Parashat Prelude – Exodus 38:21 – 40:38
In this morning’s email, I received an invitation to attend a book launch (virtually, of course) on 21 March 2021. The book is called: Challenging Racist “British Columbia”: 150 Years and Counting. It has seven authors: Nicholas Claxton, Denise Fong, Fran Morrison, Christine O’Bonsawin, Maryka Omatsu, John Price and Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra. It also has an illustrator, John Endo Greenaway. It is a book for anti-racist activists and educators. If you want to read the book, it is a free and open access publication connecting racism of the past with its current strain. Download the booklet for free here.
When I received the invitation, I thought that the book could have been titled, Challenging Racist “Britain”: 1,000 Years and Counting. Did you watch Oprah Winfrey interview Meghan Markle and Harry Windsor on CBS on Sunday, 8 March 2021? I confess I did.I even watched the following morning interview on CBS: This Morning at 7:00 a.m., just at the end of my sacred writing time. I was fascinated.
Why? For one, I had only seen and heard Oprah Winfrey conduct an interview once before. Listening and watching confirmed something which all of you probably already know. She was absolutely brilliant, the best interviewer that I have ever seen on television. She listens intently. She probes gently and sensitively. She listens to answers and her questions follow what the interviewee raises rather than a prior script. I had my own TV show for twelve years on which I conducted interviews. I wish I could have had a portion of Oprah’s talent and skills.
Of course, it was the interview itself that took front and centre stage. It was full of shockers. Why should I have been surprised that a close relative of Harry’s (his father? His brother?) had asked him about whether he was concerned about the shade of his coming child’s skin (Archie) would be. “How dark his skin might be when he is born!” What? Who is having that conversation? Oprah asked. What colour the baby’s skin will be!!!
Now the inquiry could have been made to elicit whether Harry felt comfortable with having a mixed-race child? The concern then would have been with his state of mind and attitudes. The question would then not have been a question about racism but about how one handled a social disease and whether the person being questioned had been infected.
But then Meghan would not have been shocked when Harry told her. Harry would not have been taken off guard. In any case, it is hard to imagine anyone in the royal family truly wanting to find out how Harry felt about the issue given the rest of the interview’s details about the absolute insensitivity and coldness to Meghan’s position in the family. It would not matter in any case. The query was absolutely insensitive, crass and ugly. No wonder Oprah Winfrey reacted with a “Wow!” Who would say that?”
But the undeniable charge of racism was, believe it or not, not the worst. One can live with racists who feel ashamed about their beliefs and attitudes. But when they bring a shameless posture to the couple at the same time as they are cold-shouldering Meghan, you want to scream, “How boorish, how churlish, how rude, how vulgar, how absolutely stupid could you be!” Curtsying may be required. But sensitivity seemingly was not.
Given the background of what had happened to Harry’s mother who, after all, was not a foreigner, was not of mixed race, and was herself a blueblood, why had the family not learned anything? When Meghan – who had her passport and her birth certificate taken from her when she joined the family –wanted to go out and see friends, she was told that it was not a good idea. She already had too much exposure. In four months, she had only two visits with friends. ”I am everywhere and nowhere…I could not have felt lonelier…I just did not want to be alive anymore.”
Talk about a bird in a gilded cage! Meghan was a bird in a toxic, suffocating one. “The firm” could only respond to her requests for professional psychological help when she felt she was suffocating, when she was suicidal, not only with indifference, but with an emphasis on “how it might look.”
The revelations of the combined cause and then non-response to being in a desperate state was even worse than the racism. And the role of the British media! That should have been no surprise given what happened to Diana, but had British journalists not learned anything? Apparently not given the response of Piers Morgan.
However, it was not only a tale of personal pain and family dysfunction. It was a narrative about an institution, an illustration of how The Firm functioned, of how it could modify rules on titles for Archie – without consultation, Meghan was told he would not be called a prince, contrary to past practice. He would not be given security protection. And even when the couple escaped the whole bag of worms to Canada, just over a year ago on 7 January 2020, The Firm cancelled an appointment for Harry to visit his grandmother, the Queen, informing him that the Queen was too busy.
