This week's sedra and those that follow it to the end of the book of Exodus, describe the great collective project of the Israelites in the desert: building a mikdash, a portable Sanctuary, that would serve as the visible home of the Divine presence. It was the first collective house of worship in the history of Israel.
The opening command, however, emphasizes an unusual dimension of the project:
G-d spoke to Moses saying: "Speak to the Israelites and have them bring Me an offering. Take My offering from everyone whose heart impels him to give . . . They shall make me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell among them." (Ex. 25: 1-2, 8)
The emphasis is on the voluntary nature of the gifts. Why so? The Sanctuary and its service were overwhelmingly compulsory, not voluntary. The regular offerings were minutely prescribed. So too were the contributions. Everyone had to give a half-shekel for the silver sockets needed for the building, and another half-shekel annually for the sacrifices. The Sanctuary itself was the pre-eminent domain of the holy, and the holy is where G-d's will rules, not ours. Why then was the Sanctuary specifically to be built through voluntary donations?
There are some biblical passages whose meaning becomes clear only in hindsight, and this is one. To understand this week's sedra we have to move forward almost five hundred years, to the time when King Solomon built the Temple. The story is one of the most ironic in Tanakh.
Our initial impression of Solomon is that he was a supremely wise king. He had asked G-d for wisdom, and was granted it in abundance:
G-d gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and the breadth of his understanding was measureless as is the sand on the sea shore. (I Kings 4: 29)
During Solomon's reign, Israel reached its greatest heights, economic and politically. The building of the Temple was itself seen by the Bible as the completion of the exodus from Egypt. Unusually the text tells us the date of the project, not only in terms of years of the king's reign, but also in terms of the exodus:
In the 480th year after the Israelites had come out of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon's reign . . . he began to build the Temple of the Lord. (I Kings 6: 1)
The reference to the exodus is striking and deliberate. It reminds us of the phrase Moses used to the Israelites as they were about to enter the land:
Now you have not yet come to the resting place and the inheritance that the Lord your G-d is giving you. (Deuteronomy 12: 9)
The classic commentators take this to be a reference to Jerusalem and the Temple. Thus Solomon's project brought the narrative of the exodus to closure. It was the last chapter in a long story.
Yet ultimately, and significantly, Solomon failed as a king. After his death the kingdom divided. The ten northern tribes seceded from Solomon's son Rehoboam, and formed their own kingdom under the rebel Jeroboam. This was the critical turning-point in biblical history. Weakened by division, it could only be a matter of time before both kingdoms eventually fell to neighbouring empires, and so it happened.
The real question is not, why did Jeroboam rebel? Politics is full of such events. It is: how was he able to do so and succeed? Coups d'etat do not happen when a nation is flourishing, successful and at peace. Israel was all these things in Solomon's reign. How then was Jeroboam able to mount a coup, with real expectation of success?
The answer lies in the impact the building of the Temple had on the people. We are told:
King Solomon conscripted labourers from all Israel - thirty thousand men. He sent them off to Lebanon in shifts of ten thousand a month, so that they spent one month in Lebanon and two months at home. Adoniram was in charge of the forced labour. Solomon had seventy thousand carriers and eighty thousand stonecutters in the hills, as well as thirty-three hundred foremen who supervised the project and directed the workmen. (I Kings 5: 27-30)
The Tanakh tells us that it was this burden that made the people restive after Solomon's death:
So they (the people) sent for Jeroboam, and he and the whole assembly of Israel went to Rehoboam and said to him: "Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labour and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you." (I Kings 12: 3-4)
The elders who had been Solomon's advisors told Rehoboam to accede to the people's request: "If today you will be a servant to this people and serve them and give them a favourable answer, they will always be your servants" (12: 7). Rehoboam, influenced by his own young, impetuous advisors, ignored their advice. He told the people he would increase, not reduce, the burden. >From then on his fate was sealed.
Something strange is happening in this narrative. On several occasions we hear words that appear in the Mosaic books either in the context of Egyptian slavery or in laws forbidding the Israelites to act harshly towards slaves. The phrase "harsh labour", spoken by the people to Rehoboam, is used at the beginning of Exodus to describe the enslavement of the Israelites (Exodus 1: 14). The description of Solomon's "carriers", nosei saval, reminds us of the sentence, "Moses grew up, and went out to his brothers and saw their burdens" (sivlotam, Ex. 2: 11). After Solomon's death, the people use the word yoke: "Your father put a heavy yoke on us" (I Kings 12: 4) - yet another term that recalls slavery in Egypt: "Therefore, say to the Israelites: I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. (Ex. 6: 6).
