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The Evolution of a Society: From Men to Laws

The Founders were keenly aware of the dangers of a society governed by a king, and they were equally wary of any government that relies on an individual, no matter how great they may be, as the source of guidance and inspiration for a nation. This was a big issue in George Washington’s presidency: was he really a public servant subject to laws, or was he really the next benevolent tyrant in sheep’s clothing?

Judaism and Jews have long been associated with laws and texts, of course. We Jews do not accidentally become lawyers and judges. Certainly post-Sinaitic Judaism is all about the words and ideas, the laws that make up the fabric of Jewish life every day. Arguably our shared legal obsession is anchored in the holy core of all of Judaism: the Ark of the Testament, the aron, which housed within it the Ten Commandments.

But what surprised me in the text was discovering that the word for the ark, the aron of the tabernacle (and later the Temple) is found in the text only one time in the entire Torah, in just one earlier verse. I think there is a huge symbolic lesson in that verse:

Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years; and he was embalmed and placed in an aron in Egypt.

Huh? Why is this the only mention of an aron before the ark of the testament? Biblical Hebrew has other words for enclosures and graves … why this one, aron, specifically?

I think that the Torah uses the word aron to explicitly link the Ark of the Covenant to Joseph, because both were critical and potent symbols to the entire people. After all, the enslaved Children of Israel could always rely on the fact of Joseph’s existence as a deeply powerful source of hope: “We may be slaves, but Joseph used to rule Egypt!” Joseph’s body is a symbol, like a rallying flag. It meant that we were not necessarily meant to be slaves, but that maybe – just maybe – our future might hearken to a past where the people were independent and free.

In which case, the aron of Joseph surely had a talismanic effect on the people. Though they carried very different messages, to the slaves in Egypt, Joseph may have been every bit as important as the Ark was to be for the Jewish people for the hundreds of years following.

The covenant between Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was tribal, not national. And that covenant, critical though it was, was not founded on laws so much as on core ideals. When Joseph was living (and until Sinai), there was no Torah.  People came first; words came later.  Following the entrance of the people into Canaan, Joseph is fully buried, and the people gradually transition toward a new reality, one governed less by strongmen and much more by Torah Law.

Which in turns suggests that the progression of Jewish history in this period was analogous to the Founding Fathers in the United States: you start with charismatic and powerful and inspirational leaders. But for a society to develop and grow, it needs to understand that the true bedrock of a holy society is found in its lawbooks, critically reliant on the extent to which people respect and adhere to those texts. The Ten Commandments and the Constitution have this in common!

[an @iwe and @eliyahumasinter work]

Comments are welcome!

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