This weekend, I’m thinking a lot about construction: building and demolition, specifically. No, I’m not taking up a hobby in engineering, but I am thinking about the upcoming Passover seder and this week’s Torah portion in tandem.
First, the seder next week. When it comes to construction projects, I think the “garrison cities” are the most famous building project of the Passover story. Let’s recap a little: we know that the Israelites were forced to lay bricks and mortar to build these cities for Pharaoh. We also know that when Moses and Aaron first approach Pharoah in defense of the Israelites, Pharaoh spitefully makes the work even harder: no more straw will be provided to hold the bricks together, he declares. The Israelites have to take the time to go gather it, but the same number of bricks are demanded on a daily basis. It’s an impossible task that multiplies the labor and hardship.
The text is clear: the hard labor is one thing, but the malicious, devious intent of Pharaoh's decree is what cuts deep. He knows well the pain he is inflicting. There’s almost a twinkle in his eye and a smirk on his face as he imposes an impossible task. There’s no regard here for the laborers or the resources.
But nothing about this should surprise us. Torah tells us that these cities being built are “mis-ko-not” - translated as either garrison cities, storehouses, or treasuries for the king. The rabbis explain that the word miskonot indicates that these cities are pretty frivolous. They’re just warehouses, built to pile up weapons and the Pharoah’s loot. They’re his treasury where he hoards his own wealth, not meant for the betterment of his people, let alone the Israelites. They’re storehouses of vanity, built on the broken lives of the oppressed.
We could juxtapose this with a different sort of construction project, one that we find in this week’s Torah portion, Metzora. What we see this week is more of a demolition project, if you will. Leviticus tells us that if someone discovers tza-ra’at - a sort of fungus or affliction - growing on a house, they call the priest in to inspect it. Thus begins a multi-stage process of saving the house. First, the house is boarded up for a few days. If that doesn’t do the trick, if the plague has still spread after the quarantine, then they take out the afflicted bricks and scrape out the fungus. They replace the bricks and replaster. If, after the patch job, the plague continues to spread, only then is the house condemned and torn down.
We can understand this process pragmatically. Ancient Jews didn’t exactly have a ton of house building materials around. This was an economic way to address the houses’ plague and to try to preserve the structure before ripping it down.
But I also see a deeper value here - one that flies in the face of Pharaoh’s decree from back in Exodus. There is such care here to preserve time, resources and energy. A sense that one should do no more harm than needs to be done. Afterall, this is a person’s home we’re talking about, where they care for their family. It is treated with dignity, respect and care. Pharaoh, of course, has no idea what those things are.
If you’re of the construction mind, the Torah is filled with construction projects like this and they have similar juxtapositions. For example, the Israelites build the Golden calf - the gross epitome of vapid idol worship - which then gets replaced with the Tabernacle - a beautiful home for the 10 commandments where one does not see God, but rather where our hearts commune with the Divine.
Or think of the Tower of Babel - a highly successful construction project that, like Pharaoh’s cities, was a large-scale project with no holy purpose other than to feed egos. That building too is condemned…physically and metaphorically.
This week we ask ourselves: what are we Jews supposed to build? Well, the answer is easy: lives of virtue. Relationships full of decency. The physical spaces we construct are there to house the friendships, nurture the relationships. Hence our humble sanctuary. Or the seder tables we will finally sit around again. Why did we miss them so much these last 2 years? Maybe it’s because you love your uncle’s matzah ball soup, but I bet it's more because of the relationships formed around the table while passing the charoset.
One more building project from the seder that is worth noting. It’s a small project, one that you might miss if you don’t look hard enough.
When Yocheved gives birth to Moses, she hides him until his cries become too loud. So she builds a small ark caulked with reeds and pitch. The word used is “teva,” an ark, like the one back in Genesis. Like Noah adrift during the great Flood, Moses is set to float on the Nile - representing the last hope for his people.
Yocheved’s construction project, like Noah’s before her, is born of love and devotion. Her’s though, is small, quiet and unassuming. We Jews will build many things in our lives - physically and spiritually. We learn tonight that we are meant to build with humble purpose and always with hope. We build for what the future may hold, not just to hoard what we have now.