In the months that followed the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites undertook two building projects: the Golden Calf and the Mishkan. One was a profane denial of God’s sovereignty; the other expressed a desire to build sacred space for God.
What should be today’s Jewish building project, and what are the implications of choosing to be involved, or not involved?
Biblical literature isn’t shy about leaving for posterity the names of willing participants and conscientious objectors. For examples of each, this week’s Torah reading and the story of the rebuilding of Jerusalem upon the return of the exiles in the late 6th century B.C.E. are instructive. In Parshat Vayak-hel, we learn of Israelite enthusiasm to build the mishkan: “Thus the Israelites, all the men and women whose hearts moved them to bring anything…brought it as a free will offering to the LORD” (Exodus 35:29). The generosity of heart and spirit earns the People of Israel a permanent record of their actions.
But when it came time to build again, in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, not everyone bought in. In the midst of listing who built what, the Bible records: “Next to [Zadok], the Tekoites repaired, though their nobles would not take upon their shoulders the work of their lord” (Nehemiah 3:5).
I love the comment of the Hafetz Hayyim, Rabbi Israel Meir HaKohen (1838-1933), on the Nehemiah verse: “If they were now to arise from their graves, and saw how their names were recorded in the Book of Nehemiah for shame, they would give all their riches to have that book erased!”
Three things I’ve read this week teach me that the crucial Jewish building project of this decade of the 21st century is bridges. Bridges? Yes indeed! The Jewish world has far too many gaps, but a commitment to bridge-building will help. On Shabbat morning, I’ll explain what I mean. Until then, ask yourself: what bridge do you think is most important to build?
Rabbi David Wise