Shemini - DEDICATION AND DESECRATION
THE OPENING CHAPTER of the portion of the Torah which we have just read relates two conflicting events which took place on the same day. The first sentence refers to the glorious and happy moment when the Tabernacle, the first House of Worship and Assembly in the history of our people, was dedicated by Moses, Aaron and the Children of Israel. One can imagine the joy that saturated their hearts. After years of planning and building, there was at long last the reality of the mishkan before them, and their cup of happiness was full to overflowing. A few sentences later, we are told of a great calamity that happened in the Tabernacle where the two sons of Aaron, the most promising young men in the camp of Israel, were struck by sudden death for bringing esh zarah, strange fires, into the House of God. Moses approached his grief-stricken brother and said, "This is what the Lord has spoken saying: through them that are near unto me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron held his peace" (Lev. 10:3).
Mind you, Nadab and Abihu chose to desecrate the Law on the very day when the Tabernacle was being dedicated, and thus brought suffering and sorrow not only to his distinguished family but to klal Yisrael. The rabbis explain the sin of esh zarah in various ways. (See Gen. Rab. 20:6-11). But whatever it was that they did, it was a clear violation of the Law, and the punishment was swift and terrible.
In the proximity of the two events-the dedication and desecration-there is revealed a basic human weakness. It points to the fact that people cannot retain the high spirit of dedication for any appreciable length of time. A little after the high moment there comes a let-down which frequently results in acts of desecration.
A Sium Hasefer is a beautiful and sacred ceremony. People come, and with the help of a Sofer, a professional scribe, write a Hebrew letter of their name in an appropriate place on the parchment. I attended such exercises in Miami Beach. The men, women and children who participated were enthusiastic. People danced with tears in their eyes. But when I heard that from the Synagogue many were going to Wolfie's, a well-known trefah restaurant, for dinner, iz mir nisht goot gevoren oifen hartzen. I became disheartened and sad.
There are benevolent institutions which were founded by generous men and women with the highest humanitarian goals. But the cold and callous "efficiency" with which they are administered, often does violence to the lofty principles upon which they were established.
America was settled by refugees from tyranny and oppression. They built towns and cities "from sea to shining sea," and dedicated them to the ideals of equality and freedom. They hoped that the New World would become a beacon of hope to the hounded and persecuted of all races, colors and creeds; that it would extend aid and comfort to the homeless and deprived from all parts of the globe. But we, the Jewish people, know how reality clashes with the blueprint, and how the lofty sentiments of the Founding Fathers are desecrated by men in the highest echelons of government. During the holocaust there was an opportunity to rescue thousands of Jews from the gas chambers and ovens of the Nazis, but the McCarran Bill which was an anti-immigration piece of legislation, was on the books, and the President of the United States refused to use his special powers to help them.
What the Jordanians did to one of the most sacred cemeteries of Israel, the Har Hazeitim, was a shocking desecration of the last resting places of saints and sages. They destroyed many tombstones and used others for pavements and for building latrines.
Every year we get a new crop of physicians, lawyers, ministers and teachers. They emerge from our professional schools with dedicated hearts. The doctors will alleviate pain and bring healing to people; the lawyers will promote justice and create an atmosphere of honesty and fair play in the land; the priests, ministers and rabbis will disseminate true principles of religion and bring spiritual comfort to heavy-laden and burdened souls; the teachers will bring up an enlightened generation of young people, teach them the fundamentals of the wisdom of the ages and inspire them to be loyal and law-abiding citizens of the land. But what happens to these professional men and women after graduation is another story. Doctors will not visit patients at night; lawyers are involved in shady deals; religious leaders and teachers are often faithless to their sacred callings.
In the teaching profession there is a quip making the rounds these days. It sounds like the Chad Gadya from the Hagaddah. The teacher is afraid of the principal; the principal is afraid of the Board; the Board is afraid of the parents; the parents are afraid of the children; and the children are afraid of no one.
These illustrations point to just one conclusion-that it is one thing to initiate a plan or to establish an institution, and quite another to execute the plan and make the system work.
It is this deep concern that motivated Moses to pray at the dedication of the Tabernacle, "Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us; establish for us the work of our hands. Yea, the work of our hands establish Thou it." (Ps. 90:17. See Rashi).
Our great teacher prayed that the Tabernacle which he built for his people be endowed with the grace of God. He yearned not for the beauty of walls and ceilings but for the spirit of Cod and the philosophy of Judaism to saturate that sacred place and the people who would enter it. After that, Moses asked that the works and deeds of the hands be performed in accordance with the teachings and laws of the Torah.
A Synagogue may have a traditional ritual; it may be conducted in conformity with all the requirements of the Shulchan Aruch. But if the conduct of the worshippers is not what it should be there is a Chilul Hashem, a desecration of the name of God. How people behave after they leave the environs of a shule, how they act in their places of business with their associates, subordinates and competitors, how they treat members of their own families at home is of crucial significance. These are "the deeds of their hands" with which Moses was concerned after the dedication. He wanted to prevent the let-down that leads, God forbid, to desecration.