Solomon's supervisors are described as ha-rodim ba-am, the verb used in Leviticus 25 to describe how a master should not treat a slave: "Do not rule over (tirdeh) them ruthlessly" (Lev. 25: 43, 46, 53). Solomon built "store cities", miskenot, the same word used to describe the cities built by the Israelite slaves for Pharaoh (I Kings 9: 19; Ex. 1: 11). Like Pharaoh, Solomon had and chariots and riders (rechev and parashim, I Kings 9: 19; Exodus 14-15).
Without saying so explicitly (indeed, at one point denying it: "But Solomon did not make slaves of any of the Israelites", I Kings 9: 22), the Tanakh is hinting that the building of the Temple turned Israel into a second Egypt. Solomon was altogether too close to being an Israelite Pharaoh.
The irony is overwhelming. Solomon was Israel's wisest king. The nation stood at the apex of its power and prosperity. Momentarily, it was at peace. The king was engaged in the holiest of tasks, the one that brought the exodus narrative to completion. Yet at that precise moment, the faultline developed that was eventually to bring centuries of tragedy. Why? Because Solomon in effect turned the Israelites into a conscripted labour force: the very thing they had left Egypt to avoid. On the surface, the text tells another story. Solomon fell from grace because his foreign wives led him astray into idolatry (I Kings 11: 4). Yet it was not this that led to the rebellion of the people.
No sooner do we understand this than we appreciate the significance of another text. When David first conceived the plan of building the Temple, G-d sent word through the prophet Nathan:
"I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with the tent as My dwelling. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel: Why have you not built Me a house of cedar?" (2 Samuel 7: 6-7)
There is a hint here that G-d disclosed to David the danger involved in the project. Only later did it become clear. Even then, Solomon's son could have salvaged the situation, had he listened to the advice the elders gave him.
There is a profound theological statement here. The free G-d desires the free worship of free human beings. As the sages used to say: "The Holy One blessed be He does not behave tyrannically to his creatures" (Avodah Zarah 3a). It was not accidental but of the essence that the first house of G-d - small, fragile, portable, the opposite of the grandeur of the Temple - was built by free, uncoerced, voluntary contributions. For G-d lives not in houses of wood and stone, but in minds and souls of free human beings. He is to be found not in monumental architecture, but in the willing heart.
The Echoes of Tragedy
An excerpt from an Address to the Nexus Institute Amsterdam September 2009
So far I’ve been making two points: the first, that life can imitate art and become part of its intertextuality; the second, that life, unlike art, has no closure. It can repeat itself endlessly, re-enacting tragedy time and again in different ages, with different actors, who may think they’re the audience but in fact they’re onstage and part of another drama.
I said that tragedy was born in ancient Greece. What is extraordinary, given the history of the Jewish people in antiquity and ever since, is that there is no Hebrew word for tragedy. Here is a people who lived through one tragedy after another and didn’t have a word for it. When you want to say it in Hebrew you say tragediah. Hebrew had to borrow the word. I suspect the same is true in Islam, because Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinean writer, once wrote a story called Averroes’ Search, in which he imagines the great Islamic thinker translating Aristotle’s Rhetoric and being defeated by the word tragedy which, however hard he tried, he simply couldn’t understand.
There is another strange fact which may explain the first. What I discovered when my books were being translated into Hebrew, is that this ancient language, four thousand years old, has no word for person, and this created enormous difficulties for my translators. Hebrew has ish, which means ‘a man’, adam which roughly means ‘Homo sapiens’, enosh which means ‘a mortal’, and ben adam, which means ‘son of man’, but no word that corresponds to ‘person’. How extraordinary that the religion that first taught that each one of us is in the image of God, and that every life is like a universe, a belief shared with Islam, should have no word for person. Why?
The answer lies in the history of the word person itself. It comes from the Latin persona which means a mask, specifically a mask worn by a character on a stage. In other words it refers to a role played within a theatrical drama. It’s a metaphor that belongs to cultures that can say, with Shakespeare:
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
Or more powerfully, in Macbeth:
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.
Cultures that do not see the world as a stage, do not see people as persons, that is, as actors in a play. That is why they lack the concept of tragedy. Because the essence of tragedy is that it has a prescripted ending. You know from the beginning that it’s all going to end in tears. Tragedy belongs to a world in which there is such a thing as inexorable fate, what the Greeks called moira or ananke.
That is a mindset wholly alien to the Hebrew Bible. In Judaism there is no prescripted ending, no inexorable fate, because we are not merely actors; we are co-authors of the script. We don’t know in advance what the next scene will be, because it depends on us, and we can choose. An opera can be tragic, but life itself cannot, if you believe that there is human freedom, that we can change, that we can act differently from the way we did last time, and that therefore as agents, not merely actors, we face a constitutively unknowable future, unknowable because it depends on us. That is why in Judaism there is no word for tragedy, because the story hasn’t ended yet, and life is life, not art.