You don’t want a king. At least, the Tanakh doesn’t want you to want a king.
This week’s Torah/haftorah pairing is just a little bit political.
Haftorah or haftorah literally means “leaving.” It’s like the grand finale of the Torah service. In practice, it’s a reading from the prophets or historical books of Tanakh. Usually, the haftorah picks up a theme from the Torah reading. So, if we’re lucky, it helps us understand that theme more deeply.
Mishkan: Moses’ Grassroots Project
Today’s Torah reading tells a story about the mishkan. It’s a portable wilderness worship centre, built in 1200 BCE or so. Today’s haftorah tells a story about the Temple, a permanent installation in Jerusalem, built in 950 BCE or so. There is nothing subtle about the pairing of the two stories. It’s your basic “compare, contrast, and learn” situation.
Moses leads the building of the mishkan. He shares the detailed plans with the people. Getting their buy-in is important to him. So he gets them excited about the project. Then, they donate, donate, and donate. They donate materials, skills, and time. Women get especially involved in artisan weaving and the community celebrates their contributions.
On dedication day, Moshe blesses the community. He puts the mishkan together, but he is modest about it. He is only following God’s design—the one he shared with the people from day one. Finally, God’s glory fills the mishkan.
Temple: King Solomon’s Royal Project
Solomon leads the building of the Temple. He signs a business agreement with his friend, King Hiram of Tyre. Hiram will provide access to his forests. Then, Solomon will supply Hiram’s household with wheat and oil.
Now Solomon has to get the wood, so he drafts 30,000 people into forced forestry labor. Then he drafts another 80,000 to work in quarries, and 70,000 to work as porters.
But don’t worry about them. Because, the story says, actually, Solomon builds the Temple. Solomon panels the walls. He constructs the partition between the main hall and the holy of holies. He makes the keruvim. And he covers them with gold. Then, “King Hiram”—note the scare quotes—does the fine artwork.
But what about the actual artisans? Well, they’re not important. And what about the women? Well, a few appear in the story. There are Solomon’s 300 wives and 700 concubines. All selected to solidify his business interests. Okay that’s me being snarky. The text puts it more delicately: he marries for diplomatic interests.
When Solomon and his nearly-invisible crew complete the work, there’s a dedication ceremony. Solomon presides and he says, “God thought to dwell in a thick cloud. But I have built you a fancy house, where you can dwell forever.”
Beware of the King
You don’t have to be a expert in Bible or politics or rocket science to see the point.
Moses leads with transparency and participation. He is humble; he celebrates the community. And he insists that the mishkan belongs to everyone.
Solomon celebrates himself. He acts as though he owns the people. And, in this story, he is pretty arrogant. He thinks knows God’s wishes better even than God does.
As biblical stories go, Solomon is, unfortunately, your basic king. Not unlike—dare I say it—okay I will whisper it—Pharaoh.
This is important. For the most part, the Tanakh condemns kings. A few are good, and most are terrible. Pay attention.
Look at our world today. At Europe, the Americas, the Middle East. An international network of exceptionally corrupt, exceptionally wealthy opportunists is forming itself into a network of monarchs. They use the forms of democracy to consolidate power. And they use your religious allegiances to distract you. Our news sites call them oligarchs, autocrats, and authoritarians. But don’t get confused. These are the Solomons and the Hirams of our day.
Maybe you can’t control them. But you can control your response. And today’s Torah reading tells you how. Don’t adopt the values of the king. Instead, wherever you can, build community like Moses built the mishkan.
Originally prepared as a dvar Torah for Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei at Or Shalom Synagogue.