Queen Elizabeth issued a formal statement. “The whole family is saddened to learn the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been for Harry and Meghan. The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately.” Concerning! Concerning! How about the lack of any genuine concern all along? Concerning to whom? And for what reason? The bad publicity or the pain and grief of Meghan and Harry? What could it mean when the Queen insists that, “Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much loved family members,” when her courtiers cancel a private family visit with her grandson who has traveled to Britain all the way from British Columbia? The queen and princes are prisoners in their own jail and the guardians run the roost.
But there was good news amidst all the blather of the family business. Meghan’s and Harry’s next child will be a girl. As President Joe Biden said last night in his first public address since he took office, there is sunshine amidst all the darkness. “Everything stopped one year ago – 530,000 died. There was more stress and more loneliness, Everyone could recall their last holiday, their last meal with friends, but also the loss of living, the loss of life. The pandemic had isolated us. Hence the added significance of the Meghan and Harry interview on public TV in the US.
Meghan and Harry have been prime examples of cancel culture, of the practice of ostracism, of being thrust out of social, professional and even a family circle. They were victims of a political culture both in the social media and personally. And it stands in such stark contrast with this week’s Torah portion. The pomp and circumstance, especially in a desert setting, may have been the equivalent of that of the monarchy in London. Formal and formidable indeed! But the tabernacle is about a gilded object in which the precise value of everything is accounted for – the gold, the silver, the copper, the gems, the money. And the tabernacle is not a cage but a protective rather than imprisoning structure. It symbolizes inclusion rather than exclusion. It sits in the midst of the people, in the midst of the Tent of Meeting and not aloof separated from the people.
The wealth accumulated there is fully transparent and accounted for. The money was freely given and was not a byproduct of acquisitive greed. There is gold. There is silver. There is copper. The treasure trove is vast, but every ounce is accounted for. The institution is not only accountable, it is transparent. Even though Moses was the leader chosen by God, he was required to provide a detailed accounting to the people. The whole portrait is one of good governance in contrast to bad manners hidden by a highly mannered court. The openness was stressed so much that the priest entered the sanctuary wearing a garment without either pockets or cuffs. Leaders must not only be unblemished but revealed as unblemished. Accountability was sacred.
The problem with the British monarchy, with the Head of the Commonwealth is not the fact that it is royal, but that it exemplified the royalty of hiddenness, of secrecy, of pretense, of insensitivity. It is a sick institution rather than the exemplification of the best in our society. Malfeasance is hidden and repression is viewed as a virtue. Distrust and disillusion permeate its skin and bones. The court has not learned that free will is not a gift to be abused and denied, but something to offer fulfillment. Feelings cannot be suppressed, Quite the reverse. On the Day of Atonement, on Yom Kippur, we are commanded to open up our hearts. Integrity and truthfulness, not indirection, discrimination and shunning, are esteemed.
Finally, power must be checked, even the remnants and shadows of a once powerful institution that exercises its power in minute and suffocating ways over individuals. That system needs to be challenged and drastically reformed. Where in Britain or in the Commonwealth are the prophets, the critics, to reign in royal power that is no longer capable of ordering troops to ravage other lands, but which as a leftover political body spends its best efforts on ravaging the spirit of individuals that dare to darken its doors. The monarchy may be an old and dramatic institution, but it is not nearly as old as the Tabernacle and it needs to see itself and be seen from a different perspective.
Where is the wisdom in the monarchy when it cannot even be exercised on the inter-personal level? Where does it demonstrate the strength to repair itself? Where is the esteem earned that they should first bestow on and not deny to others, When will what should and must be repressed – inherited propensities to racism – be trashed? Where is the respect the members should be offering rather than demanding?
Many decades ago, when I was a guest of Birkbeck College at the University of London and when the late Queen mother was he chancellor, I attended a function in which I was seated at her round table. She sat opposite but too far away to engage her in conversation. But I was assured that she was personable and approachable, a good and considerate conversationalist, though not a teeming intellect.
However, I never had the chance to check out the truths of such claims. It might have helped me better understand the crisis that the British monarchy is going through and how Humpty Dumpty can be put together again. I doubt if the royal family and the firm has enough elasticity and creativity, however. As Ezekiel reminds us in this week’s haftorah, “And so shall you do on seven [days] in the month, because of mistaken and simple-minded men, and expiate the House (of Windsor). (Ezekiel 20)