Rabbi’s Weekly Message

Rabbi’s Message, March 13, 2024

IF YOU BUILD IT: WILL GOD COME?


ILLUSTRATION: Baseball field, Dyersville, Iowa, from the movie Field of Dreams (1989)

 

            We flatter ourselves by thinking that we are scientific in outlook nowadays and that, therefore, we do not make myths. But the urge to use compelling narratives, dealing in psychological archetypes, to make sense of our world, is still strong. And so, myth-making still happens.
            Thirty-five years ago, an old myth was renewed by an epigram in a movie: “If you build it, they will come.” This was the message received in mysterious fashion by an Iowa farmer in the film Field of Dreams. He heeds the message, and builds a baseball field in the most improbable of __cpLocations, despite all the sober, sound advice to the contrary. By doing so, he heals the inter-generational wounds he has carried throughout his life, and he also touches the broader public. In the last scene of the film, a long line of cars is seen, bringing people to the arena of dreams he has created in his corn field.
            Myths can be lovely. But they can also be misleading. This myth is no substitute for careful analysis of market and demographic realities. In China there are entire cities built and never filled, because the builders followed unrealistic plans ignoring the demographic crisis of that state’s own doing.
            How many businesses have failed because would-be entrepreneurs were seduced by the lure of the promise, “if you build it, they will come?” Perhaps we will never know. 

 

Illustration: BJJ (Brazilian jiu-jitsu) Guide To Smashing Your Grappling Goals and Resolutions for 2023
 
            We also need to scrutinize carefully our motives in building.  Are we building for the greater good? Or are we building to glorify ourselves? How many grand projects ended up like the statue of Ozymandias, in the poem of that name by Percy B. Shelley, vanity structures looking out over empty, barren wastes?
 
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is  Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

 
            The Bible instructs us by both negative and positive examples of building projects.   If our purposes are no more exalted than to make a name for ourselves, we will find ourselves in the footsteps of the builders of the Tower of Babel. Their motivation was “we will make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4)—but far from scaling heaven, when God inspected their work, the Bible emphasizes that God “went down” to verify that their purpose was unworthy and the result of their project-- only confusion. Literally, “Babble.”
 

Illustration: M.C. Escher, Tower of Babel (1928). Credit: Wikiart.
 
            On the other hand, the most exalted building project recorded in the Bible….. I will argue, even greater than the magnificent and lovingly-described Temple of Solomon….. was the Tabernacle.  Our Biblical portion this Sabbath describes the conclusion of that construction.
            I maintain that this, and not the description of Solomon’s Temple, is the Bible’s last word on what constitutes worthy building efforts. Here, it is important that we distinguish between the chronology of the events narrated in the Bible, on the one hand, and the dating of the editing of the texts of the Bible, on the other. While the Tabernacle predated the Temple by centuries, the texts that tell us about the Tabernacle appear to have gone through a process of priestly editing as late as the closing generations of the core Biblical collating process. Scholars believe that the earliest form of these chapters in Exodus, discussing the Tabernacle, may indeed have been very old, but that they were consciously assembled and ordered during the Babylonian Exile, when priests, prophets and scribes brought together the revered documents of sacred tradition to produce the Bible as we know it.
            This means that the presentation of the Tabernacle account can double as a commentary on what the Exilic Judean community’s leaders thought about the right way to make a sanctuary for God.  They had recently witnessed the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.  It was searingly sad. But it is noteworthy that the Jews of the Exilic period did not wallow in a self-righteous sense of victimhood. They asked if they had done wrong, and what should they do differently if given a second chance. 
            The prophet Ezekiel describes a rebuilt Temple with certain rules of conduct being more rigorous than the account in the Five Books of Moses. That may well reflect an earnest desire on the part of the Jews of the Exile to learn from their lapses during the era of Solomon’s Temple.
            More pointedly, the Books of Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Kings, speak of the Temple as a place polluted by idolatry. In Ezekiel, chapter 8, the prophet narrates a mystical vision in which, although physically in Babylon, he is transported to Jerusalem and witnesses the idolatry being practiced in the precincts of the Temple itself. In Jeremiah and in Kings, the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem is unequivocally presented as God’s response to the wickedness of the rulers of Judah (Jeremiah 52:3; II Kings 24:20)
            Grand as it was, the Temple was a failure, for these writers, because what counts in the end is the quality of relationship with God that is supposed to be facilitated by its physical structure. The Judean custodians of the Temple were proud of their stones and cedar beams, meticulous in their sacrificial rites, but not faithful to the Covenant with God itself.

 

Illustration: The Tabernacle in the Wilderness. Credit: amazingsanctuary.com

 
            By contrast, the Bible depicts the Tabernacle as a place constructed when the tribes of Israel were in the ecstasy of their post-Golden Calf repentance and their receipt of God’s renewed Covenant. They gave joyfully, overwhelming Moses with their generous outpouring of gifts. Their leading artisans fashioned the structure and its furnishings skillfully, reflecting God’s inspiration. And when the work of construction was completed, the people passed the most important test of all:  “…And so Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 35 Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle… The cloud of the LORD was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the Israelites during all their travels.” (Exodus 40:33-38)
            They built it…. And God came.  That is the Bible’s understanding of the success of the Tabernacle. That is why the account of the Tabernacle is the proper conclusion to the Book of Exodus.
            And more: that is a signpost for future generations of the Jewish people. When we build our own houses of God, what counts the most…. Really, the criterion by which the entire project stands or falls….. is whether we build a space that God will want to inhabit.
            Our ancestors, met that challenge. They had sinned grievously. But then they had repented. Therefore, the work of their hands was acceptable in the sight of God.
            They were not perfect. And therefore, they can be exemplars for our own emulation, when we build synagogues. They are approachable models.  They did it and therefore, so can we.  They did it, and so must we.