Thursday, March 7, 2013

I dotting, Inactivity and Inspiration

The process for choosing a leader for the largest faith community in the world has begun in Rome. I would like to think that what would be uppermost in the minds of the selectors is identifying who is the most compassionate, most committed to justice and charity, most devout, tolerant, spiritual, sensitive, wisest, boldest, noblest visionary candidate. I would imagine there are other practical qualities that are being considered seriously, such as something as mundane as management skills for example. This is a good time to think about the role of spiritual and moral leaders of significant faith or values based institutions broadly and for me personally. In particular, beyond vision and guidance how important are management skills to implement the vision and the ability to run a compliant, accountable organisation? How much of a priority is to be still and to contemplate? All of these issues are deemed to be important in the Torah reading this week in the portions Vayakhel-Pekudei[1].

The first conflict is between the priorities of action vs. stillness. Moses has a temple to build and there is great excitement, should this activity pause for the Sabbath rest? A robust argument could be made for action to take priority. Surely, ‘since the temple symbolised God’s presence among the nation, its creation should take precedence over the Sabbath. Perfection (would presumably) lie in action rather than rest. Action seems a much more eloquent witness of faith than merely the absence of work[2]’. This argument is repudiated in God’s command to Moses in the midst of the discussion about the temple that the Sabbath rest must be observed[3]. Lesson one inverts the famous action oriented saying to advise us: “don’t just do something, sit there!”, at least for one day out of seven.

The tension between institution building activity and quiet contemplation plays out in a lovely Midrash that presents it as a conversation between the Sabbath and God. The Sabbath says “Master of the World, you created me from (the time of) the six days of creation and you sanctified me, now you are instructing the Jews about matters of the tabernacle but my name you don’t mention. Perhaps, out of the love Israel has for making the tabernacle they will desecrate me”. Immediately, God turned to her and told Moses to write about the Sabbath in this portion that deals with the work of the tabernacle to show that it’s construction does not override the Sabbath …[4] I take this as a message that while “doing” and building is important, a spiritual endeavour must include an emphasis on retreat and reflection.
While quiet time helps us stay true to ourselves, building institutions is really important and exciting work that occupies many page of the Exodus. After Moses went up on the mountain and was with God for forty days and nights, not even eating or drinking[5] as he received the law and the most amazing revelation at Mt Sinai, he goes on to build a physical building to contain the vision, the relationship with God and the message.
I think Moses would have hoped this could be his focus, but this is not to be. He has the scandal of the Golden calf. What an incredible let down, by the people he was so committed to helping. These were the people who were meant to be on his team. What have they done?! Yet this too is part of leadership, to support the flock and be there for them in their struggles with their human frailties.

Photo by Mrs. L. 
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After the drama of the Golden Calf, Moses deserved a holiday. Instead he threw himself into the construction of the Tabernacle. Yet, another challenging task was still ahead of him, the extremely practical and mundane task of accounting for the donations. Moses is focused on the following bits of information. “the gold of the waving was twenty nine talents, seven hundred and thirty shekels in the holy Shekel[6]The silver of the community numbers was one hundred talents and one thousand seven hundred and seventy five shekels in the holy Shekel. One hundred talents of the silver were used for casting the sockets of the Holy and the sockets of the dividing curtain; one hundred sockets out of one hundred talents, one talent for each socket. And out of The one thousand seven hundred and seventy five [shekels] he made hooks for the pillars, and he covered their tops and banded them…” and on and on it goes.
According to commentary, a bookkeeping error meant that Moses was very worried about a 1775 shekel discrepancy which is the reason for the word “the” in the preceding verse, after that particular bit of expenditure was identified. Moses was elated when this accounting problem was solved[7].

This work is not fulfilling or exciting yet it is required. Like Moses, I embrace it and accept the great importance of doing right and being seen to be doing right. The compliance, governance and audit responsibilities all come with the territory and are part of the sacred work. Once these are attended to, other matters of worship and vision can be realised. This is as true for me as it is for the next pope.

[1] Exodus 35:1-40:38
[2] Abarbanel cited in Leibovitz, New Studies in Shemot Exodus, p.655
[3] Exodus 35:1-3
[4] Midrash Hagadol cited in Torah Shlaima, Vol 23, p.3
[5] Exodus 34:28
[6] Exodus 38:24
[7] Midrash Tanchuma 7

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