Inspiring Our Institutions
The detailed description of the completion of the Mishkan in all its splendor can overwhelm us with a plethora of information, blinding us to the power and importance of this week’s double parashah concluding the book of Exodus. Unlike other ancient Near Eastern cultures, which often included a drawing or diagram in their holy writings, ancient Israelite texts eschewed pictures of any kind. Thus, we have elaborate word pictures to describe very tangible materials and construction techniques. Imagine for a moment your favorite building — maybe your house, or some icon of architectural splendor that you have seen somewhere in the world. Now, try to begin describing in minute detail, in words, not pictures or architectural plans, the beauty and wonder of that building and its furnishings. Perhaps now you can appreciate the incredible lucidity and beauty of our richly fashioned texts this week. Should you really want to visualize the beauty of the Tabernacle (whether the Torah’s description is semihistorical or somewhat imaginative remains open to debate) make a visit with your family to the Mennonite Center in Lancaster, Pennsylvannia, where you can see a full–scale replica of the Tabernacle and can even buy a model, which can be constructed by your children!
It is precisely those details, climaxing the epic journey of our people from creation to Sinai to the current moment of community building, centered on God, dwelling among the people, structuring leadership and responsibility, which create a sense of unity, purpose, and relationship. According to Jon D. Levenson in Sinai and Zion (p. 128), the Temple and its predecessor, the Tabernacle, are considered the epitome of the world, a concentrated form of essence, a miniature of the cosmos. God, seemingly absent at the beginning of Exodus, now having forgiven the people for the Molten Calf episode, takes up residence among them in order to establish God’s “cosmic sovereignty” among the people. That, I would posit, is exactly the same pattern that ennobles and impels our sense of Jewish community even to this day. Do we not perceive our synagogues, schools, federations, communal agencies, and educational institutions as the center of our Jewish communal world and very much central to the lives and activities of constituents? But the establishment of these clusters of spiritual and communal life is full of details. And the devil is in those details!
Imagine the following conversation between the President of the synagogue and the Rabbi as the synagogue is engaged in a capital campaign to build a new or enlarged sanctuary: “Rabbi,” says the President, “The congregants are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the new building that we all feel so impelled to build!” The Rabbi makes the following announcement at Shabbat morning services: “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” Think it couldn’t happen? Well, check out Exodus chapter 36, verses 3–7. Nachmanides puzzles over this extraordinary situation and suggests that the extra amounts, not sufficient to have been mentioned in the carefully audited figures recorded in P’kudei chapter 38, verses 21–29, were used to set up an endowment to pay for maintenance and supply of sanctuary utensils. That makes more business sense to us!
Similarly, we have a very exacting audit of all the gold and goods used to build the Mishkan at the beginning of the second unit of our double Parashat P’kudei. The Midrash (Exod. R. 51:1) reminds us that in communal fund–raising and finances, responsibility for accounting and management should not be given to fewer than two or even three people. And even Moses, who for a while was solely in charge, was held to a higher standard of accountability. As the Tabernacle is finished, Moses orders a “professional outside audit” so he can be shown to be above reproach. In our contemporary organizational and communal life, the need for excellent stewardship on the part of trustees and professionals has become increasingly central to non–profit organizational health, vigor, and sustainability. The partnership of trustees and boards of directors (unpaid staff!) and paid professionals — rabbis, cantors, educators, federation, and agency staff — must be carefully detailed, reexamined, and tweaked on a regular basis. Jewish organizational health should require not only an “audit” or evaluation of the professional staff, but a regular “audit” or self–assessment of board roles, structures, accountability, and leadership ladders. No one in a Jewish organizational setting should just coast — everyone needs to examine and reexamine polices, agendas, procedures, and long–term goals — to truly embody the holy stewardship entrusted to leaders by the Jewish people. As we read the final details of the construction of our first house of worship, may they inspire us to reimagine what our boards, accountability structures, and institutional self–evaluation mechanisms need to be to create healthy, life–giving Jewish institutions that truly embody God’s presence.
Rabbi Steven Brown
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.