Monday, March 5, 2012

Visions and Details

Seeing the forest, not just the trees

I have been thinking a lot about vision lately. It is ten years since I started as a 32 year old, on a journey that has taught children to think differently about Muslims, Jews and others who are different to them in some way. I am deeply grateful for how far we have come and also a little frustrated about what has not yet been achieved. A bit older, now, I am thinking about change and finding the right balance between big picture vision and pragmatism. This question is timely, with the background of the leadership contests in the US Republican primaries and the Australian Labor party. From a religious perspective, four of our Torah readings these weeks are about what I think of as a great ancient change agent, the temporary temple the Israelites used in the desert, the Mishkan or Tabernacle.

Political contenders, vision vs. management?
Bold big picture leadership vs. effective management is one common theme. At the risk of oversimplification, in the US there is the choice between boring reliable Romney who chose “resolute” as the one word to describe himself, who marketing himself as the capable business man who can manage the economy and win the election. He is challenged by Gingrich and Paul with their big wild ideas and passionate Santorum who described himself with the one word “Courageous”. In Australia Prime Minister Gillard, who claims to be an excellent manager of the business of government was challenged for the leadership by the popular big ideas former prime minister Rudd.  

Vision and inspiration are not enough
We are told that the Israelites in the desert were presented with a big vision by God himself and through Moses. ‘I am the God who has dramatically intervened in your plight and freed you from Egyptian slavery’. The deal was that in exchange for loyalty and obedience to God the former slaves would be God’s treasure among the nations of the world, a holy nation[1]! The people enthusiastically accepted the deal, and soon learned that it involved not making any statues. Within a matter of weeks, the Israelites worship a golden calf.

Structures and Institutions
According to one interpretation[2] the construction of a physical structure as a spiritual centre was a response to the people’s need for something tangible to focus on in their worship as seen in their eagerness for a golden calf[3].  It is suggested that it was not part of the original plan, reflected in the statement that  "An altar of earth shall you make for Me, and you shall sacrifice on it… in every place where I record My name, I shall come to you and bless you[4]" It is only after the sin that God seeks a sanctuary[5]. This aligns with the theory that the underlying motive behind the entire institution of the Temple and sacrificial worship was because it had become so widespread among the pagan religions that He could not have expected the Israelites to suddenly adopt a religious system without sacrificial rituals[6].  In this interpretation, the ideals of Sinai, needed find concrete expression in a physical structure about which the Torah goes into minute detail. 3300 years later, those ideas are still going strong. The importance of structures and institutions cannot be overestimated.

Structures infused with meaning  
Of course, the structure must stand for something beyond itself if it is to fulfil its purpose. The Taberancle was essentially about God’s presence with the Israelites. It is introduced with the word, “Vyikchu Li Teruma[7], which literally is about God asking me to bring him an offering, but can also mean, take me, eg. God Himself, through bringing your offerings[8]. The technical aspects of the tabernacle are taught to contain many messages and meanings. The carrying poles always attached to the ark containing the tablets from Sinai are symbols of the applicability of the law in any place[9]. The acacia wood of which the Sanctuary was made is called Shitim in Hebrew which is homiletically linked to the word for foolishness, and taken as “the wood of folly.”  This is symbolic of going beyond the norm, doing something crazy for a good cause[10].

This does not provide me with clear cut guidance. Still as I look forward to the next ten years of work. I need to ensure that we stay focused on the big vision of ensuring that people are valued and respected regardless of what group they are part of. At the same time, I need to attend to the machine of change, policies, marketing, money, and the other bits and pieces of creating a structure in which people can implement a vision.  

[1] Exodus 19:5-6
[2] this view is based on the sources given below. It is far from universal. Seder Eliyahu Rabba 17, states that “being that the Israelites accepted the kingdom of heaven with joy and stated that everything God commands they will do, God immediately told Moses to speak to the Israelites to take an offering to me…” Ramban argues strongly for the temple and its worship being an end in itself. See also for further exploration of the purpose of the tabernacle and its timing 
[3] Liebovitz, N, New Studies in Shemot, p. 459, based on the following sources and others
[4] Exodus 20:21
[5] Seforno to Exodus 24,18, cited in, the fact that in Exodus the instruction for the temple appears before the story of the golden calf is explained by the principle that the Torah is not necessarily chronological
[6] Maimonides in his Guide to the Perplexed (3:32), cited in
[7] Exodus 25:2
[8] Manuscript Commentary on the Torah of the early ones, (Pirush Al Hatorah Lkadmonim), cited in Torah Shlaima vol. 20, p 1, variation of this idea also found in other sources
[9] Samson Raphael Hirsch on Exodus 25:12-15
[10] Rabbi Yosef I Schneerson, in Maamar Baasi Lgani

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