Torah Readers Reflections

A divided nation

Our western nations are socially, culturally, religiously and politically divided. Multiculturalism has divided us instead of bringing ethnically diverse groups together in order to build a nation. The book of Exodus focuses on nation building, can we turn to this book to find answers on how to cure our divided nation?
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When I look at society in the US today, I don’t think that there hasn’t been a people more socially, culturally, religiously and politically divided as they are today, at least not since the American civil war. This political and social division between people is not unique to the United States, we see the same divisions in Europe even if the problems are somewhat different from what we experience in the United States. What is common to Europe and the United States is the discussion and divisions surrounding multiculturalism. While America has always been a multicultural society, a society of immigrants, this is not the case in Europe.


Over the last 30 years, as the European Union opened its doors to more immigrants from Africa and the middle east, as Eastern European nations joined the union and were able to travel and work in any of the member countries, Europe was forced to embrace multiculturalism - this is the concept that no culture is more dominant than another in European society. What the European countries found was that far from illuminating social conflict, it had the inverse effect and increased the divisions between cultures and created segregated communities of ethnically divided groups. It created societies that were less tolerant of minorities and as a reaction enhanced the idea of nationalism. The Dutch put it so eloquently; Tolerance ignores differences, multiculturalism makes an issue of them at every point.


How do you move beyond multiculturalism without sacrificing the ideal of an inclusive society?


Obviously we see these same issues amplified in our American society. 154 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans still live in segregated communities and are discriminated against based solely on the color of their skin. Latinos are no more welcomed in the US than the Irish were in the 19th century, politicians including a President has labeled them as rapists and murderers. White nationalism is on the rise as a reaction against multiculturalism. The idea of replacement theory, where white (European) Americans are being replaced by peoples with darker skins has gained popular acceptance amongst large portions of society and has even been promoted by politicians on the national level. 


The book of Exodus is about nation building - this is where we should logically be looking for answers on how to solve a fragmented society. It is strange to find that the last third of the book of Exodus deals with the building of the Tabernacle, what has this got to do with the building of a nation? The logical place for this to be described is in the book of Leviticus which deals with the services of the Tabernacle. However, we find no less than 500 verses dedicated to the instructions and building of the tabernacle. Why would it be placed here and what does it have to do with nation building?


To understand this we must return to the beginning of the book of Exodus and review the events that happened to the Israelites since then.


In chapter 1 of Exodus we find the Israelites described as an “am” - people by Pharaoh. Rabbi Soloveitchik pointed out that an am is a community of fate. The Torah uses the word edah to describe a community of faith. An am shares a past whereas an edah shares a future, a set of ideas and aspirations. The path to becoming a nation in Exodus could be described as the journey from an am to an edah.


Moses' challenge in the book of Exodus is how to exactly turn the people from a group of escaping slaves into a cohesive nation. The people are divided into 12 tribes or clans - the Torah makes this clear many times. As a people they have no united sense of identity. In addition they are a “mixed multitude” (Ex. 12:38), a heterogeneous group who were not ethnically Israelites. What Moses faced then was not dissimilar to the problems facing mult-cultural and multi-ethnic counties of the US and Europe today.


We also learn in Exodus that the people lacked the moral maturity necessary to become a free nation. At every stage they complain. They do so when Moses’ intervention makes things initially worse for them, then again at the Reed Sea. After crossing the sea they complain twice about lack of water. This is a people who can’t see beyond the present, they lack faith in God and have maintained a slave mentality. 

Even after the revelation at Mount Sinai, just 41 days later they built a golden calf. After everything that they had experienced, from the ten plagues through the redemption from slavery, crossing the Reed Sea, the miracles that God performed for them in Egypt and in the desert, water from a rock, manna from heaven. Culminating in the most amazing revelation of God where he spoke directly to the people. Even after all this they had no faith, they were a disparate group of people who had descended into a rabble that danced around a golden idol in total defiance of everything that they had personally witnessed.


It is at this very moment that God commands Moses to gather the people and construct the Tabernacle. It was as if God sent the Israelites on a Team building exercise. If you've ever been on one of those exercises from work you will know that the intended consequence is to build team unity through shared challenges and goals - they are in fact very effective tools for unifying a group around a shared goal, building friendships, reinforcing corporate goals and increasing employee motivation. It was as if God said to Moses:if you want to create a group with a sense of collective identity, get them to build something together. It is not what happens to us, but what we do, that gives us identity and responsibility. What transformed the Israelites is not what God did for them but what they did for God.


Up until this point, when God did everything for them, they quarreled and complained, now that they have a shared goal, there was no quarreling or complaining throughout the building of the Tabernacle. In fact they brought so much that Moses had to turn them away.


This is the story of nation building. If you want to create a cohesive group, set them a common task, a common goal that they can only achieve as a group. A group that cuts across racial, cultural, political and ethical divides,a group where each ethnic group can contribute its unique talents to the nation. A nation does not depend on shared ethnicity, it can arise simply from a sense of a shared responsibility, a shared task. 


The Torah offers an amazing way out of the dilemmas of multiculturalism. It suggests that the citizens of a nation see themselves as co-creators of a society. By being what I uniquely am, I give what I alone can give. THere is a strong relationship between building and belonging. The biblical narrative of the building of the Tabernacle is proof that integrated diversity works to successfully build a nation and put the differences between people in their correct perspective.


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