Almost a year ago, the Washington Post put out a video of Los Angeles, empty of cars and people. It was taken just after we all went into lock down. It’s only a minute long, but in that short time you see Hollywood Blvd, usually packed with tourists and vendors, empty of people. You can see the Santa Monica Pier, usually bustling with sunbathers and carnival rides, dark and empty. There are many of these videos on the web, and in each city after city, busy streets look fallow, cars missing from freeways, fountains dry, stadiums silent.
It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since we went into isolation, when the cities went quiet and we gave each other our last hugs. Now a year later, we are starting to come back out. The streets are filling up, some schools are reopening, many more people are getting vaccinated. As we reopen and become reacquainted with each other, we have to ask ourselves:
Are we going to do this differently than before?
The truth is, even before we all went into isolation we were already running away from each other. Social distancing existed long before the lockdown – when neighbors stopped speaking to each other because of politics, or when social media was fraying social norms. Before the epidemic forced us into isolation, millions of us already felt that way with mental health, crises exploding everywhere, especially among teens. Long before COVID infected our cells and destroyed our bodies, our society already had a fever with rising numbers of those who are impoverished, stressed, and degraded. The drones that flew above empty cities a year ago captured the outward manifestation of an inner spiritual condition.
Isolated. Empty. Fearful.
After a year of running away, we have to ask ourselves, what kind of world do we want to run towards?
Thousands of years ago, the Torah knew of this dynamic and offered wisdom we can cherish today. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayahkel – Pekudei, the last of the Book of Exodus, Moses tries to model what it means to come back together. The reading opens, “Moses assembled (vayakhel) all the community of Israel and said to them: these are the things the Lord has commanded you to do.” (Ex. 35:1) What follows is the specific commandments to build the Tabernacle, or God’s home, among the people. This sentiment parallels an earlier convocation, when the people rose and demanded Aaron to build for them the Golden Calf: “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him.” (Ex. 32:1) At work in the Torah is the interplay between two world views that bring people together to form two different kinds of societies.
In the story of the Golden Calf, the Israelites demanded that Aaron build for them the golden visage because they were afraid. To live in the society of the Golden Calf is to confuse substance with being substantial and crowds with community. It’s where God is a mere thing to please your needs and you focus only on receiving what you deserve. Idol worship turns religion into a crowdfunded museum piece, encased in gold that is meant to be gawked at for a moment only to go on your way to something else. A society with idols at its center expects others to create for you your own spirituality instead of you working hard to build it yourself. Idols also create crowds and not communities. To live in the world of the Golden Calf is to try to push ahead of others to get your moment with the thing to observe it, and ask of it to fulfill your needs. It is a society that fosters no bond between people, and no expectations of ourselves other than to live in our fear of each other and push against each other to get ahead. It is the society we ran away from in COVID, and hopefully not the one we return to.
Instead, God asks the Israelites to build the society of the Tabernacle, where God commands the community to build a home for themselves. Here, spirituality is community-supported and inclusive. It is a place where pain is made public through the act of confession and sacrifice. It is a place that asks you to participate, to donate, and to serve. The society of the tabernacle is one in which love is at the center, the heart drives our decisions, and we support each other powerfully. God is not a thing, but a Partner to push you to be better, to push others ahead, to not only observe what is good, but to serve what is good and right.
The dynamic that existed thousands of years ago still exists today. As cities start to get noisy again, tables start filling up again, and communities come back together again – this is our chance to build a different world. Instead of being a gawker, be a doer. Instead of living for yourself, live for others. Instead of expecting your spirituality to be built for you, you are expected to build it yourself. Instead of observing the world, serve the world. Instead of pushing your way through a crowd, be part of building a community. Instead of just asking about what you need, ask how you are needed. Let us all build a home, a community and a world worth running towards.