Since moving to Washington, D. C., I have never missed seeing the cherry blossoms. Their springtime flowering reminds me of our freedom, especially as the event is always close to the Passover holiday. Here, pink trees puff out around the tidal basin and the mall, in contrast to the white buildings that house our government and marble structures that serve as memorials. The blossoms will soon fade but those buildings stand as witness to the legacy of our nation’s striving for freedom. These days I fear that the dedication to freedom is fading as quickly as the withering cherry blossoms.
The Founding Fathers (and hopefully mothers) of the United States envisioned this nation as a New Jerusalem. They were inspired by biblical imagery in constructing this nation, both in its government and its buildings. The architecture of the great buildings of Washington links us to the scriptural ideals of liberty and justice pursued by our founders. The godliness of this nation, founded upon principles of freedom, is demonstrated by the architectural design of its most emblematic buildings.
Constructed with temple like facades, the White House, the Capitol, and several of the memorials evoke the great temples of the ancient world, even the Temple in Jerusalem. Their alabaster white stones remind us to uphold the purity of the godly goals of expanding freedom or risk our very lives.
Set up among the Israelites in the desert was the Mishkan, a travelling structure where God’s presence was manifest. Similarly the Founders understood the White House and the Capitol to be tabernacles where godliness is to be engendered and enlivened.
The nation’s founders also knew the Torah teaches that such tabernacles of godly aspirations can be defiled. The admonition of Torah at the end of parshat Metzorah, in Leviticus Chapter 14 connects us with the symbolic role of our modern temples; “You shall put the Israelites on guard against their uncleanness, lest they die through their uncleanness by defiling My Tabernacle, which is among them.”
America’s great structures have been defiled. And this nation should be on guard against the political feculence that pervades our nation. When those who inhabit these structures desecrate them with falsehoods, perfidy and animus, there must be calls for atonement to release this nation from impurity. We have done it before.
This nation struggled to eradicate slavery and then rid its self of that sin. This nation was segmented by race and religion and a greater society took root to cleanse the polity of prejudice. We continue to struggle with economic rights, debating the availability of health care, guaranteeing a living wage, and ending workplace discrimination. The impurities of xenophobia, corruption, cronyism and oppression continue to plague us. How will we purify ourselves?
We need no more marble buildings. What we need to construct now are the connections to erect a fair and free society. We need leadership that will carefully balance the needs of the collective with the rights of the individual. We aspire to visionary leadership that propels this nation forward rather than reverts to the prejudices and ignorance of the past.
So I wonder whose role is it to put this nation on guard against the uncleanness that has infected our government?
Who will be the priests for today? And are we willing to listen to those who urge us to cleanse this country? If we listen, will we purify the sacred structures fashioned to remind us to create a godly nation, worthy of being called the New Jerusalem, by expelling their corrupt and craven inhabitants?
Rabbis are among the wardens of priesthood and prophecy that compel us toward virtue. Some clergy step up and speak the prophetic words: “let justice roll like a mighty stream”. While we can stand behind the clergy who lead the way, we are, as Torah states, a nation of priests. Accordingly, each of us should see ourselves as a custodian of freedom, especially as we celebrate the upcoming Passover holiday.
As the cherry blossoms fade and we clean our houses for Passover, we can start this year’s commemoration of freedom with this intention. Let’s cleanse this nation of the impurity that is corruption, prejudice and mendacity. Let each of us lead the way.
Rabbi Evan Krame