were less lavish, the screening in a less prestigious location, the aim (an Oscar) a little lower because those charitable funds went to the less-glamorous work of stuffing envelopes, organizing communities and challenging the undignified occupants of some of the highest offices in government, business and, well, filmmaking.
I am not a saint with people who offer us gifts that are more than generous (not a very usual experience). But I like to tell people who mention to me that they give to major and high-profile organizations that they can have more impact by supporting niche organizations that struggle to meet payroll but get more bang for the buck. The current malfunction of the executive branch’s moral compass has created a windfall for groups whose legal staff files lawsuits and who airlift supporters to demonstrate in DC or confer with foreign dignitaries – all very, very good work. I contribute my own funds to some of them. I also know the essential work of smaller non-profits (not just my own) that is frustrated because of lack of immediate resources.
I have made this argument before and it did not make me very popular. When the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was initiated, I was alarmed at the amount of money that was collected for its construction and operation. I most certainly did not object to Holocaust education nor to paying tribute to the vital holy communities that were lost to the Nazis. But Jewish education in general was woefully underfunded at the time, and the cost of providing children with quality learning, cultural literacy, camping and informal education has only gone up in the intervening generation. The money brought to the Museum is not squandered, but the people brought more than was needed.
The lesson of this verse from Exodus is not the set-up of a punchline. It is an instruction about triage. The people who constructed the tabernacle, which was as opulent as a pop-up could get, understood its specific instructions to be both minimum and maximum. The project captured the imaginations of the donors and inspired them to be generous beyond expectation. But the project managers set an example, too infrequently followed, to see every project of the community as part of the whole. No matter how holy, or heart-rending, or high profile, or hyped, the physical and philosophical ventures we undertake should be considered comprehensively. Every leader should know not only how to plead when there is too little, but how to determine when there is too much.
I could end right there, but I will risk violating my own advice in this context. In the United States right now, the “too-much” syndrome is being encouraged from the top. Money is part of it, of course, but not the whole of it. In large-scale efforts such as reducing the size of government to policy initiatives such as addressing immigration to matters of personal character such as dignity and respect, those in power have encouraged their supporters to bring too much. If we find it objectionable, as I hope you do, then I commend setting a better example rather than responding in kind.
The Exodus:5 Project
Take from among you gifts to the LORD; everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them—gifts for the LORD: gold, silver, and copper Exodus 35:5
The best birthday gift I ever received was from my family on my sixtieth birthday. I really have been blessed with everything I wanted in life, so when they asked me what I wanted for that significant milestone, I told them I wanted to be a philanthropist. After we talked about it some, they surprised me with a small fund, a checkbook, and a web site and logo (designed by my son). It is called The Sixty Fund and the logo is the Hebrew letter samekh, which has the numerical value of sixty. As I explain on the web site, it is also the first letter in the word somekh meaning “lift up” or “uphold.”
I got to define the terms of The Sixty Fund. I decided to offer a letter of commendation, a certificate and a check for $18 to individuals who exhibit wisdom, compassion, courage or generosity and might not otherwise be recognized for it. As awards go, $18 is not very much. Then again, our family resources do not allow me to have a substantial depth of resources.
The web site is easy to find, especially if you are reading this column my web page (you can reach it from the home page). Or, you can click on this link. There you will find the stories of people who inspired me – the school secretary who talked a shooter out of his gun, the two water-company employees who spent all night opening a frozen valve that averted a water shut-off during the hottest time of the summer, the couple who served their daughter’s canceled wedding dinner to the homeless, the garbageman who searched the dump for a stranger’s lost wedding ring.
The fact is that lots of people do not cash the checks I send them. In fact, I do not know if some of them ever reach their intended recipients. It does not matter to me in the least. I never feel so good as when I can acknowledge the act of righteousness that elevates a corner of humanity just a little bit.
When I talk with people about it, I call it microphilanthropy. Nobody will get rich on my affirmation of their goodness, but I hope that by letting them know that someone is paying attention they will encourage others to follow their fine examples.
Occasionally, someone will ask if they can make a contribution to The Sixty Fund. I always turn them down. First of all, the fund is not incorporated or in any other way in conformance with the tax code for charitable giving. It’s just my money. If they contribute, it is income and I have to pay taxes on it…more than $18 for any meaningful gift.
Plus, I tell them (and now tell you), you can do this, too. Maybe your priorities are not the same as mine. There are heroes in every realm out there volunteering their expertise, loving a neighbor as themselves, showing profound respect to the aged, clothing the naked, putting books in the hands of hungry readers or food in the mouths of hungry children. Your gift does not prompt their efforts; it rewards the unprompted decency that makes this a kinder, gentler world. We certainly need practitioners of kindness these days, especially in this country.
