By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
When it came time for me to decide on a topic for my rabbinic dissertation, the choice was easy. I recognized it early on, when I was yet a first year student at Hebrew Union College. It would be about chapters from the Midrash—the rabbinic teachings of the first millennium—dealing with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
In retrospect, I understand now why that choice was so clear. My experience as a second generation Holocaust survivor had prepared me. As a child growing up in Israel, just about every adult I knew was a Holocaust survivor. Everyone I knew was trying to rebuild his or her life, starting from scratch.
Later, as I grew older, I realized it wasn’t only true for the people I knew personally. It was true for the whole Jewish People—in fact, for the entire world population, Jewish and Gentile like. World War II and its horrors changed us forever. We had witnessed the most terrifying cruelty, the most evil acts ever perpetrated by humanity, and we were no longer the innocent human race we were before.
Reconstructing humanity, rebuilding civilization from the ashes, is no simple matter.
In the Midrash, the Rabbis viewed similarly the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. Jerusalem was the heart of world Jewry. Though Jewish communities existed elsewhere, the Kingdom of Judea was the epicenter of Jewish sovereignty. With that gone, spiritual renewal became crucial if Judaism and the Jewish People were to survive.
Perhaps the wise rabbis, authors of the Midrash, looked to the Exodus from Egypt as their model. The second book of the Torah, Exodus, actually contains two parts: First comes the story of the redemption from Egyptian slavery. But the entire second half of the book takes place afterwards, in the Sinai wilderness. Now its focus is not on the Hebrews as slaves, but rather as free builders of the Tent of Meeting—the Tabernacle—the temporary temple that the Israelites carried with them during their wanderings in the Wilderness. Instructions and blueprints for the Tabernacle are given and repeated in minute detail. In this week’s double portion, Vayak’hel-Pekudei (Ex. 35:1—20:38), the story comes to its conclusion with the assembly and completion of the Tabernacle, replete with the magnificent gold menorah, the Holy Ark of the Covenant, and the splendid tapestries woven with expensive and colorful thread and material.
As slaves, the Israelites were not able to build or structure their own lives. The orders came from Pharaoh and his taskmasters. Everything was dictated: So many bricks per day, so many buildings and storehouses every week, month and year. The kingdom of Egypt was built by slaves, many of whom did not live to see the end of the day in the harsh desert sun. Added to this was the genocide we suffered at Pharaoh’s decree: With every newborn male that was thrown into the Nile, we saw our future swept away by waves of hatred, misery and oppression.
Rebuilding the nation was not going to be easy, but Moses had the wisdom that this project required.
First, Moses gave us hope. Moses reassured us that God had not forgotten us; that the time was coming when God would fulfill the pledge made long ago, to lead us out of slavery and take us—on eagles’ wings—to the Promised Land. With hope rekindled, we found new spirit within us to face the future, no matter how bleak life was at the moment.
Next, Moses gave us faith.
An invisible God is not easy to believe in. All around, people were worshipping idols. Egyptian mythology is filled with fantasy creatures that people actually believed in, half-animal, half-human creatures that led their own lives, detached from humanity, all involved in their own problems and mysteries. These were images of gods and goddesses who required sacrifice—often enough human lives—to appease their insatiable lust for power and pleasure. In fact, Pharaoh himself was a god, which permitted him to do anything he wanted to: he could decree war or peace; he could issue laws and appoint judges to benefit himself or anyone else he wished to favor. He was provider of food and water, shaper of global history. Why, he could even command life and death!
Moses taught the Israelites a different faith. He taught us to believe in a supreme God characterized by justice, compassion and fairness; a God before whom all human beings are equal, and who judges all beings by set rules of what is holy and what is evil. The God that Moses taught us about is not fickle, like those worshipped by the Egyptians, but rather a God of consequences: to each according to his or her own deeds.
Thirdly, along with hope and faith, Moses gave us something to do, presenting us with a project that each individual, big or small, young or old, could participate in. He gave us instructions for a Tabernacle to be built with materials and goods we supplied of our own free will, with everyone contributing of his or her talent, ability and means. Response to this was overwhelming—so much so, the Torah tells us, that the offerings brought forth far exceeded the actual need.
Similarly, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, the rabbis of the first millennium gave us hope again. They taught that the Messiah would restore Jerusalem to its former glory and reassemble our exiled people from all corners of the world. The rabbis reinforced our belief in a God who was supreme to any earthbound ruler, albeit a God whose vision lay far beyond our mortal grasp and understanding.
Like Moses, the rabbis, too, then presented us with a building project. They instructed us to build not one temple, but many tabernacles and temples. They showed us how to construct houses of worship and study that would accompany us along our journeys and which would be our spiritual homes during throughout our wanderings in the Diaspora. They taught us about tikkun olam, encouraging us never to give up hope, never to stop believing, to continue offering our free-will donations and to persist in our endeavors to turn the entire world into a holy dwelling place for God.
Post-Holocaust, today we find ourselves in a similar quandary. With our own eyes we have seen the collapse of mighty empires, with new nations rising and once-oppressed peoples re-asserting their lost identity. In the wake of destruction, hope for a new world order, for world peace, returned.
For the Jews, there is no greater miracle or proof of God’s power than Israel restored, with its heart still beating in our ancient—now-rebuilt—capital, Jerusalem.
But problems persist and abound. Waves of anti-Semitism have been cresting both globally and locally. Israel is again—or perhaps still—under physical, legal and moral attack by its enemies.
Tensions all over the world are rising. Global alliances are falling apart. More countries than ever now possess nuclear power and are intent on developing the means and technology to use it against others. Our fragile environment continues to be eroded by greedy corporations. Affected by climate change, entire regions of the world are reeling from the effects of massive storms, drought and famine, while new plagues and diseases ravage whole populations. And yet people still worship false, corrupt gods of money, lust and power, denying responsibility, believing themselves to be beyond reach, unaccountable for their words or behavior.
Facing enormous problems, it would behoove world leaders today to review the lessons taught by Moses and the ancient Rabbis. Tweeting insults in the middle of the night; denying health benefits to the most vulnerable among us; turning against the stranger, the refugee, the impoverished; returning to past norms of prejudice and persecution—these are not the markers of the path to the Promised Land, but rather back to the dank and miserable past we had left behind.
Moses taught us to have faith in a just and loving God. From the rabbis we learned about tikkun olam. Throughout the ages, we have not lost our hope to see and live in a better world.
These lessons are important to remember especially today, in an age of uncertainty and change, an age when ethics and morality are challenged daily by unbridled greed and corruption. The most important lesson our leaders can internalize today is that a great leader is not recognized by the gold and ivory with which he surrounds himself, but rather by the hope he inspires, and by the unity and purpose he brings to his people. These are the signs of true leadership. These are the signs of a great civilization. May we all benefit from these eternal lessons, so that our nation will truly once again shine as a beacon of hope for the whole world and all its inhabitants.