Defending our values requires sacrifices
Thoughts on parashat Vayakhel
Our Torah portion for this week is among those that deal with the building of the Mishkan / Tabernacle. At the very beginning of our parasha Moses speaks to the Israelites about the necessary contributions they need to make in order to build the House in which God Himself resides.
Moses said further to the whole community of Israelites:This is what יהוה has commanded: Take from among you gifts to יהוה; everyone whose heart is so moved shall bring them—gifts for יהוה: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and the breastpiece. And let all among you who are skilled come and make all that יהוה has commanded: the Tabernacle, its tent and its covering, its clasps and its planks, its bars, its posts, and its sockets […] And everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit was moved came, bringing to יהוה an offering for the work of the Tent of Meeting and for all its service and for the sacral vestments. Men and women, all whose hearts moved them, all who would make an elevation offering of gold to יהוה, came bringing brooches, earrings, rings, and pendants — gold objects of all kinds. (Ex 35:4-11;21-22)
The Israelites brought these precious materials and did this work in the name of faith in fundamental, holy principles, as well as to build their national and religious identity and unity. Today all of this is in a deep crisis, especially in the Western World. We, people of the West, are narcissistic when it comes to our lifestyle and self-obsessed in terms of what we believe our role on Earth is. One of our fundamental mistakes is that we think that the entire world thinks like us and wants what we want, namely, economic prosperity and good life for every citizen. The thing is that this is not the case of countries ruled by dictators and oligarchs, like Russia, China or Iran.
In April 2019 the Levada Center pollster published a poll according to which 70 % of Russians believe that Stalin played a positive role in the history of Russia (only 19 percent viewed Stalin’s role negatively, down from 32 percent in 2016.) The prevalence of such a view in Russian society was almost unthinkable in the 90’s or even in the early 2000’s. Nostalgia for the „old greatness” of the Soviet Empire has significantly grown in the recent two decades and it doesn’t matter that the entire Russian economy has a GPD almost the same as the state of Florida. It doesn’t matter because the leadership of countries like Russia, China or Iran doesn’t care about the prosperity and good life of their citizens – it is actually at the very bottom of the list of their priorities. Their top priority is the “mythical greatness” of their countries, to which, unfortunately, a significant part of their society gives the green light (not forgetting, of course, about those who strongly protest against such mythomania). Thus I suppose that the economic sanctions will have a little, if at all, impact on Russia and her “imperial ambitions”.
Another problem that we have in our Western societies is that currently we can’t even unify what our chief social philosophy is or what our values are. We can’t even unify that our history has a deeper meaning and is worth reverence, or at least – respect. What is pervasive instead is self loathing, pointing fingers at each other and virtue signaling – pointing out who is smarter, more just and more moral, and it is usually “us” who are all those things. It all means nothing if there are no unified standards in this matter and if there are no commonly shared values, it becomes yet another driving force for social tribalism and political divisions. Without unifying standards more and more people involved in politics don’t care about values they used to stand for: all they care about is power, and that is the way they become more and more like Russian or Chinese oligarchs. Falsehoods like “everything is about power” openly spread in the Western intellectual and political discourse not only question all the values we believed in, all our morality and even ordinary decency. Platitudes like that are not only wrong; they are harmful because they relativize everything, open a path to Machiavellism and invite bad actors, like Putin, to the game.
But that’s enough bitterness, especially that our life is disgustingly comfortable compared to what the Ukrainian people experience at this moment, seeking shelter in the Kiev metro or deciding to find a refuge in Poland (like those who found shelter at the train station in my hometown, Przemyśl.) Times and moments like this should make us realize what are the real values on which our Western, free societies are founded; that there are things in life that are more important than comfort and everyday pleasures; that it is the fundamental values such as truth, justice and liberty that make our joyful and comfortable lives possible. The societies that don’t cherish these values drift fast towards the reality of Egypt, where tyrants or a small groups of oligarchs benefit enormously from work of impoverished masses that work from dawn to dusk without the day of rest, or, in an alternative scenario these masses have no work at all and no purpose of life other than survival, or no purpose at all, and nobody cares about it. That’s the reality that is looming everytime our true values are questioned. Maimonides believed that the essence of the first commandment is an unshakable faith in the Eternal and the minute we question His divinity, we question all our values, all our ethics, law and societal order. Absolutism can be a source of injustice, as history has shown numerous times, but there are times and places where being absolutely tied to our fundamental values is necessary and for the benefit of all of us. This, however, often requires sacrifices and that’s exactly the message Moses brought to our forefathers.