Building God's House: Hanukkah 2022

The festival of Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Temple which stood in ancient Jerusalem during the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid Empire, some 150 years before the Common Era. This is the latest event in Jewish history which is commemorated with a holiday of its own. Thus, because the events it recalls took place after the latest narratives in the Hebrew Bible, the ordinary procedure of reading from the biblical book in which the holiday’s narrative is contained was not available when the ancient Rabbis assigned scriptural readings to the holy days. Instead, on Hanukkah we read about the dedication ceremony which the Israelites performed in the desert for the Tabernacle, the first house of worship constructed by the people after their Exodus from Egypt. 

The process leading up to the dedication of the Tabernacle represents a profound repudiation of the conditions under which the Israelites lived and labored under Egyptian bondage – while at the same time, mirroring it in surprising ways. According to the Book of Exodus, the principal task of the Israelites in Egypt had been the construction of “treasure cities” for Pharaoh, and the conditions under which they worked are described as pharekh, a term for work which is difficult to translate but which seems to indicate a rigor specifically calculated to sap the humanity of the laborer. Under this regime, the social bonds of Israelite society begin to dissolve  –  Moses encounters two Hebrew men who have come to blows, seeing one another no longer as fellows but only as threats; a Jewish homiletic tradition relates that the sexual life of the people comes close to dissolution as a result of their reduction to tools in an inhumane economy. So demoralized are the people by their life of alienated labor that when Moses returns from exile to deliver the news that the time has come for God to redeem the people from slavery, they are unwilling and unable to hear this message of hope: “Moses spoke to the children of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses, because of their depressed spirit and their harsh labor” (Exodus 6:9). 

When the people leave Egypt, it is perhaps surprising that they immediately turn to engage in a building project which in some ways parallels the one from which they have just been freed. The Tabernacle is, afterall, a luxurious palace for God to dwell in – its Hebrew name (Mishkan) even bears a more-than-passing resemblance to the treasure cities (Miskanot) which the Israelites built for Pharaoh. What is different about this construction project (aside from the one to whom it is dedicated) is the regime of labor under which it is built. 

The materials from which the Tabernacle is constructed are collected from “whosoever was of willing heart” (Exodus 35:5). While the construction was overseen by the master-craftsman Bezalel, the project was not simply one of top-down direction like that of the Egyptian slave-drivers. Rather, we read that “everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved and women...all who would make an offering” were invited to participate, that “all the skilled women spun with their own hands'' pursuing that part of the work which towards which their own talents and training pointed — rather than mechanically executing whatever tasks they were assigned (Exodus 35: 21-25). The clamor of the people to participate in the project is so great, in fact, that Moses actually has to direct them to stop making offerings, for their contributions have proved beyond sufficient for the needs of the moment. Apparently, more is not always better; production here serves a particular limited purpose, rather than being a mere means for the accumulation or protection of Pharaoh's wealth. 

Whereas the Israelite’s construction of the Pharaonic treasure cities was alienating — it came at the them from the outside, corroded their bonds of social cohesion, and caused them to misunderstand themselves and their place in the world — the building of the Tabernacle is presented as a fulfilling and redemptive project, one which creates a place for the creative expression of individual talents and serves as an opportunity to construct community. The socialist tradition stresses the central place of labor in human life – the dehumanizing effect of alienated labor, and the redemptive promise of a world in which labor is an occasion for developing our creative capacities and relating to one another in fellowship. When we read about the dedication of the Tabernacle each morning of Hanukkah, we have the chance to reflect on this vision of labor redeemed, and to be strengthened in our hope that we might one day experience it as a reality.

Vincent Calabrese holds a doctorate in religion from the University of Toronto and is currently a rabbinical student in the Advanced Kollel of the Hadar Institute.

Image credit: Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island