Twenty two years have passed since the Millennium Dome opened in Greenwich on December 31st 1999. It’s still there – 365meters in diameter, one meter for every day of the year, supported by twelve 100m support towers – to represent the hours on a clock – tight on the Greenwich meridian line which passes the Western side of the dome.
Nowadays the Millennium Dome is called the O2 centre. I wonder how many of us were among the 6.5 million people who went there in 2000 years ago to see the Millennium experience exhibition? I spent a day there with a good friend of mine and, I have to say, whilst parts of the zones, the show and the architecture of the structure itself had been pretty impressive, our general experience was rather a disappointment. Most of what we saw was to us vacuous and empty of both educational or cultural value – and not even that much fun – if entertainment was the aim.
Leaving the Dome it seemed to us that we had seen another example of one aspect of the character of Britain – we just can’t do grandeur any more. Our pleasure domes give little pleasure, our monumental bridges wobble, our Royal Family falters often in its magnificence, and our national sports teams strike calm into the faces of their opposition not fear, England’s experience in the Ashes this past week being a case in point.
Perhaps then, I thought that I would be impressed by a dose of British grandeur at the new Great Court at the British Museum a little while after visiting the Millennium Dome – they opened in the same year, the Dome designed by Richard Rogers the Great Court by Lord Foster.
Walking from the Great Court brings you first to the Egyptian galleries. There you are confronted by grandeur as it could be done. The massive statues of Pharaohs, wall friezes of outstanding beauty and descriptive intricacy, beautiful sarcophagi, ornamental scarabs, ornate jewellery show the British a thing or two about grandeur, which presumably is why we nicked them during the days of the British empire! Many of these date from before the time that our torah portion portrays our people’s experience in Egypt.
Imagine how over awed Jacob, who had spent his life among nomadic peoples of Canaan must have been with the incredible grandeur of Pharaoh’s palace and everything that surrounded it – of which his son Joseph noch was the viceroy. Yes Jacob may have entered Egypt with all his possessions – but these amounted to flock and herds and a few things that could fit onto a few wagons together with the seventy members of his family. What did he – our patriarch have to compare with the vast possessions of a Pharaoh?
Back in the British museum you can continue from the Egyptian Galleries into the Ancient Near Eastern Galleries. There are the friezes which had covered the palace walls of Senacherib and Tiglath Pilezer in Nineveh and elsewhere, portraying wave upon wave of captured peoples , pictured with stunning detail – even their hairstyles were accurately recorded. Among these peoples were our own at the time of the fall of the land of Israel in the eighth century BCE. There were friezes showing the construction of a giant bull idol – pulled on a sledge by thousands of slave workers – among whom were bound to have been Israelites – out of a quarry ready to be set up in front of the Emperor Sennacherib’s palace. And then there was again the ornate jewellery and metalwork of the Assyrians, their armour, their housewares, their stele which recorded the conquests of their Kings.
And so among all this grandeur in the Ancient Near East and Egyptian galleries of the British Museum what is there of the Jews? Of Israel and Judah? Of Solomon, David, Moses, Jacob? A jar. A single earthenware jar which had once contained the Habbakuk scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls collection. Oh and a small model of Herod’s Jerusalem temple.
Should we not find this depressing? That our people have left so little mark upon history that in the British museum we merit only an earthenware jug?
Of course not. Where now are the Pharaohs, as the Prophet Ezekiel warned in the Haftarah today? What of the Assyrian Empire? Do not the sands now cover Nineveh? All are now like the statue of – Ozymandias, from Shelley’s poem, fallen into the sand inscribed with the words “O ye mighty gaze now upon my works and despair”. Jews are failures at the architecture of grandiose space, grandiose art, grandiose empire building. We always, in the end have been. Solomon’s Empire crumbled with great haste when it split into two. The Hasmonean empire became a vassal of Rome, Herod’s Temple was destroyed and all we have left is a single supporting wall, the Cotel. And our Jewish religious ethos failed to support the building of new grandeur after these disappeared.
But we have succeeded in a unique grandeur. Our success is the architecture of the Spirit. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called the Shabbat “our triumph in the architecture of time” in which we have created a bowl in which to enclose the Human spirit preventing it from reaching the level of a machine – the Shabbat is utterly portable, can be stunningly beautiful if observed with sufficient kavannah (the intent to make its rest it offers real), it is eternal and completely shareable, unlike a palace, unlike a temple of bricks and mortar.
That earthenware jar which once contained a scroll in the British museum represents another aspect of the Jewish architecture of the Spirit – our words, our literature. Both the literature which we consider to be inspired by the spirit of the Divine and the literature which records the attempts of thousands upon thousands of Jews to understand the message of the Divine, the will of God and all else that is around it. These words, as the accurate friezes of the kings of Assyria and Babylon, brings us into the minds of our ancestors but, in a way that those friezes cannot, they remain ever fresh as we study them and engage with them on all levels, join me for our online Talmud class tomorrow and you will experience this yourself.
Then there is the architecture of Jewish principles and ethics which are woven into the fabric of so many of the peoples of the world taken to them through Judaism itself or its daughter religions Christianity and Islam. Our Jewish understanding of the ordering of a civilised society has overarching influence in the world. We might all want to go to see what remains of the Pyramids once in our lifetime, but all of our life the principles of the Ten commandments keep us more or less safe in our homes. The principle that respect for wisdom and learning is much greater and deeper than that for military or economic success has held for most Jews from then on to this day.
Think about what will now happen in our Torah story in Egypt. Our people are enslaved by the grandeur that may have impressed Jacob. They won’t be admiring Pharaoh’s store cities and palaces. They have been forced to build them. Pharaoh, the god of the army, the sun, the building will be ready to dominate them all. And our God, Adonai? He just spoke to Moses from a scraggy bush out in the wilderness. The contrast could not be more sharply drawn. These portions see a contest between Pharaoh, the god of material things and Adonai, the God of the true word – until at the Red Sea, in Exodus Chapter 15 the Children of Israel will sing Adonai Yimloch l’olam Va’ed – Adonai will rule for ever and ever – acknowledging that Adonai vanquishes Pharaoh every time.
So if we are a people whose great architecture is the architecture of the spirit what does this mean for us? It means that we Jews are but little for the material things that we have – not our synagogue buildings, not our one Jewish state in Israel, not our ritual objects. No, our grandeur has to be rebuilt by every single generation of Jews – rebuilding in their lives our architecture of the spirit. Observing our time bound festivals and shabbatot, studying and learning our words and adding to them ourselves and admitting the principles of Jewish behaviour and action into every aspect of their lives, in the famous phrase “bringing honour to the name of the Jew by their own good conduct”
An apathetic Jew who does little Jewish in their own life and who does not expend effort in passing a rich experience of Judaism onto their children is like the sand that piled up against the gates of Nineveh, eventually to overwhelm it and bury its grandeur for all time until finally it ended up in a museum – instructive but dead. The Jewish architecture of the spirit will always be great as long as each one of us continues to support the structure by our own observances, our own words and our own actions. I hope that us coming together this Shabbat while the rest of the UK is probably still in bed shows that we are committed to doing so.