Opulence and Frugality Parashat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20 – 30:10)

Last Friday I wrote about the extravagance and opulence of the mishkan and linked it with a theory of property. The description of its opulence is repeated and expanded in this week’s portion and I want to use that depiction to discuss both the ethics and politics of wealth. The ethics discussion focuses on how one handles personal wealth. The political discussion focuses on how the community or society deals with allowing individuals to engage responsibly in the use and distribution of wealth.

The description of the opulence and its detail are mind boggling. For example, the olive oil has to be pure and used to light the mishkan eternally even though the light provides no function the vast majority of the time.

With respect to the political use of the wealth, why dress Aaron and his sons, the priests, in such expensive clothing? Why Aaron in particular who is such a passive personality? Look at what they were to wear: a choshen hanging from two golden rings attached to two golden chains. On that breastplate were attached twelve precious stones, four rows of three stones each, in gold settings, the two shoham stones on which were inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, six names on each, and the breastplate chains attached in turn to the gold rings at the corners of the ephod of gold, blue, purple, and crimson wool, and twisted fine linen, the work of a master weaver. The priest also wore a robe, a tunic of checker work, a cap and a sash.

Why the excessive finery? The answer offered – for honour and glory. (28:2) What is the honour? Aaron is sanctified. What is the glory? To become a bondsman to God and serve Him, for Aaron is tasked with carrying the names of the twelve tribes on the two stones “as a remembrance.” To remember is to glorify God. But the answer goes deeper. For attached to the ephod were the Urim and Thummim, singular terms in spite of their plural endings. What were they for?

Cutting through all the various theories, the most convincing to me is that Urim refers to the one who is cursed, the one who is found guilty, while Thummim refers to innocence. They were the means of rendering judgement and possibly the means of deciding who was innocent and who guilty, as in cleromancy. They were akin to the Tablets of Destiny worn in Babylon by Marduk, here made plural to enhance the majesty of the objects. For the priests were dressed up in all that regalia to dispense legal justice.

Honour. Glory. The majesty of justice and the law. The people needed to be impressed. They needed to be in awe of not only God, but his laws and judgements. “Thus shall Aaron carry the names of the sons of Israel in the choshen of judgment over his heart when he enters the Holy, as a remembrance before the Lord at all times.” (Exodus 28:29)

The text goes on. The robe had to be of pure wool, bordered and decorated in a specific way as if the dedicated specificity itself supplied proof of the authority and accuracy of God’s commands and judgement. The robe had to have a showplate of pure gold on which was engraved, “Holy to the Lord,” in case anyone missed the point. The text is anything but subtle. Josephus may have invested each jewel, each colour, each sash with symbolic meaning. Philo may have invested each drop of blood placed on the priest’s right ear, right thumb and large right toe as standing for purity in each word heard, in each action taken and in the path one takes in life. But the real significance was the effect of the whole.

That is how you invest people with formal authority even though Aaron demonstrated not a single sign that he could himself be a source of authentic authority. When God slew Aaron’s two sons for making a possible minor error in the fire used in the priestly rituals, Aaron was silent. He sat there and he “doan say nuttin.” And that is perhaps why he was chosen, to be a mere vessel of the divine will. His costuming was intended to communicate dignity, not his mind, not his heart, not his soul. It would be akin to making Mike Pence the head of the Supreme Court.

Hence, it comes as no surprise that when Moses is away and the people demand a visible god that Aaron is the one who creates the golden calf. What an inversion of an alpha male. Aaron is often described as a man of peace, as a humble man, as an introvert rather than an extrovert. In reality, he seems to be a pushover for wherever the wind is blowing. He had to be invested with dignity since he as himself had none. Recall that God was still torn between wanting to govern humans who simply followed edicts blindly, who were patsies, or whether He wanted his people to mature and take responsibility for themselves and what they did. Over time, God would learn and reveal that his mission was the latter. This whole parashat is evidence that God was still of a mind that all He wanted was emissaries of his own divine will. But that sensibility, ironically, was of immeasurable value in the development of and the acceptance of human responsibility. The God of revelation exhibited its own ironic truth.

The reality is that such a position gives humans enormous strength as evidenced by Holocaust survivors who gave testimony in their lives and in their faith in following Halakhah in the concentration camps in spite of all the evidence surrounding them that they had been abandoned by God. Their sense of dignity, their sense of worth, came from a higher authority even when they were stripped of all the ostentation of religious authority. But what about the few who preserved their sense of self, their sense of worth in spite of both the horrors of the camp, but without any reliance that they were any longer just funnels for a divine will? A much greater challenge!

When each type stands before the grim reaper in the face of gross and grotesque injustice, one principle stands out. They are equal in the eyes of God. And they are equal in the court of judgement. The court is ruled by the principle of equality before the law. Thus, “The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when they give the offering of the LORD, to make atonement for your souls.” (Exodus 30:15) And it goes both ways, both concerning the giving and the taking away.

