Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
WHAT’S A CUBIT? -- Exodus 37:5
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 JOY OF GIVING -- Exodus 35:5
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.