Spin doctors

By Rabbi Seymour Rossel
Parashat Terumah

Feb. 22, 2023, would have been the 292nd birthday of George Washington. The Constitution of 1787 had many weaknesses but all the founding fathers agreed: Too much power should never be placed in one hand or in one branch of government. Even so, George Washington was the obvious and only choice as first president. You all know most of this story: Washington never took a salary. He saw himself as a citizen called to duty, first through the eight years he served as general of the Revolutionary army and again when he served eight years as first president of the United States. His entire role in public life was a sacrifice and a donation. This would not have surprised anyone since Washington was reputedly the richest man in America.

Washington’s first inaugural address to the Congress in New York was mainly a plea to the Divine Parent of all (in those days, the word God was considered politically incorrect). Four years later, in Philadelphia, Washington made the pre-“Guinness Book of World Records”by delivering the shortest presidential inaugural speech on record. He merely told the members of Congress that he was willing to be accountable to each and every one of them. For eight years, he resisted highfalutin’ titles such as “His Excellency” or “His Honor” and asked to be addressed simply as “Mr. President.”

In Washington’s time, the notion of a professional politician hardly existed. A few years later, Federal Election Commission filingsreported President Biden’s campaign spent $272,860,139 between Oct. 15 and Nov. 23. George Washington insisted on being called “Mr. President” but today any president should insist on being called “Mr. Fundraiser.” Indeed, U.S. politics seems to be a fundraising war “waged in penthouses, beachfront mansions and executive dining rooms from Manhattan to Malibu” (Kenneth Baer in The New Republic Online).

Contrast this with our Torah portion of Terumah this week. God’s fundraiser was stunningly simple. God said to Moses, “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is moved to give” (Exodus 25:2). God then provided Moses with an enormous wish list. Nevertheless, Bezalel soon reported to Moses:

“The people are bringing more than is needed …” Moses had this proclamation made throughout the camp: “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” So the people stopped bringing: Their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done” (Exodus 36:5-7).

What an astonishing fundraiser! But this may be the kind of Torah exaggeration best compared to the reported extent of the plagues (which the rabbis exaggerated still further in the Haggadah). Perhaps the best rabbinic commentary on this fundraiser is the Haftorah portion chosen for Terumah. In order to build the Temple, Solomon recruits tens of thousands of Israelites, forcing them to work in shifts in the forests of Lebanon or on the mount in Jerusalem. This forced servitude (technically, corvée labor) is exacted in place of taxes. The thousands of Israelites forced to work far from home met conditions far from ideal. Some modern Bible scholars even believe that the story of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt grew out of the memory of Solomon’s forcible use of Israelites as laborers!

Solomon needed the laborers to work willingly despite the fact that they were drafted by force. It may be, some scholars say, Solomon’s advertising department exaggerated the fundraising story of the Tabernacle in the wilderness. How much did the people back then provide (all for the glory of God)? Too much! The advertising folk told Solomon’s laborers, “In those days, the people were not like you sluggards and you complainers. Back then, they came willingly and gave even more than what was required!”

Solomon was the richest person in the kingdom but he was no George Washington. He wanted more wealth and he wanted infinite dynasty. And who made up Solomon’s advertising department? It was the priests and the scribes, Jerusalem’s elite.

My teacher Joseph Campbell spoke of “the myths we live by.” Those ideals shape our beliefs and control our actions. Don’t think that modern politicians and their ad departments have forgotten this. Today’s politicians try to convince us they are “of the people” even as they raise lifetimes of cash to campaign for office. Likewise, Solomon’s priests and scribes idealized the memory of building the Tabernacle and the people’s overeagerness to donate goods and services. That did not mean that forced servitude was easier to take or less onerous to Solomon’s Israelite laborers. Ever since, of course, we have cited the “model” of the fundraiser in the wilderness as our ideal when it comes to giving from our hearts to Jewish causes.

Rabbi Seymour Rossel is the author of “Alone and Wrestling,” “Bible Dreams,” “The Wise Folk of Chelm” and many more books, all to be seen at https://RosselBooks.com. His bio can be found in Wikipedia and he is a frequent contributor to the Facebook platform, where you are invited to “friend” him. He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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