Here, I eat into next week’s portion. “Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore, for it is holy unto you; every one that profaneth it shall surely be put to death (my italics); for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.” (Exodus 31:14) What Nehemiah found when he returned from Babylon was fish sellers and merchants selling their wares in the square before the temple on shabat. Order had to be restored. The rule of law had to be made majestic again. The people had to be purified. 3,000 Jews had to be slaughtered to make a point that would have made the Ayatollah proud. “Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel: Put ye every man his sword upon his thigh, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour.” (Exodus 32:27)

To carry out such heinous acts in the name of a divine command seems to demand rows of medals on the commanding officer and ornate garb on the priests of justice, a God that glitters and shines among them and behaves as a boastful braggadocio. It is not surprising that those who want their priests to be humble but dressed in glamour end up with leaders that are the very opposite and lead them down a path to hell.

The dialectic is not a synthesis of humility and high purpose, of gravity and grace, for they exist in tension unresolved but raised to higher levels. By reifying that tension at a very early stage of development, as Ezra and Nehemiah tried to do, you end up with empty formal authority without any authenticity. Thank God that their effort to revive the priesthood failed in the end, and that teachers, rabbis rather than priests, became the vehicle for carrying the religion forward.

Parashat Tetzave this year falls on Shabat Zakhor when the command to wipe out the memory of Amalek is repeated in synagogues throughout the world. It is well to remember who Amalek represents. For Deuteronomy reminds us, “Remember what Amalek did to you on the journey, after you left Egypt.” God may be about remembering. But the Israelites were commanded also to forget. “(Y)ou should blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” (Deuteronomy 25:19)

Egyptians may have enslaved the Israelites. The Egyptian military and royal family may have resented and feared the Israelites for their proliferation. For the Egyptians, the Israelites were tools for their economy and scapegoats for the failures of the ruling class. Why was Amalek so much worse? We are commanded to remember what the Egyptians did. We are commanded to wipe out the memory of Amalek. Why the difference?

My thesis is that Amalek does not refer to a minor tribe who were once defeated by the Israelites, but to a type. Amalek is derived from, “am,” people, and ā-lek/’alek < עאלכ/עלכ: which translates as, “Sure, as if” you were the people of Amalek, losers on the stage of history to be cast into its dust bin.

What then is the political ethos? Here, we are not concerned with distributive justice, with the redistribution of wealth to alleviate suffering and enhance equality of opportunity. We are concerned with regarding each individual as having an equal standing before the law and the judgements of history. We are concerned with innocence and guilt and not justice as fairness. Confusing the two categories is a serious mistake with grave consequences, but that is a discussion for another day.

In the realm of legal and historical justice, the majesty and authority of those who render judgement must be enhanced even when the occupants of high office are fools. Costuming does that. Setting does that. And these are important lest we confuse the principles and the laws with the individuals occupying such a position for the historical moment. We are commanded to wipe out the memory of Amalek so that we can be blind in the court of justice to human differences.

When you see a statue of the Lady of Justice blindfolded, it is not simply that justice must be blind to the differences of those brought before the court, but must also be blind to the differences between the individuals holding such a high office. For the judge may be a fool, but the system of justice must retain its respect. The system of justice requires coercion on the one hand – the Lady of Justice carries a sword – and the scales of justice in which the evidence must be weighed and balanced. Most think that the blindfold is only intended to refer to the individuals charged. It is also intended to refer to the person making the determination. In that moment, we are commended to forget Amalek, to bracket that ordinary and weak humans may occupy such high office. For it is the people who bear the responsibility for ensuring and respecting the majesty of both the court of law and the court of memory.

There is an economic dimension to this segment, and, as I wrote above, it is not about distributive justice. Rather, it is about ensuring that the surplus wealth of a community is held and managed by a transcendent body, by a federal reserve as it were, and neither by individuals, nor, even worse, by a populist mob. Central banking, financial regulation and public finance must be held by an independent authority, independent of popular will.

I was told the other day, to my chagrin, that the world’s financial system was controlled by the Rothschilds. I do not believe the person was antisemitic. He was simply your typical conspiracy theorist about central bankers. He is an anarchist who would reclaim the gold held at the centre to guarantee business exchanges and redistribute it to the people so they can melt it down and make golden calves. The fierce pugilists of the populist right do not trust centralized and independent banking. They would tear down the mishkan and redistribute the wealth to the twelve tribes.

But if there is to be a nation-state and not just an aggregate of grubbing individualists, then it is important that a nation has a central institution that is a repository of wealth and that carries with it majesty and authority to dispense financial as well as criminal justice. It must be a repository of memory while always remembering the people it serves. When a federal reserve or a central bank forgets that mission, it allows its pomposity to go to its head.

We are thrust between the Scylla of populism and the Charybdis of plutocratic arrogance. It was the genius of the Israelites and their God that they created an institution designed to ride through the storms that could tear the nation asunder. Populists are hypocrites who would hold two opposite positions and ignore the difference between the Scylla and the Charybdis. In the case of Andrew Jackson, who railed against Alexander Hamilton’s insistence on the necessity for a federal reserve, he hated paper money but wanted to give the states unlimited authority to print as much of it as they wanted. He hated the idea of gold-backed currency but exhibited an unlimited passion for gold. What he wanted, in reality, as Donald Trump does today, is to accrue all economic authority to himself so that he alone could decide how to use, and, therefore, abuse, a nation’s wealth.

In the end, the most important feature of the mishkan and the majesty and opulence of its wealth is to serve as an institution without which there cannot even be distributive justice.


With the help of Alex Zisman


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