Populism and Leadership: VAYAK’HEIL, EXODUS 35:1–38:20

by

Howard Adelman

How many times has it been pointed out to you in a discussion criticizing Orthodox Judaism or how many times have you yourself stated how absurd it is that you can put on your shoes and socks and tie your laces on shabat, but you cannot light a match or flick a switch that will turn on the lights? Yet it is the primary example of how shabat must be observed. Exodus 35:3 reads: “Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day.” Why is not the first instruction about keeping shabat not about picking up an axe and hewing wood or pulling a plough? The verse immediately prior to the instruction not to kindle a fire, is the commandment to keep shabat.

35:2 Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of solemn rest to the LORD; whosoever doeth any work therein shall be put to death.

Flick a switch and you’re dead. Pretty heavy! Then the next three chapters, verse after verse, are all about work, sacred work, the work of two great craftsmen in making everything that goes into the mishkan. Does it not seem odd that a parsha that begins about the sacredness of shabat and how lighting a fire is the worst desecration of the shabat should then be followed by sixty or so verses about crafting all the items in the mishkan?

But the parsha does not begin with the commandment about keeping shabat. It begins with the following:

And Moses assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said unto them: “These are the words which the LORD hath commanded, that ye should do them.”

There had just been a populist rebellion led by Moses’ older brother, Aaron, a High Priest. Three thousand are killed. The rebellion is repressed. And then what happens? A reign of terror? Tyranny and repression? Not at all. All the congregation of Israel is called together, the 597,000 survivors of the rebellion, in an assembly and they are commanded to keep shabat and not light a fire. They are then asked to contribute materials and help the lead craftsmen to make all the accoutrements for the mishkan. They are commanded to keep shabat. They are commanded not to light a match or flick on a switch, but they are asked to contribute the precious materials and linen and jewels to enrich the mishkan.

Does not this echo what took place in the previous portion when Aaron solicited gold and precious metals to make the golden calf? What is the difference?

  1. And they came, every one whose heart stirred him up, and every one whom his spirit made willing, and brought the LORD’S offering, for the work of the tent of meeting, and for all the service thereof, and for the holy garment.
  1. And they came, both men and women, as many as were willing-hearted, and brought nose-rings, and ear-rings, and signet-rings, and girdles, all jewels of gold; even every man that brought an offering of gold unto the LORD.
  1. The children of Israel brought a freewill-offering unto the LORD; every man and woman, whose heart made them willing to bring for all the work, which the LORD had commanded by the hand of Moses to be made.

Your heart had to be stirred. You had to be “willing-hearted.” The gifts were “freewill-offerings.” Moses did not stir the passions of the people. Moses did not appeal to their resentments and discontent. The instruction not to light a fire is an instruction not to stir the passions of the people, not to bring the fire of anger to the temple, not to construct a community based on fear and anger. Bezalel was filled with the spirit of God, “in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge and in all manner of workmanship.” (Exodus 35:31) The model for the polity was not the demagogue as leader, but the craftsmen, dedicated to applying his skill and knowledge to making the world a better place, not to “making a deal.”

Wisdom of the heart not the passions of the gut. Making the polity requires wisdom, requires understanding, requires knowledge, requires skill. This is the lesson of shabat. Bracket your passions and your furies. Make the final day of the week a beacon for the week so that the light of that day can illuminate and inspire the work for the week that follows. Be wise-hearted not dumb-heated.

“[P]ut wisdom and understanding to know how to work all the work for the service of the sanctuary,” for the service of the whole community. (Exodus 36:1)

A populist leader – whether a Mussolini, a Hitler, a Franco or a Perón – says I am “il Duce.” I am your leader. Moses is learning to be a leader, not by saying I will it and therefore it shall be, for it is obvious that he was ill-equipped to be a leader in oratorical skills that can be used to arouse the passions. “They’ll waterboard them because I tell them to do it.” That’s what a demagogic leader says. That’s not how a wise leader leads. That is how a demagogue performs. A dictator is not bound by the law. A dictator is contemptuous of the law and only reveres authority and obedience. A demagogue is not respectful of knowledge and the wisdom that comes through understanding and empathy with others. A demagogue appeals to insecurities and fears. A demagogue does not respect the detailed workmanship of a dedicated craftsman and artist but instead loves the flash of the golden calf. A demagogue is careless, even disrespectful of truth, for verity does not interest him or her. A demagogue stirs up violence and uses it to exercise control for his own purposes. A demagogue feeds on abuse not on reverence.

Moses was a very handicapped leader who had to grow into his job. He himself was full of wrath which he let out in his youthful resentment by killing one of the Egyptian overlords. In his maturity, and in the face of demagoguery, he failed again. He broke the tablets of the law. He ordered the death of three thousand of his own countrymen. But he was never a narcissist who worshipped himself. Beware, not so much the worshipper of the golden calf but the leader who sees himself as a golden calf, the leader who says, my way or the highway. Moses was modest. He lacked any sense of his own importance let alone an exaggerated sense. Nothing proper was done in his name, all for the sake of a disembodied spirit who served and saved the people.

Moses was dedicated to having as many people as possible contribute to a sanctuary that was not grandiose but was grandiloquent, that spoke and reflected a respect for detail and craftsmanship, a respect for skill and work. Moses recognized his limits and lack of skills and never tried to represent himself as having a record of spectacular achievements when any examination of his historical record would show the incongruity between any grandiose claims and his own personal results. A demagogue covers up such discrepancies or dismisses them as irrelevant. A true leader knows himself or herself, recognizes shortcomings and asks others, not to do his bidding, but to participate in an enterprise of communal creativity.

Was Moses preoccupied with an obsession to be known as a strong leader or was he preoccupied with his own inadequacies and those of his people who so easily surrendered to one who skilled in self-advertisement and his own fantasies about his own supposed brilliance and the beauty of his own hands that have never been used to make an artefact or a piece of art. Moses welcomed the criticism of his father-in-law. A demagogue rejects any criticism and evades comments on his shortcomings by insult and bullying and belittling any challengers. A demagogue projects onto others worship of himself and a willingness to get on their knees and ask his favour. A demagogue is arrogant and haughty. Moses, though raised in a royal household, went forth and became a shepherd. His compassion for others was his strength. His easily stirred ire was his great weakness. Moses was never patronizing but always appreciative of skills and talents he himself did not possess.

There is no self-content in Moses, but a discontent with his own shortcomings and those of others. He loses control when under pressure and is decidedly not cool. He was not ambitious for himself and became resigned to never getting himself personally to the promised land instead of being determined to do so no matter what the cost. His centre of attention is the mishkan, not himself. Most of all, he lacked colour. He is the very opposite of Joseph with his multi-coloured coat.

So the next time you flick on a switch or light a match on shabat, think about what it is really about. Observing shabat entails reverence for a peaceable kingdom, respect for skill and craft, for knowledge and wisdom, for the warm-hearted and not the hard-hearted, for an absolute rejection of the politics of rage. Don’t light the match that can set the world on fire.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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