Symbols and monuments matter
What we choose to memorialize in a monument, memorial, or name of public space tells much about who we are and the values we embrace. We are confronting this in America right now.
Let’s be very clear from the outset: statues and monuments should never be destroyed by mobs. Destruction in the name of justice is never just. Rather than creating the space to reflect, learn, listen, question, argue and come to a thoughtful resolution – mob destruction is dangerous – it brooks no dissent, allows for no nuance and stands in the way to real change.
Yet questioning what and who we commemorate is an important part of values we want to stand for, defend and pass on to our children. We need to discuss what and who we choose to memorialize.
This morning’s Torah portion is a good starting place. It discusses placing an item in the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle is the Torah’s equivalent of an American monument – a sacred place representing our most significant values where place people gather. The objects in the Tabernacle tell our story and leave us with timeless lessons.
Do you know what the object which we are instructed to place in the ark from this morning’s portion? It is Aaron’s rod, which in the course of the story we learn blossomed almond branches in the aftermath of a terrible dispute. Why would we save that object? What does it teach about what is worthy of preserving and memorializing for future generations?
As we think about that – let’s weave in the other items that are so important they are to be put in the ark. What are they?
– The tablets Moses brought down from the Mt. Sinai with the 10 Commandments, – the broken tablets that Moses smashed into pieces after witnessing the Golden Calf
– and a jar with a piece of manna.
Why these items? Rabbi Mark Gelman writes: “The manna was something to live from. The tablets of law were something to live by. The flowering staff was something which lives.” The broken tablets remind us there is holiness even amidst brokenness – life’s meaning may indeed be found in those moments.
Our central monument has symbols about key aspects of a life well lived. These are the type of monuments we should be building.
Let’s think about each one and the modern monuments that might emerge from these paradigms.
Manna: We include and item in our central monument that celebrates the blessing of food – especially during a time of want and scarcity as we wandered in the wilderness. What if our monuments celebrated the blessing and gratitude of basic needs being met? It is not by accident that the tourist symbol of Israel is the cluster of grapes the spies brought back from scouting the land, or that the iconic American song evokes images of amber waves of grain and God’s grace. Manna placed in the Tabernacle speaks to our current moment in history – reminding us that sharing resources is what will allow us to survive the pandemic. Let’s name the heroes who share food with those in need and build moments commemorating their lives.
The next object to incorporate in monuments is the tablets – symbolizing that we are nothing without our code of ethics. Jewish sites often have beautiful monuments reminding us that our essence revolves around Torah and the obligations imparted by covenant. If we were in the Sanctuary, I would ask you to lift your eyes to the artistic rendering of the Ten Commandments which are above the ark. In this room, the doors to the ark are Mt. Sinai ablaze as Moses receives the 10 Commandments. Is that light or smoke at the top of the mountain? The abstract nature of this piece of art that people will walk in front of and reflect upon reminds us that everyone receives Torah in different ways – but we are united in proclaiming that it defines us. That’s what a monument should do!
The broken tablets in the ark speak to me powerfully this year. Amidst brokenness there is holiness, important lessons and forming of character.
Some of the most powerful monuments to be set up in recent years are testimony to suffering and the lessons that emerge from facing our worst moments. Susan Neiman’s book Learning From The Germans, talks about how monuments allow us to face and learn from the worst moments of history. Do you know about the stumbling stones? They are small brass plaques at the homes of those the Nazi’s killed. They record the names, and the dates of birth and deportation of Jews, gays, Roma and others who lived that house. The power of these mini monuments is the story they tell – an ordinary human being, in the midst of his or her life, who was deported and murdered with little notice and no protest from the other ordinary human beings. As of 2018, almost 70,000 stumbling stones have been laid across Europe from Poland to Spain, with more applications arriving every day. Monuments should make us think – just like the broken tablets. They should honor those who suffered and lift up their names – they should not honor those who oppressed and enslaved.
These stumbling stones inspired Bryan Stevenson to create a memorial and monument to those who were lynched. I know I need to go there – for it is a story of our history we have to confront. We need the courage to talk about the past in order to create a different future.
Stevenson’s organization, the Equal Justice Initiative is now collecting dirt from lynching sites into tall glass jars displayed in their office – marking them with the date and place of the lynching and where possible, the name of the victim. As we reflect on the question of what should be reflected in a monument– let’s remember that power of the broken tablets – testimony of pain and horror, amidst the possibility of life. It is redemptive and restorative.
And that brings us to the item placed in the ark from this morning’s portion – Aaron’s flowering staff. Why is that included? Is it that we need a symbol of joy and rebirth? Think about the context – this was in the aftermath of a violent uprising and conflict. The rebels were swallowed by the earth or consumed by fire. The Israelites died in a plague. And then God intervenes – telling Moses to take twelve staffs, one for each tribe and deposit them overnight in the Tent of Meeting.
The next morning, the staff bearing the name of Aaron had sprouted, blossomed and bore almonds – it was then that the rebellion ends, and Moses is told to put the flowering rod into the ark for eternity. Maybe we need to constantly remind ourselves that violence never ends a conflict. We don’t build a monument with the firepans that consumed the rebels, or the earth which swallowed others. We build monuments to the possibility of life renewing and bearing fruit. We reflect on the rich symbolism of the almond flower which grew on the staff – the almond is the first tree to blossom and as we look at the flowering staff, we remember winter ends and new life emerges. We build monuments which remind us that people move to a cause not by violence, plagues, earthquakes, mobs or threats – people change when they see the possibility of a different reality.
I end with a story from Bryon Stevenson. EJI gives maps sites of lynching, with names and instructions to gather earth. He tells of an African American woman who went to a site, and a truck with a white man stopped. She recalls being very nervous. When he asked what she was doing she said she was honoring the life of the man who was lynched. The man asked to see the paper EJI gave her and read it. He asked if it would be okay if he helped collect the earth. Together they threw their hands into the soil and put the earth in the jar.
The woman was so moved, she began to cry. The man said, “I’m sorry, I’m upsetting you.” She said, “No you are blessing me.” Then the man began to cry, and as she comforted him and he said, “I’m worried it might have been my grandparents who did this.” They took pictures of each other holding the jar. That is the flowering staff – a symbol of hope and what can be.
Symbols and monuments matter. They give us hope and vision. They remind us what is truly important. Let’s allow the turmoil about monuments and statutes to lead us back to our sacred text – which reminds us that our most powerful symbols remind us of what sustains us, what we have learned from and who we can become.