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Egypt: Tabernacle or Golden Calf?

Parashat Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1-38:20)

by Rabbi Isaac Jeret

February 22, 2011 | 6:19 pm

As Jews, our character and faith are defined essentially by the story of our ancient liberation from slavery in Egypt, informing our concern for the welfare of those who are similarly oppressed. But as a minority often vulnerable to the whims of tyrannical victors, we are also keenly aware of the implications for Israel’s security and that of the entire free world based on the success or failure of the events unfolding in Egypt. Worldwide Jewry seems divided at worst and uncertain at best in determining our view of the ongoing revolution, embracing either but rarely both of these two authentic Jewish concerns.

We agonize. Should we champion Egypt’s modern-day revolutionaries as allies in spiritual cause, as heroes of personal liberty and authentic human rights? Alternatively, should we respond with a self-protective skepticism, urging caution or even preventative action against the likely emergence of a tyrannical Islamist regime, which might have Egypt — and the entire free world — yearning for a return to the days of the “moderate” Mubarak regime?

Taken together, last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, and this week’s portion, Vayakhel, may clarify core challenges facing even the most noble of Egypt’s revolutionaries and suggest important benchmarks by which both we and they might assess the evolving implications of Egypt’s revolution.

Last week’s story of the Golden Calf offered an interesting consideration of a newly freed people yearning to return to that which was familiar. Having escaped tyranny, our ancestors created a god similar in form to the gods known to them in Egypt; facing a future of possibility and uncertainty, they sculpted and scripted a god limited to that which they knew and could imagine. Rather than leaving Egypt, they would re-create it in the desert, or even in the Promised Land.

This week’s narrative of the Tabernacle, on the other hand, represents our ancestors’ graduation to the realization that for their future to exceed their past, they would have to painstakingly construct a solid structure that would welcome and host the unknown, the mysteriously sacred, the unfamiliar and the uncertain; a God beyond their control with a message regarding a future to which they would be challenged to aspire.

Is the current revolution in Egypt akin to the erection of a Golden Calf or the construction of a Tabernacle? Contrary to initial reports of peaceful demonstrations, credible accounts are emerging from Egypt of the rapes, beatings, mob attacks, anti-Semitic/anti-Israel chants and graffiti as well as rampant violence that occurred among those who seemed to constitute a peaceful resistance to Hosni Mubarak’s oppression.

Just as Pharaoh’s tyranny reflected broadly among our ancestors would have been more stable and dangerous than the oppression instituted by a single leader, a return to the Egypt familiar to today’s revolutionaries might well be worse than the Egypt we’ve known, or they’ve known, to date.

A June 2010 Pew opinion survey of Egyptians hints at Egypt’s Golden Calf, which might well be completed in the coming weeks and months, unless a concerted effort to replace it with a Tabernacle-like initiative ensues hastily and courageously. More than 50 percent of the respondents backed Islamists, 50 percent supported Hamas, 95 percent welcomed Islamic influence over their politics, 82 percent supported executing adulterers by stoning, 77 percent supported whipping and cutting off thieves’ hands, and 84 percent supported executing Muslims who convert to another faith. Several other studies confirm that more than 85 percent of Egyptian women endure female circumcision — genital mutilation.

A skeptical and self-protective disposition would then appear to be warranted on our part, given the percentages noted above and the savage violence perpetrated by Egypt’s modern-day revolutionaries upon reporters, foreigners and their fellow countrymen alike.

We might be wise, as well, to maintain a prayerful disposition, hopeful that a more moderate minority might influence the majority of Egyptians — more inclined toward the familiarity and certainty of a Golden Calf — to build the solid structures and institutions of democracy, a modern-day Tabernacle, allowing for uncertainty and ambiguity, for dissent and difference.

However, a Tabernacle requires an organized and sustained effort over a much longer period of time.

Rather than agonizing, we might acknowledge our skepticism for its well-valued realism while we pray for Egypt’s Tabernacle of democracy. All the while, we ought to offer encouragement and apply pressure, each when necessary, to ensure its construction — for Egypt’s sake and for our own. 

Rabbi Isaac Jeret is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Tamid (nertamid.com), an inclusive Conservative synagogue on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

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