Aspirations and Realities

March 4th: Vayakhel and Shekalim
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

There’s a sense of déjà vu in this week’s Torah portion—or more accurately, a sense of repetition. All those instructions for the Mishkan that God gave Moses up on Mount Sinai—the materials needed and the plans for the tent, its furniture, and holy utensils—are now being given by Moses to the people. In Exodus 35, we read: “Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them…This is what the Lord commanded: take from among you gifts to the Lord; everyone whose heart is so moved shall bring these gifts for the Lord: gold, silver, copper, blue, purple and crimson yarns, fine linen, etc.”

 While it is repetitive to us, it is not for the Israelites. This is the first they are hearing of the plans for the Mishkan, and the appeal is successful. The people bring the materials because their hearts are moved: they want to make God welcome in their midst. The special reading Shekalim (Exodus 30.11-16) makes the same point: motivations in our hearts can only become real when we back them up with constructive behavior—in this case, the shekels needed to keep the worship system operating.

With the necessary resources in hand, the next job is constructing and crafting the Mishkan. For this, God inspires and Moses appoints the artisans led by Bezalel and Oholiab. In both cases—Moses relating God’s instructions to the people and the artisans working God’s plans into reality—we are looking at a chain of transmission. Does Moses repeat God’s words exactly, or does he express them in his own words—with emendations, explanations, or adjustments? The same could be asked of the craftspeople. Do they do exactly as Moses and God instruct, or is there some adjustment—practical or aesthetic—that the actual crafting requires?

 Most of us find it hard to follow instructions. Sometimes, it is our hard heads: we don’t like being told what to do. Often, however, it is a matter of having to adjust the theoretical instructions to the realities of the project at hand. To follow the military model, the general gives general orders and trusts the people down the chain of command to make the specific decisions that will make the general order a reality. Ultimately, I have been told, it is the sergeants who make or break any mission.

One of the biggest challenges in large organizations is for decisions in the upper echelons to be communicated effectively throughout. This challenge also operates in reverse: sometimes the realities of the workers are not properly understood up the ladder, and instructions and policies may not be as good as they need to be. This was the point of W. Edwards Deming and his Total Quality Management: people at all levels of the organization have knowledge of how the operation works, and their opinions and insights need to be factored into decisions.

My point is that not everything desired at every level can reach fruition. Not every dream or plan gets fulfilled. The chain of transmission results in changes, and the difference between drawing board and execution inevitably causes some level of disconnect.

 Some commentators suggest that this is behind one of the first koshi’s (difficulties) in the Torah. Notice how Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 each tell a different version of the Creation. Modern scholars point to two separate and disagreeing sources, but some literalists speak of Genesis 1 (the Six Days of Creation) as God’s theoretical construction of the universe—the Divine drawing board—and Genesis 2 (the Garden of Eden) as being the actual execution of the plan. The differences are results of the move from design to construction.

One can see a similar dynamic in Genesis 3, with the story of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Though the Garden was designed as a place of permanent habitation, the humans could not follow the instructions (which, given our nature, may have been impossible), and God had to resort to Plan B. Not every intention goes according to plan.

I find this important to remember during the current political season. Politicians say all kinds of things during campaigns, but the reality of governing is often a mitigating factor. Many people expected President Obama to get rid of the Patriot Act’s security measures that some considered “a tyrannical assault on civil liberties pushed down our throats by the evil George Bush.” However, once in office and responsible for the security of our nation, President Obama oversaw not only a re-approval of the Patriot Act but a significant enhancement of it. Was the President a liar, or did his perceptions or perspective change? Was it the generally inevitable disconnect between plans/aspirations and practicality, or was it a nefarious betrayal? The same questions could be asked about the President’s current efforts to close the detention center at the Guantanamo Bay naval base. Was he lying when he said he would close it? Are the Republicans just playing politics? Or, is the problem just really hard to solve—really and truly hard?  I remember reading remarks by both President Lyndon Johnson and Justice Lewis Powell about how their opinions on many issues changed once they assumed the mantle of power. Speaking for themselves and their peers was significantly different from acting on behalf of the whole country.

What about the promises being bandied about by the current Presidential candidates? Can Bernie Sanders’ utopian vision find any kind of expression beyond the rhetorical? Can the Republicans really push back the clock on Roe versus Wade and abortion rights? (A hint would be to look at Ronald Reagan’s record. Fervently anti-abortion and armed with two terms and lots of congressional support, he did nothing to stop abortion rights.) Will any of the other promises—both outlandish and reasonable—see fulfillment? Should they be filed under the label Hyperbole or perhaps the label Aspirational, and thus relieve us of any real hope or real concern? Will the craziness of the current campaign be matched by craziness in the Oval Office, or will the realities of governing mediate and bring the candidates back to earth?

Many Jewish commentators (and the Masonic Order) speak of the construction of the Mishkan and Solomon’s Temple as being an allegory for the construction of God’s Kingdom on earth. Jewish mystics speak in terms of making the earthly Jerusalem as perfect as the heavenly Jerusalem. There are dreams, and there are realities. May we keep our dreams realistic and work toward the godly here on earth.