Of Unity Governments and the Mishkan (Ideas #121)


Parliamentary party politics here in Israel makes for interesting conversation. In fact, interesting may not be the right word. It can be downright depressing.

With as many as eight parties (did I leave anyone out?) involved in current coalition talks, I am afraid that we will end up with a government characterized by the “lowest common denominator.” But taking heed of one respondent who pointed out that rabbis have far too much to say about politics, I will not expound upon my political views here.

Instead, I will declare that although I may be politically against a unity government, as a religious Jew it is difficult for me to be totally opposed. After all, the rabbis of the Talmud seem to think very highly of Jewish unity, as do many more recent Jewish visionaries. Of course, one could argue that Israeli unity governments should not be confused with Jewish unity – it is simply a case of politicians thinking that their interests, or hopefully the interests of their constituents, are best served by temporarily working together with their rivals. Still, whether it comes from a good place or not, working together may still be more redemptive than we know.

In fact, if we are to judge from recent events, it seems that mutual respect and appreciation is something that only comes after working for a common goal, not before it. The most recent Israeli military incursion into Gaza brought about a great deal of mutual respect between religious and secular Israelis. Ironically, that respect may have been at a low point shortly before this mini-war.  The reason for the change was that when we work together for a common goal, we are able to see the other at his best.

During the latest military operation, the religious saw that, in spite of all the cultural forces pointing in the opposite direction, the secular Israeli is still willing to risk his life for his homeland and for his Jewish brothers. For their part, the secular saw that, regardless of grievances about the expulsion at Gush Katif, the boys with kippot are still willing to fight with a heroic spirit, intuitively inspired by their ancestral Jewish vision.

Closer to home, we know that this pattern is often true in our families and our work environments as well. When we work towards a common goal, we are able to discern others putting their best foot forward. When not engaged in the same goal, we rarely even notice.


In reading the many parshiot about the mishkan in Shemot and Vayikra, it is hard to understand why the Torah spends so much time on every detail of its construction and dedication. Clearly, it is central in ways that generally evade us. At the same time, we should not think that there are no accessible themes in these sections. One such accessible theme is the ingenious forging of a common purpose through the mishkan’s construction.

Normally, such a project is entrusted to specialists on the one hand and religious and financial elites on the other. Instead, in the mishkan project, G-d chose to emphasize the involvement of the entire people.  Every Jew had some relationship to it – whether in its creation, its implementation or at least in the role of active spectator. In fact, if one reads carefully, the communal cooperation involved in creating the mishkan is alluded to more than once. Whether it is in the requests for contributions placed in front of the whole people, the explanation given to the whole nation which is unusually described as “vayakhel” (a gathering of the congregation), the involvement of all tribal leaders or the stress on the very disparate tribal identities of its two main architects, the theme is hard to miss.

Here we find the Torah doing what it does best - not only giving us a laudable goal but giving us a workable strategy to attain it. Though we often feel like we know what we should be doing, it is another thing to know exactly how to get there. I am reminded of the story about R. Shlomo Carlebach who was enthusiastically received when he asked a crowd of sixties’ hippies, “Do you really want world peace?” After they told him how much they were longing for it, they waited with great anticipation for what this hip rabbi would tell them. However, when his answer was that it starts with doing an act of kindness for someone you really hate, they were noticeably less enthusiastic. In contrast, when G-d gave the Jews a communal mandate which would touch their inner essence, He knew that the Jews would respond appropriately. In short, G-d knew that there was no better way to overcome the clear tribal and familial divisions that existed than to give the entire Jewish people a communal project of value.


So would a unity government be good for the Jews? On a political level, I am not sure that it would be. Yet on a metaphysical level, the answer might be different. For if the messianic age is symbolized by the lion sitting together with the lamb, does it not first require the hawk sitting together with the dove?