Promised Assembly: On Suburbia

At the start of Vayakel Pekudai, this week’s double portion we read, “ Moshe called the whole community of the children of Israel to assemble, and he said to them: “These are the things that the Lord commanded to do” (Exodus 35:1). What does it mean to “assemble”?

We take it for granted, but for these recently emancipated slaves this coming together must have been a very powerful experience. In this context of communing, convening, and communicating they were giving the gift of Shabbat. For people who’s value is tied to their productivity for their masters the very institution of Shabbat must have been radical. For them then, and for us now, the experience of Shabbat itself creates the context for the communing, convening, and communicating. But for many of us this benefits of assembling allude us. In the words of Robert Putnam, religion and communal life are on the decline and we are all bowling alone. But why?

As we learn in the Mishnah (and in the classic song Yo Ya), “Mishnah Makom Mishnah Mazel– You change your place you change your luck”. One is left assuming that if changing the venue would have been enough for the slaves to assemble it would have done the same for the previous generation as they liberated themselves from the peril of city life and moved to the suburbs. When we started to leave urban centers across America we came together, collected the necessary resources, and formed communities. Many of these new synagogues were conceived of as new Tabernacles build in the wilderness as people escaped the city life. But has the reality of suburbia lived up to the promise?

In thinking about this question I think about the work of James Howard Kunstler. In his book The Geography of Nowhere, he traces America’s evolution from a nation of Main Streets and coherent communities to a land where every place is like no place in particular, where the cities are dead zones and the countryside is a wasteland of cartoon architecture and parking lots. Kunstler depicts our nation’s evolution from the Pilgrim settlements to the modern auto suburb in all its ghastliness. The Geography of Nowhere tallies up the huge economic, social, and spiritual costs that America is paying for its car-crazed lifestyle. It is also a wake-up call for citizens to reinvent the places where we live and work, to build communities that are once again worthy of our affection. Kunstler proposes that by reviving civic art and civic life, we will rediscover public virtue and a new vision of the common good.

Kunstler gives a related Ted talk that I just love:

“The future will require us to build better places,” Kunstler says, “or the future will belong to other people in other societies.” Beyond his assorbic tone, he is speaking the truth. As he says, “We’re going to need to get back this body of methodology and principle and skill in order to re-learn how to compose meaningful places, places that are integral, that allow — that are living organisms in the sense that they contain all the organs of our civic life and our communal life, deployed in an integral fashion.”

In some ways the Israelites in the desert lived the promise of suburbia assembling, coming together, and making meaning. And for us this has become a MESSH nightmare. The project of the Promised Land is also suffering from some of the same consequences of suburbia that Kunstler discusses. Israel is more divided then ever. Israel’s left and right have nothing in common and there is also a growing divide between Israel and diaspora. We have nothing common and no share vision of what is worth fighting for. As Kunstler said, “We are sleepwalking into the future. We’re not ready for what’s coming at us. So I urge you all to do what you can.”

What can we learn from the Israelite assembling to repair our communities all over the world?


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