The verse that frames this brief essay is about collecting contributions for the construction of the Tabernacle. The gifts are to be voluntary – not a tax or levy, like so many requirements in the Bible. Moses is instructed to find people whose hearts are moved to give to build something that does not yet exist. That’s an admirable thing to do, as anyone who has ever participated in a capital campaign can tell you.
But I have discovered that at least as often as the heart is moved to give, the gift instead moves the heart. A gift to build is an expression of hope. A gift to acknowledge is an expression of gratitude. Each elevates in a particular way, one motivated externally and the other, to my satisfaction, internally.
Sometimes I wonder if the gratification I get out of my small gifts is more for my benefit than the recipients’. In the end, I don’t think it matters. Their hearts moved them already, and I am proud to bring the gift.
The Exodus:5 Project
The LORD came down in a cloud; He stood with him there and proclaimed the name LORD. Exodus 34:5
It is the rare person who is able to overcome the early impressions of his or her upbringing. Our researchers have shown the impact of families in which substance abuse, violence or bullying is part of a parent’s behavior; much against promises to themselves, children have a proclivity to imitate what they know. Similarly, children who are taught by example to love and respect others are more likely to replay what has been modeled. Of course, it is not the case that each of us is cloned from our forebears. However, often the most pronounced qualities in a parent show up in a kid.
We have all sorts of idioms and clichés that validate these notions. The apple does not fall far from the tree. He’s a chip off the old block. Like mother, like daughter. And despite the admonitions to the contrary from the Bible forward, children are indeed held responsible for the sins of their parents.
To be sure there are parents who expect to be validated through their children. But I believe that mostly parents hope that their children will be better versions of themselves. I know how much satisfaction I take in the accomplishments of my kids on their own terms and how much gratitude I have to see them integrate their gifts and values into a whole life with greater skill than their father.
I also know that I can watch my adult children and have better knowledge of what I have modeled for them than I might have intended when they were an idea and not a reality.
This past year I had the opportunity to be a part a project that was initiated by my daughter’s workplace. I was given some minor responsibility for the project and then told who would be supervising me. It was that same daughter. I suggested to her that the line of authority would be better served if she called me by my name during meetings than if she showed me the deference and respect of referring to me as she always does, as Abba.
It has been very satisfying to watch her skills and wisdom on display. It has been instructive to return to the family dynamic when we are out of the workplace. I don’t know how things would play out if we had a serious disagreement in one realm or the other (I am certain that there are family businesses that face this all the time), but there is no getting past the generational hierarchy when we are family.
When listening to a podcast the other day, I heard an author suggest that God created the first human being because God was lonely. It is not a new idea, even if the riff was that Adam was no cure for God’s loneliness. It spurred me to consider, however, that the Holy One may have made a rookie mistake. That first human being (and the rest of us) was created in the image of God. And if even a part of the motivator was loneliness, then being lonely was also part of the image of God. Seeking to create a child who would do better, God nevertheless had to have embedded loneliness in the make-up of the earthling. Seeing the divine image in another for the first time, God realized – and said – it is not good for a person to be alone.
Adam could not cure God’s loneliness, and neither could the generations that followed, even the women and men willing to engage directly, if such a thing is possible. Some followed a call, some pleaded for a favor, some sang sweet songs and some offered devotional gifts. But God was always God, never a friend or coworker or partner.
At least once more, however, God tried. Who was a better candidate to assuage God’s loneliness than Moses? Moses noticed the lonely God in the wilderness in the middle of a burning bush. He allowed himself to be ordered and cajoled into the mission of liberation. He climbed the mountain to hear God’s instruction and he was prepared to recarve the tablets and teach the liberated slaves.
So God came down in a cloud; God stood with Moses there and proclaimed the sacred name.
Call me by my name, God asked of his lonely servant.
The rest, I think, is commentary.
The Exodus:5 Project
The LORD said to Moses, “Say to the Israelite people, ‘You are a stiffnecked people. If I were to go in your midst for one moment, I would destroy you. Now, then, leave off your finery, and I will consider what to do to you.’” Exodus 33:5
There is a remarkable school just outside of Tel Aviv called the Shenkar Institute, a university-level school of engineering and design. I have mentioned it in other places, but I highlight it again because I have been surprised at the role fashion plays in this book of the Torah. When I say fashion, I do not mean couture, of course, but the clothes people wear and what it says about them. And Shenkar has placed itself at the intersection of cutting-edge technology and how design expresses our values and tastes.
