Vayakhel-Pekudei: Collective Efforts are Essential

Why the three-fold description of construction of the building of the mishkan, the sacred tablernacle? Previously, we read God’s instructions for construction. Now the building process is described and a summing up at completion is provided. Repeatedly, we are told that Moses, the builders, and the Israelites did just as God commanded. The sages will explain that what is precious to us, we review over and over. Exacting details mattered to create the ordered, sacred space that God had sought.

Accountability and power comes to my mind as I reflect on two talks that I heard last week on the Holocaust and Anti-Semitism. Yale Professor Timothy Snyder spoke at UCI on the sources of the Holocaust, the topic of his book The Black Earth (2015).The Nazis pushed an ideology: the world is a competitive jungle and the mightier race will vanquish others in the struggle for limited resources, especially food; Jews conspire to undermine the natural order of separate races by universal teachings, such as that all people were created in the image of God. That distorted portrayal of the natural order and Judaism led to the Holocaust, along with an added essential ingredient: chaos. Snyder mastered ten languages to read the personal accounts of those who would perish. Those testimonies revealed that as the Nazis eliminated the stability of civil governance, locals shifted loyalties, pursued self-interest, and lawlessness reigned. Millions of the Jews who perished did so in mass killings near the villages and towns where the Jews lived, executions facilitated by neighbors. Professor Snyder has a new, small book:Tyranny: Ten Lessons from the 20th Century (only $6.21 on Amazon) with the same core message: law-based, predictable governance is essential for just order.

Emory Professor Deborah Lipstadt spoke the following evening at Tarbut v’Torah Day School. She has become famous through the recent film Denial, where actor Rachel Weizs plays the professor disproving a Holocaust denier in the British courts. Professor Lipstadt emphasized that antisemitism is distinctly irrational, due to its roots in the New Testament portrayal of Jews seeking the crucifixion of Jesus. What I particularly took from her presentation was the concept of soft-core denial. Hard-core says, “There never was a holocaust.” Soft-core proclaims, “Yes, many Jews were killed, but not only Jews so there is no reason to single them out for special recognition.” And yet, she emphasized, the Nazis’s mass murder primarily focused on Jews, only for them redirecting critical resources of soldiers and trains to complete the “Final Solution.”  She too emphasized that ideology and the details of history are essential for understanding the past. During questions and answers, she sought to reassure us that America’s checks and balances in government protect our nation.

Moses and the Israelites complete the tabernacle as a symbolic home for God. Great achievements emerge when the collective works together toward high ideals. We do depend on government as a check against selfishness, bigotry, and anarchy. In Pirkei Avot (3:2), second-century Rabbi Hananiah, taught: “Pray for the welfare of the Government, for if people did not fear it, they would swallow each other alive.”