7. Shevat 5781
Text from Barbara Pfeffer-Billauer, published first in ToI on Jan 20th
Last week, we watched a strange and terrifying spectacle – the symbol of American History and the bastion of its Democracy was breached. The inflammatory rhetoric of America’s President was the cause, agreed by most, even his supporters. What was disputed was the response: impeachment? removal?- or, heck, just let it be, it’s going to be over in a few days, and the guy will be gone. (The bury your head in the sand or look away – it will soon be gone approach). Alternatively, some focus on the action of the victims (the populace) exacerbated things by poor preparation – diverting attention from the vexing question of how to address Trump’s behavior.
In Samuel 2 ch. 6 we read of another strange event that occurred as David causes the holy Ark to be transferred to Jerusalem. To me and to others it made little sense- that is until faced with the dilemma of addressing Trump’s actions.
The text tells us: And David arose and went with all the people that were with him, from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called a name, the name of the Lord of Hosts who dwell upon the cherubim [being] upon it.
However, instead of four men carrying the ark upon their shoulders, as Rashi recounts is the correct means of transporting the Ark and as is prescribed in Numbers 7:9, the children of Aminadav, Acchyo and Uzzah, transported the Ark by vehicular means. They loaded the Ark from their father’s house, located on a hill –onto a new cart pulled by oxen.
While the cart may have been voyage-worthy, it appears the oxen were not. Apparently, during the hullabaloo of the trip, the oxen stumbled – jostling the Ark such that it appeared it might fall off the cart.
Most of us have seen someone carrying a Torah who stumbles – and for a moment it looks like the Torah might fall and hit the ground. Our heart fills our mouths with dread- the panic is more for the sake of the Torah than its bearer. God forbid our Holy Torah should face the ignominy of being thrown to the ground.
We can guess that Uzzah – and the rest of the entourage- seeing the jostled Ark, must have felt the same way. Whether automatically, or deliberately to prevent the Ark’s fall – Uzzah grabs on to it to steady it, as the rest of the entourage holds its breadth, praying the unthinkable will not happen and the Ark doesn’t slip off the cart.
Uzzah’s punishment for touching the Ark – a capital offense — is swift. The text recounts:
And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him down there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God.
And we ask, why should Uzzah have been punished for trying to save the Ark from damage or dishonor?
Last week, most of us watched the insurrection at the American Capitol. The horror of watching the sanctum of liberty debased was not something we are proud of – instigated by the railing of a president who cannot bear to see himself as a loser. A few days later Donald Trump tried to undo the damage of his prior exhortations by stating that he doesn’t approve of violence. Maybe his intentions at that point were really for the best?
Yet, the punishment is swift. Democrats and Republicans alike called for his impeachment. Some called for his removal.
But others, even those who opposed Trump and his rhetoric, felt such a response was unwarranted- excessive even- given the fact that he would be leaving office a few days hence. Perhaps those who opposed removal or impeachment wanted to bury their heads and hide from dealing with it. Perhaps they thought that the nation was beleaguered enough. Perhaps some believe Trump’s later message serves to exonerate him- at least somewhat.
Perhaps in this context, the punishment of Uzzah makes sense.
The Ark represents the epitome of holiness. It houses a manifestation of the Holy One here on Earth. It should never have come to being put in jeopardy of falling. That Uzzah later tries to remedy the mishap is no substitute for causing the horror in the first place – for triggering the panic of his compatriots watching the sway on the cart and worrying that it might fall — he deserves punishment.
If we believe Democracy is sacrosanct– neither it, nor its house, should ever have been put in jeopardy of falling or damage. That Trump later came to foreswear violence is no substitute for his causing the horror of Americans watching their Democratic bastions being bashed and mangled — and worrying that it might be destroyed altogether.
When something is that holy- the punishment must be swift and decisive. To send a message- and to remind ourselves just how much we value that which we treasure, the punishment must befit the crime. That sentiment very much applies to Democracy – its bastions- and its emblems. Endangering the Holy Ark, we are told, is a capital offense. Endangering the Capitol should elicit appropriately dire consequences. Avoiding the punishment for the sake of expediency (the term is almost over) or because better protection (by those affected – e.g. blame the victim) might have prevented some of the greater damage – sends a message – the wrong one.