My wife and I visited the campus some years ago and saw some of these projects in development. One of Israel’s daily newspapers had commissioned a competition to created furniture out of recycled newsprint. Some students had been assigned to imagine a household product and develop packaging and a marketing strategy for it. On that particular day, graduating students were showing their final projects – wedding gowns that were to reflect a past moment in Jewish history – to a panel of professional fashion designers. And the remarkable president of the institute, Yuli Tamir, showed us a textile that had been grown from bacteria. (Don’t say eww; it was both beautiful and astonishing.)
Those of us of the male persuasion sometimes roll our eyes at the different focus many of the women in our lives have on clothing. I will suggest that it is a matter of degree, not substance. How we dress, why we dress how we dress, and how we decide why we dress how we dress (got all that?) communicates as much about ourselves to the world around us as any other choice we make. Clothing (and the right accessories) includes an element of the aesthetic, larger or smaller, but it also makes important statements about how comfortable we are in our bodies, what we intend to accomplish when dressed as we are and which other people we declare to be our cohort. Clothing can make a statement of our uniqueness, of imitation or of a desire to disappear into the crowd or the landscape.
Of course, some clothing choices are not personal. Military personnel, medical practitioners, responders, sports team members and even fast-food employees wear outfits we call uniforms because they are designed to convey skill or authority, but not really individuality. The clothing is chosen specifically to represent a role that the person plays.
Or, the depersonalization of clothing may have the purpose of depersonalizing the individual. Inmates in jails and prisons have sacrificed their opportunity to self-expression through clothing. In fact, the stripes or bright colors or larger letters “INMATE” on their clothing are specifically to place the imposed identity of criminal on them ahead of any other aspect. There is a presumption of how someone in such a uniform may be treated, and especially if person wearing those clothes is outside the place of confinement.
The Exodus:5 Project
When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron announced: “Tomorrow shall be a festival of the LORD!” Exodus 32:5
Perjury is a legal term for lying under oath. Because such an act takes place during legal proceedings, it is logical that the word and its behavior have been carefully picked apart by the people who are concerned with such things: lawyers and judges.
Suppose a man was on trial for murder, the victim having been shot four times. If the examining attorney said to him, “Did you put four bullets in the deceased?” and the perp knows something the lawyer doesn’t – someone else shot one of the bullets – is it perjury to answer “no?” No.
It could be that the prosecutor needs to prepare better. But it is also the case that careful examination of testimony in criminal and civil cases is the hallmark of an honest legal system. Though the rigid application of the specifics of the law may result in failings in the pursuit of justice in one or another case, such missteps (ideally) serve to hone the law to prevent such shortcomings (ideally) in future applications.
The problem with the perjury standard in legal proceedings is this: life is not a legal proceeding. The person who crafts his or her words to carefully mislead with malice aforethought may or may not be legally innocent but is an absolute scoundrel.
And our national discourse is filled with absolute scoundrels these days. They stand on the podium in the press room. They make the rounds of the talk shows, serious and satirical. They occupy the offices of secretaries and under-secretaries. They tweet. They make things up and sprinkle the dust of credibility on them so that when presented with the evidence of their fabrication they can scream “fake!”
Martin Short plays a character named Nathan Thurm, a nervous liar who challenges everything said to him and eventually pleads to the camera, “Is it me or is it him? It’s him, right?” Bart Simpson made his early reputation denying responsibility for every mishap with an automatic “I didn’t do it.” And then there is Aaron.
Jewish tradition has nothing but kind things to say about Aaron. Yet, the drama surrounding the Golden Calf was most certainly a failure of integrity on his part. Here he is on record declaring what is most certainly transgressive – Tomorrow will be a festival of the Lord! But when he is called on the mayhem that occurred on his watch, like the murderer who sees a loophole in the poorly-worded question, he gives the unmistakable impression that it was them, it wasn’t me. I didn’t do it.
Aaron has many defenders among the commentators and the contemporary faithful. But there is no getting around the fact that he lied. It wasn’t exactly perjury, but it was most definitely not the truth.
Handed the responsibility to maintain the blamelessness of the people through expiatory rituals, you might think Aaron is suddenly and permanently disqualified. If, on the other hand, you believe in second chances, it is worth remembering that Aaron remains blameless for the rest of his life, even when he might have been excused for reacting badly to the untimely deaths of sons and tribesmen. Perhaps this new path qualifies him in the hearts of our people for a do-over on his truthfulness despite the incident with the Calf.
