Who were the five wealthiest Americans in the 1800s? Most fabled poets of 16th century Islam? Greatest emperors of China’s Tang dynasty?
I can’t answer, either. Few people achieve lasting fame. Yet many try to imprint their name on history. Ego often leads them to notoriety or infamy, as they do more harm than good in their quest for wealth and power.
What if each of us, while striving to be our best, found contentment in being a part of a greater whole? Think of a quilt with its many panels, each comprised of varied pieces of cloth and diverse threads. Each plays an important, if often unnoticed, role.
Regarding this image and having completed the book of Exodus last week, I want to consider a biblical symbol of grandeur blended with humility.
Many Jews struggle with the latter portions of Exodus in which God instructs Moses in the wilderness about the design and assembly of the tabernacle, its furnishings and the vestments of the priests. Typical of ancient Near Eastern literature, the text is repetitive and filled with detailed architectural plans, the materials brought by the Israelites—Moses has to call a stop to that—the craftsmanship involved and instructions for the Tabernacle’s and priests’ dedication.
Students often wonder what may be learned. I draw a single lesson in two parts.
The first relates to God instructing Moses to “make fifty gold clasps, and couple the cloths to one another, so that the tabernacle becomes one whole” (Exodus 26:6). The Zohar, a book of Jewish mysticism, points out that the tabernacle was made up of many parts but became one, similar to the human body with its many organs. The clasps may be much smaller than the large cloths they hold together, but they’re no less important.
America might take note of the unified tabernacle. This nation is comprised of 330 million people, the population anything but homogeneous. Name the racial, religious or cultural group—we’re home to it. If the United States hadn’t taken in the massive influx of Jews from the Russian Empire from the 1880s until 1924, when an anti-Semitic Congress shut the door, I wouldn’t be here to write this.
The second lesson involves a God-commanded census. Each Israelite male twenty years and older (yes, the Torah is male-centric) is to be counted by presenting the same silver weight—one-half shekel (Exodus 30:12). God values every person equally.
The United States is a tabernacle, a quilt—a mosaic if you will. The old “melting pot” theory was never terribly accurate. Immigrants like my family strove to be American, to share the common devotion to the Constitution and the new identity forged here. They also maintained their Jewish identity. Like other groups, they embraced both Americanism and their ethnicity.
Some people will achieve fame that may endure after we die—although, in the scheme of things, not for long. Others, myself included, will leave life unnoticed and quickly be forgotten. I’m quite at peace with that.
Think of how much good each of us might do in the here and now if, while trying our wings, we resisted attempts to fly so high that we remove ourselves from a society in which the whole truly is—or can be—greater than the sum of its parts.
Read my short-short story, “The Signature,” published online in Flash Fiction Magazine.
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