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.