But our contemporary scoundrels seem emboldened by what they can get away with. As surely as we have a record of Aaron saying, “Tomorrow will be a festival of the Lord,” we have audio recordings, video in wide distribution, eye-witnesses and victims, all of which attest to deceit at worst, obfuscation at best. But they tut-tut their accusers, deny the record and insist with practiced umbrage, “it was them, it wasn’t me; I didn’t do it.”
I admit to a soft spot in my heart for the defenders of Aaron. They wish to see the good in him and the best about him. They practice on him what he practiced toward others, to always give them the benefit of the doubt. If a single massive transgression had a purifying effect on Aaron’s honesty, I can even understand how some even deflect Aaron’s guiltiness by claiming he was trying to diffuse a time fraught with anxiety.
But among our modern-day prevaricators and their supports there is no benefit due. The lies are intentional, often cruel and always delivered with self-righteous arrogance. And because, to this point, most of the lies go without significant challenge, it has set the standard for a nation.
An entire generation had to pass before Aaron’s lie was no longer personal memory. Let us hope that despite these years of marinating in the constant flow of lies and “alternate facts” we find our way back to integrity.
The Exodus:5 Project
to cut stones for setting and to carve wood—to work in every kind of craft. Exodus 31:5
Fifty years ago, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the next-to-last public address of his life in Memphis. Speaking to members of the local union of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, he sought to lift them up in a city that weighed them down. The sanitation workers in particular heard themselves compared to doctors, probably for the first time. Without them, Dr. King said, disease would run rampant and doctors would be too overwhelmed to do their jobs.
But it was not just the garbage collectors who received praise. Here is what else Dr. King said:
So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs. But let me say to you tonight that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth…All labor has worth.
In the various debates we have about jobs in this country, we often overlook the importance of work. The ability to master a job of any kind and perform it well is as important as receiving fair compensation for doing that job.
Twenty-five years after Dr King’s speech, I entered a friendly debate with a friend who worked in the White House. President Clinton had added requirements to welfare that included the expectation that recipients would work. I had referred to it as the dismantling of the safety net. My friend insisted otherwise. “The way a person determines his or her worth is by work. It goes back to the very beginning of Genesis, when Adam overcomes his sin by the sweat of his brow. What we are doing for those who are able is not just giving them the resources to survive, but dignity in their own eyes and in the eyes of society.” I was persuaded. (He made me write it down and sign it.)
Since that time, I have noticed more and more the truth of both teachings. The feel-good show with the hokey premise, “Undercover Boss,” highlights the individual employees of franchise corporations who master a small part of a large operation. Managers, wait staff, exterminators, janitors, parking lot attendants are all shown attempting to teach the CEO (in a disguise) how to earn what is often a subsistence wage. The six-figure salary of the boss is not an indicator of the skill necessary to take a fast-food order fast or pack a box securely. Some of these bosses look like Lucy and Ethel on the bonbon assembly line. Inevitably, the boss confesses admiration for the employee and makes a big show of a big reward that helps the struggling employee achieve a dream.
I have seen the pride of chambermaids with limited English in hotels they cannot afford to stay at. I have benefited from the skills of the mechanic who cannot afford a car payment as he keeps my automobile running smoothly. The orderlies in the hospital wade into bodily effluence and clean it up quickly enough to avoid both infection and embarrassment. The taxi driver’s knowledge of the roads, the landscaper’s sculpting of a hedge, the security guard’s polite concern when a stranger arrives for an appointment – this is the dignity of labor.
It is that dignity, that sense of worth that people seek when they come to the United States. Whether they come as they should, with permission, or as they should not, by stealth, overwhelmingly they are seeking to do something well and to earn what they need to provide for themselves and others. Almost none of them come here with malice aforethought or looking to initiate a criminal enterprise. They arrive instead with the belief that work in every kind of craft has worth, dignity or, as the Bible might suggest, holiness.
Some folks whose work experience involves manipulating other people’s wealth pay lip service to jobs and look down from their towers at the poor and displaced. They do not understand the value of work, seeking to deny compensation to those who cannot meet the invented standard of an incompetent boss. It is no wonder that, despite their finessed wealth, they are regarded as undignified and without real worth. As the Dixie Chicks lamented about today’s country music, “they’ve got money, but they don’t have Cash.”
But at least once a generation it is worth reminding ourselves of the dignity of labor, and that all labor has worth. It all serves humanity and is for the building of humanity and must therefore be honored and respected – especially because of the holiness of every set of hands set to it.