Egypt still on my mind
When we meet God, we will at least be able to say: ‘We tried to do something.’
When I read this quote from Hosam Khalaf, an Egyptian protester on why he and his entire family came to Tahrir Square, I think of the Talmudic admonition: It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.
And I am brought back to this week’s Torah portion, a continuation of instructions for the covenantal accoutrements required for proper ritual & worship — tabernacle, sacrificial tools, menorah, altar, and priestly vestments (a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress, and sash). It is a beautiful outfit, made of gold, fine twisted linen, crimson threads, precious stones (turquoise, sapphire, carnelian, emerald), and bells. On the priest’s headdress is a reminder of pure gold: Holy to God. And in the breast-piece are the Urim and Tummim, mysterious instruments of prediction that Aaron is to carry over his heart always on behalf of the wandering Israelites.
And I think of the future and how little we know about it.
Case in point: who could have predicted a month ago what would be happening in the streets of Egypt today? Who knows what will happen in the next hour, let alone tomorrow? At every moment, anything is possible. There is a steady stream of Tweets, Facebook posts, official news commentary (I’m listening to the BBC on-line as I write), each reporting a slim view of reality in a particular moment, a moment before the next moment when everything can change. When you come right down to it, our modern methods of prediction are no better than those 3000 years ago when a representative of the people held stones up to the light and hoped the purity of his intention, the perfection of his questions will make things clear.
The future will come — that much is clear. Whether we are ready for it is another question. Whether we can come even close to getting it right is yet another. There’s a reason Aaron gets some very swanky clothing, why the building of the ritual tent & ark & various tchatchkes get so much attention (4 chapters) in the Torah. All these trappings of ritual are not mere throwaways. They teach us both the beauty and seriousness of messing with existential matters, trying to predict and prepare for the future among them.
And that brings me back to Egypt. Before the protests began on January 25, pamphlets were distributed across the country with instructions for protest. Bring spray paint in case you have to cover the helmets of the police. Bring scarves for tear gas. Carry flowers to show that you are serious about peace. What we are about to do is not to be taken lightly. Be responsible. Look to the possible. Get ready.
But could anyone truly know what was coming? Did the protest organizers imagine hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, unafraid of the Army? Did they imagine that citizens would organize mobile hospitals and food carts, that men and women would pray next to each other, that the entire world would be watching as they remade their lives?
I am enthralled by the messiness and the beauty of transforming the future. Those in Tahrir Square, no matter how things turn out, will be able to say I did something. On their foreheads are already written the words Holy to God.